(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 1693 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

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.

New York Times Book Review. September 4, 1977, p. 1.

Newsweek. XC, August 29, 1977, p. 75.

Saturday Review. IV, September 3, 1977, p. 32.