Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1693
Don Delillo’s fifth novel, a mordantly witty satire on contemporary America, explores the psychology of banality. His major characters are bored—bored nearly to madness by the dull routine of their jobs, by the mechanical social forces that destroy their sense of community. To escape from boredom, they play games modeled upon children’s amusements. They assume different identities, change roles. Like players consciously imitating the external semblance of character, they perform their little dramas, sometimes for an audience of fellow players, sometimes for themselves. Because they are au fond vacuous, devoid of character, devoid of real vitality, they stimulate their torpid spirits—however briefly and artificially—by developing roles that seem exciting, perhaps dangerous. Yet even the dangerous roles at last become banal. Even the player who assumes the identity of a terrorist becomes bored.
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In his prefatory chapter “The Movie,” DeLillo presents a symbolic drama that helps to explain the pattern of the entire novel. The setting is a piano-bar lounge of a modern luxury jetliner. Slightly tipsy, rudely jovial passengers press forward to listen to the pianist. From their vantage, they can watch a projection of a movie image, but they cannot hear the sound track without headsets. Instead, they hear the piano tinkling: an ironical or amusing commentary on the action. But the film itself is violent. Lying in ambush, a band of terrorists mow down with semi-automatic fire an innocent party of middle-aged golfers. One terrorist strikes a victim with a machete. Although the scene is visually bloody, the musical accompaniment is brisk, jaunty. To the bar loafers, the action is thereby rendered ambiguous, more absurd than tragic. The film stars perform their roles as terrorists or golf players, as murderers or as the murdered, with grotesque results. Inspired by the absurd scene, members of the audience also perform theatrical roles. All are players—the pianist, the inebriates, the sober viewers. Sharing the stage, their performances become confused. The terrorists, players within a play, seem mechanical robots; but equally mechanical seem the bar patrons, whose gestures are “Chaplinesque,” stylized. Perceived with cool, intelligent detachment, the players’ actions are grotesque, banal.
In a more complex pattern, the major characters of the novel extend the implications of this symbolic drama. A bright, attractive young couple—Pammy and Lyle Wynant—act out their lives as though they were theatrical performers. At first their roles are those of the well-matched, sophisticated, aspiring set of urbanites. Lyle, a broker at the Stock Exchange, is a rising executive type pushing his way to find room at the top. His wife is healthy, athletically firm, independent. She eats the appropriate nutritional foods, exercises to maintain a lithe, sexy body, and keeps faddishly current with the proper attitudes promoted by the media. Yet their performances are curiously shallow. Lyle practices his intelligence on routine, stultifying data. He is more a mechanical contrivance than a human being. To satisfy his wife’s sexual needs, he measures his “performance” against the popular norms. Like a computer, he memorizes trivia. Lacking emotion, he spurs himself to vague lusts. But to him passion is less gratifying than games of rote memory. He is a player without a satisfactory role, a desperate man who cannot fathom the depths of his spiritual collapse.
Similarly, Pammy plays a variety of roles that are supposed to be exciting but are actually insipid. She wastes her energy working for the Grief Management Council, an agency that specializes in discovering euphemisms for the realities of suffering and death. Her job tedious, her domestic life a calculus of gropings, she cannot “stand the idea of tomorrow.” At home she eats fruit while her husband stares glassily at the television set. Her life is a bore. She wants to escape, to rehearse a new role. When her homosexual boss, Ethan Segal, suggests that she accompany him and his lover Jack Law to their rustic cabin in Maine, she snaps at the opportunity to flee her former life. Always the player, Pammy rushes to her fate.
To DeLillo, one’s fate—especially an urban American’s—is established on the bedrock of banality, the North Star of flimflam. Lyle looks for augury in the pulsing blips of the Stock Exchange, an insane rhetoric of electronic codes. Or he watches commercials on television. Or he gawks at pornography. The signals he receives from the media are imperative but contradictory. To remain sane, he must dissociate himself from reality. He keeps his private counsel: to be selfish, secretive, self-contained. And Pammy similarly responds to the signals of the 1970’s. She is vaguely frightened by a “Mister Softee” truck that cruises her neighborhood. She is sexually complaisant, socially tolerant, morally neutral. She yawns a lot. Everything bores her. America bores her.
As a moralist, DeLillo must prove that the malady of the Wynants is deeply ingrained, not a surface sickness. Simply to pick at random one effete American couple would not establish his thesis: that the banality destroying their lives is epidemic, that banality is part of America, that it is with us now. So he must give his characters new roles to play out their destinies. In Maine Pammy has the opportunity to perform as an unspoiled child of nature. It has always been a dogma of her sentimental creed that she is most nearly moral around growing things. Yet exposed to natural beauty and the simple though monotonous life at the cabin, she is bored once more. To rouse her flagging spirits, she attempts to seduce Jack. For Pammy the game at first is casual, amusing. They strip in the grassy fields and fall into each other’s arms like experimenting children. But for Jack the experience is disastrous. Frightened at revealing his ambiguous sexuality, guilt-ridden at the idea of betraying his homosexual lover, he douses himself with gasoline and immolates himself. Pammy returns to New York, her game over. She stares at a sign marking a hotel for transients, grasping suddenly the meaning of her character in that word.
In her absence, Lyle has also been playing dangerous games. Like Pammy, he mistakenly supposes that he can manipulate people without hazard. He joins the least plausible of groups: urban terrorists, whose asserted object is to blow up the Stock Exchange. In spite of the fact that he lacks political or moral commitment to the cause, he plays the new, dangerous role as though it were a child’s game. At first he enjoys a brief respite from boredom. Yet soon the terrorist’s role takes on the banality of his former job. He learns an absurd cryptic language, plays games of hide and seek, disguises and deceptions. His actions become stylized. Just as he is controlled by his mysterious espionage boss, J. Kinnear, so he controls underlings. With Rosemary Moore and Marina Vilar, he plays with sex more to test his partner than to give way to passion. Always he tests, probes; the game of espionage is an absurd repetition of trivial amusements. Nevertheless, as DeLillo shows, the game degenerates at last to boredom. To maintain the illusion of interest in the task at hand, the player must continually change his performance. Soon he loses whatever real identity he once possessed; he becomes a cipher.
By accepting his new role, Lyle drops out of life. He loses his wife, his occupation, his country. Henceforward he will be stateless, without political convictions, without a moral center. As a terrorist, he will exist in a condition of theatrical terror, always pursuing, always being pursued. Other players, even counterespionage agents who hunt him down, will seem unrealistic, like characters in a surrealistic play. Burks, for example, probably a CIA or FBI operative, could easily exchange roles with Lyle. Although their political objectives seem different, their methods are the same. At times their objectives become confused. All that matters is the stimulation of the game.
Treating contemporary American life in terms of games theory, DeLillo is able to satirize not only personalities and ideas, but also social functions. He is concerned with the ways people interact, with their mannerisms as well as their manners. A stern moralist, the author believes that our social structure has fallen apart. Although he does not point to specific causes for this disintegration, he suggests that we have surrendered energy for comfort, passion for complaisance. We are the victims of banality. Like Conrad in The Secret Agent, DeLillo treats the terrorist mentality as entirely banal. For the modern terrorists of this novel, Lee Harvey Oswald is represented as the perfect games player; the terrorists are proud to remember Oswald “before Dallas.” Indeed, J. Kinnear exclaims: “Lyle, chrissake, everybody knew Oswald before Dallas.” Oswald, the contemporary invisible man, was all things to all people: Russian agent, Cuban paid-assassin, CIA agent, anti-Castro assassin. He was fluid, spilling over into whatever mold the imagination made of him.
Unfortunately, Lyle Wynant lacks the symbolic force of an Oswald. At best DeLillo can convince us that his characters are trivial people who try to manipulate other people for the sake of their own recreation. Yet trivial people are boring. And the author’s satire at times becomes strained. His terrorists never grow to the tragic stature of Conrad’s misguided revolutionaries. They are irritating, not menacing. DeLillo’s art is better compared with that of John Updike, who also treats with exquisite precision the miniature catastrophes of everyday life. Like Updike, he captures with wit, grace, and definition the sharp details of American banality. Unlike Updike, he rarely pities his characters. As a result, they appear lost. For DeLillo, life in the 1970’s is dangerous and bound to become more dangerous. He believes that we have been cruelly misdirected. In a key passage, he writes of Pammy:For years she’s heard people say, all sorts, really, here and there: “Do whatever you want as long as nobody gets hurt. . . .” They said: “Whatever feels right, as long as you both want to do it and nobody gets hurt, there’s no reason not to.”
To DeLillo “they” have been wrong, all wrong. When we read Players, are we looking in a mirror?
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 35
Atlantic. CCXL, September, 1977, p. 94.
Book World. August 21, 1977, p. G1.
Harper’s Magazine. CLV, September, 1977, p. 88.
Nation. CCXXV, September 17, 1977, p. 250.
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