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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 921

Ratner’s Star is a fantastic narrative in two parts built around an enticing plot idea. In part 1, “Adventures: Field Experiment Number One,” Billy Twillig is summoned to a Connecticut think tank, the School of Mathematics of the Center for the Refinement of Ideational Structures. Billy is a boy genius, a fourteen-year-old winner of the first Nobel Prize in Mathematics who has done brilliant work with the “zorg,” a kind of number but a “useless” one. The center occupies a huge cycloid—architecturally imaginative but impossible to visualize. Billy is summoned to the center to decode a mysterious radio signal that scientists believe is coming from a planet orbiting Ratner’s star. The signal is fourteen pulses, gap, twenty-eight pulses, gap, fifty-seven pulses.

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The signal has already been pondered at length by many of the great gurus of mathematics. The great mathematician Endor, for example, spent weeks on the pattern but ended up by going to live in a hole in the ground—a typical DeLillo loser who literally goes to earth. When Billy finds him in his burrow, Endor is subsisting on plants and worms. The other scholars who study the strange pulses are given some of the looniest of all DeLillo’s loony characterizations: Peregrine Fitzroy-Tapps is one of the more amusing examples, hailing as he does from Crutchly-on-Podge, pronounced Croaking-on-Pidgett, a hamlet near Muttons Cobb, spelled Maternity St. Colbert.

Another absurd pedant is Gerald Pence, a student of myths who dresses in “old khaki shorts, bark sandals, and a string headband ornamented with eucalyptus nuts.” Pence blathers on about the occult in a rambling lecture that features a white-haired aborigine hidden beneath a white canvas on a miniature flatcar. The mystery beneath the canvas is not disclosed even when the canvas-shrouded creature moans and whirls, finally turning inside out before subsiding into a quiet heap.

Other incredibly named characters include a famous obstetrician, Hoy Hing Toy, who once delivered a baby and ate the placenta in “five huge gulps.” Elux Truxl identifies his name as a mere “nom de nom,” “the sound identity I have assigned to my nom.” Elux is a con man from Honduras who heads a cartel that wants to control the “money curve” of the world. His sidekick is Grbk, a very short person, “mal y bizarro,” who is obsessed with exposing his nipples. Grbk is “a tragic person, very sadiensis.” None of DeLillo’s oddities, however, suffers a deformity more original, a physical deficiency more demanding of radical prosthesis, than does the young woman named Thorkild, a specialist in “decollation control.” Billy chances upon her in her bath one day, but she will not allow him to view her naked because she has no lap.

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Ratner’s Star soon reduces to a parade of such original noncharacters. Orang Mohole, a star of “alternate physics” who has twice won the Cheops Feeley Medal, glazes his audience’s eyes with talk of the “value-dark dimension” and the “mohole totality.” Orang conceives of the universe as a “stellated twilligon” and predicts its “eventual collapse in a sort of n-bottomed hole or terminal mohole.” His feeding habits feature regular trips to a vomitorium. He takes Billy to a party where the atmosphere is enlivened by unusual fragrances from aerosol cans, such as “heaped garments” and “nude female body (moist)—sense of urgency arises.” The Cheops Feeley whom the medal honors suffers an uncommon spiritual malady; Cheops is, he says, a lapsed gypsy.

Making his way through this incredible throng, Billy gets to see the wizened Shazar Lazarus Ratner during a torchlight ceremony underneath the cycloid. Ratner lives on only thanks to the silicone injections he gets from his physician, a Dr. Bonwit, who keeps a yacht named the Transurethral Prostatectomy.

When he is not marveling at the doings of his coworkers, Billy is figuring out that the pulses derive from a “positional notation system based on the number sixty” and that they represent the number 52,137. His triumph is flat, however, because Billy is soon told by the chief mathematician, Dr. Softly, that work on Ratner’s star is no longer needed and that he is to work on “a logistic cosmic language based on mathematical principles.” Part 1 ends with the announcement of this assignment.

Part 2 is titled “Reflections. Logicon Project Minus-One.” DeLillo has explained that the two parts—“Adventures” and “Ref1ections”—refer to Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871). The parallels are structural, however, not thematic. DeLillo’s lengthy commentary on Ratner’s Star identifies numerous structural contrasts between parts 1 and 2 and notes that Pythagoras is the “guiding spirit” behind the work.

Billy learns in part 2 that “in the untold past on this planet a group of humans transmitted a radio message into space.” This knowledge clears up the puzzle of the pulses: They came from Earth millions of years ago. Billy then deduces that the sixty-base notation suggests that 52,137 is a number of seconds and that the pulse sequence fourteen, twenty-eight, fifty-seven refers to twenty-eight minutes and fifty-seven seconds after two o’clock in the afternoon on the unspecified day. At the same time, Billy notices that the clock on the wall gives exactly that time; as the significance of the time sinks in, he hears a radio announcement of an unpredicted eclipse of the sun that is about to occur. Billy and Dr. Softly realize that the end is imminent, and both depart for Endor’s hole, two more DeLillo characters digging in to wait for the end.

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Analysis