Don DeLillo 1936-
(Also wrote under the pseudonym Cleo Birdwell) American novelist and playwright.
The following entry presents an overview of DeLillo's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8, 10, 13, 27, 39, 54, and 76.
Regarded as one of the finest novelists and sharpest social critics of contemporary American life, DeLillo, like such authors as John Barthes, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut, writes in a postmodernist vein. From Americana (1971) to The Body Artist (2001), DeLillo's novels are satirical yet penetrating portraits of contemporary American society—its rampant paranoia and malaise, its myths, obsessions, and manias. In his satire DeLillo exploits the discrepancy between appearance and reality, targeting the power of mass media, the spread of cultural politics and crowd psychology, and the excesses of consumer culture. Stylistically experimental, DeLillo's fiction features terse prose, displaced bits of dialogue, and fast-paced, episodic narration instead of conventional plotting, devices typical of literary postmodernism but which also underscore his preoccupation with the ritualistic aspects of words, the nature of language, and its myriad uses. Critics have responded enthusiastically to the intelligence and wit of each of DeLillo's novels, with many citing his fascination with the meaning and usage of words as a particular source of pleasure. Generally attracting a small but faithful readership for most of his career, DeLillo vaulted to bestseller status with the publication of Libra (1988) and Underworld (1997). The publication of Underworld has not only enhanced his reputation in general but has also renewed critical interest in his earlier works.
The son of Italian immigrants, DeLillo was born November 20, 1936, in the Bronx borough of New York City. He grew up in an Italian-American neighborhood, attending Cardinal Hayes High School and later enrolling at Fordham University, where he majored in communication arts. After graduating in 1958, he briefly worked during the early 1960s as a copywriter at Ogilvy and Mather, an advertising agency. About 1967, DeLillo started writing what later became his first novel, Americana. Over the next seven years he published five more novels—End Zone (1972), Great Jones Street (1973), Ratner's Star (1976), Players (1977), and Running Dog (1978). Despite a warm and hearty endorsement from reviewers, DeLillo failed to attract a popular audience, developing instead a small but devoted readership. However, beginning with The Names (1982), which received more prominent reviews than any of his other novels, DeLillo cultivated a wider audience as his repute steadily rose throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Consequently, he has won several prestigious awards, including the National Book Award for White Noise (1985) and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Mao II (1991). In addition, both Libra and Underworld received nominations for the National Book Critics Circle Award. In 2001 DeLillo published The Body Artist, his twelfth novel.
Mass media, government conspiracies, and the human costs of consumerism are common themes of DeLillo's fiction. His work presents a composite of contemporary American society verging on chaos. This chaos is resolved only by the benefits of language—the single human means DeLillo considers capable of imposing order on random events. This linguistic approach toward the resolution of the conflict informs each of DeLillo's works. Americana recounts the odyssey of a television-advertising executive who embarks on a cross-country journey, partly to escape an unsatisfying job and marriage but mainly to discover his identity. End Zone, DeLillo's first novel to attract substantial critical notice, chronicles one playing season in the life of a running back on the Logos College football team whose two consuming passions are football and nuclear war. Superficially a satire on the American obsession with the violence of organized sports, End Zone uses football as a metaphor for nuclear war, implying that the ultimate consequence of such organized violence is total annihilation. A parable for the counterculture of the 1960s, Great Jones Street centers on a rock star whose retreat from public performances accompanies his slide into drugs and paranoia as he joins a search for a potent new experimental narcotic. Loosely modeled on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Ratner's Star is esoteric science fiction in which the first half of the narrative is mirrored in reverse in the second half. The novel concerns a fourteen-year-old mathematics prodigy who decodes messages sent from space for a government agency that authorizes him to answer, rather than simply decipher, the alien message. Evocative portraits of contemporary street culture, both Players and Running Dog focus on hip city-dwellers trying to escape the feelings of ennui through espionage, pornography, and terrorist activities. In these novels, the protagonist's behavior connotes broader, spiritual symptoms of a hollowness in contemporary American society.
The Names is simultaneously an investigation of the enigmatic nature of language and an accurate characterization of contemporary American mores. The narrative follows the quest of a corporate risk analyst to discover the motives of a mysterious cult that ritualistically kills people whose names bear the same initials as the locations where the murders are committed. A novel about mortality, technology, and the numbing impact of the American media, White Noise highlights the obsessive fear of dying, a very common but rarely discussed phobia. This novel recounts the events in the life of a death-obsessed professor of Hitler Studies at a midwestern university and his wife, following an industrial accident that releases toxic insecticide into their neighborhood. After he is exposed to the toxin, the professor discovers that his wife is taking an illegal drug—which she committed adultery to procure—that eliminates the fear of death, so he desperately begins a search to get the drug for himself. Generally considered DeLillo's masterpiece, Libra combines historical and invented characters with events in the story of Lee Harvey Oswald and the circumstances leading to his assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The novel weaves two non-synchronous narratives—one tracing Oswald's life from childhood to death and the other detailing the plan of a right-wing conspiracy to murder the president—to illustrate how random factors can propel an individual into ignominious posterity. An exploration of nihilism and isolation in contemporary society, Mao II incorporates such actual events as the student demonstration in Beijing's Tiananmen square, the Ayatollah Khomeini's funeral in Teheran, and the mass wedding of Moonies at Yankee Stadium to addresses terrorism, international politics, and the writer's role in the world. In this novel a reclusive writer, unable to finish a novel since his retreat from the public eye twenty-odd years earlier, uncharacteristically lets a woman publish a photograph of him, and thereby becomes enmeshed in a Middle-Eastern hostage situation involving another writer. A sprawling epic of the people, places, and events that defined the second half of the twentieth century as “the nuclear age,” Underworld traces the rise and fall of the Cold War mentality from the perspective of a professional garbage collector. One of DeLillo's shorter works, The Body Artist explores the nature of time, the grieving process, and the aesthetics of crisis—all in typical relation to the effects of language on each—in a story about a young widow living in a rented seaside house who “channels” dead spirits. DeLillo's other works include several plays, ranging from Amazons (1980), a farce about the first woman to play in the National Hockey League and written by the pseudonymous Cleo Birdwell, to Valparaiso (1999), another farce about a traveler who mistakenly arrives in the Indiana town that shares its name with his intended destination in Chile.
Recognized as a masterful satirist with a linguist's appreciation of words, DeLillo is also considered a serious social critic whose black humor and apocalyptic vision have led many to dub him “the chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction.” Commentators consistently identify the clipped, sound-bite quality of his dialogue, the evocative moods of his descriptions of places and events, and the poignancy of his depiction of American-styled fear and paranoia as the hallmarks of DeLillo's fiction. Detractors often use these same elements to characterize his protagonists as mere left-wing mouthpieces, his dialogues as little more than rhetorical equivocation, and his plots as nothing better than contrivances. However, despite their ideological diversity, reviewers universally applaud DeLillo's fascination with the meaning and usage of words and his knack for explaining the metaphysical implications of everyday matters. As a result, his literary style often draws comparisons to other so-called “metafictionist” novelists, a quintessentially postmodern movement concerning experimental narrative techniques that counts Pynchon and Vonnegut among its practitioners. Since the mid-1990s, academic interest in DeLillo's writings has surged, causing an explosion of explication in a variety of contexts. Scholars have framed his themes in religious, feminist, or political terms, investigated his characterization in terms of psychological notions of identity and alienation, and studied his style for implications bearing on the art of narration, both past and future. A number of critics have detected in DeLillo's writings certain affinities with romantic or pastoral literature, in contrast to the general critical consensus, which hails DeLillo's work as seminally postmodern.