Ratner's Star

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

To say that there is a plot in Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star is to say that 2 + 2 = 4 and 5 + 3 = 8, but that does not tell much. That is, the real importance of a mathematical formula lies as much in the manipulation of it as it does in the abstract sense of the computation itself. Thus it is with Ratner’s Star; the plot—if, indeed, such a formal literary term may be applied to the bizarre and often grotesque behavior of the characters—exists only as a thin line onto which DeLillo may attach his anecdotes. The storyline concerns a group of scientists in a think tank who attempt to decode and to respond to a message from outer space. Dangling from this often frayed thread are multiple subplots, often unresolved, which allow DeLillo to joke-with-and-about, to poke-fun-at-and-ridicule science, abstract intellectualism, and corporate conglomerates.

In fact, “Bi-Levelism”—a philosophical viewpoint which LoQuardo, an abstract-mathematician-turned-computer-programmer, defines as a system that allows one to “talk with an appearance of truth and falsity about all things”—can serve as the operative mode for the entire novel, as DeLillo describes the serious (perhaps tragic) and the comic (perhaps burlesque) aspects of life at Field Experiment Number One.

Supposedly, Field Experiment Number One (which is never presented in the book in its acronym form) is designed to overcome national differences, which pure science should be above, and to bring about a unity of mankind, “a planetary community,” which will “look beyond science.” DeLillo never says just what is “beyond science,” but, by implication, it might be a higher form of humanism. The opposite outcome, however, is more often the case, as the projects undertaken by the scientists do not look beyond humanistic concerns—indeed, seem to have little cognizance of any human side at all.

Not all the scientists are caricatures, evil geniuses lost in a statistical fairyland of their own making. Olin Nyquist, an astral engineer, first mentions a recurring image of the novel, that of “an overarching symmetry.” He becomes concerned with the problems of physics and metaphysics. In the end there seems to be something about the universe which defies measurement, which does not lend itself to neat definitions. Even if it is not really a “totally harmonious picture of the world system,” the human condition seems to need something to perpetuate “our childlike trust in structural balance.”

If there is a totally innocent scientist in the novel, it must be Henrik Endor, mathematician and astrophysicist, who apparently has found the meaning of the message. Rather than destroy the symmetry or upset the balance which his translation might cause, Endor has taken up residence about ten miles east of the scientific complex, where he lives in a large hole, eating insects and worms and talking to no one. Endor is the most grotesque major figure in the novel, with his beard full of maggots and his torn clothing. Using a bent clothes hanger and his fingernails, he is digging a tunnel, a hole in a hole, towards the center of the earth. In addition, many of the scientists, the human beings who are programming the computers and developing the hypotheses, worry about mysticism, or the lack of it, in their lives.

Billy Twillig, a fourteen-year-old mathematical genius on loan from the Center for the Refinement of Ideational Structures, who was given a Nobel Prize for the development of a “zorg . . . a kind of number,” has recurring dreams about death. Cyril Kyriakos, a transitional logician, has as his primary function the chairing of a committee which is attempting to define the word “science”—a project which has already produced five hundred pages, but no agreements; Kyriakos feels the definition must include a reference to the “terror of death,” which he perceives as “the ultimate horrifying vision of objective inquiry.” Skip Wismer, a NASA consultant, defines death as a turning inside out, “an unknotting of consciousness in a space of n dimensions,” which certainly is a nonobjective, nonquantifiable way of describing the phenomenon.

This level of mystical intellectual process exists with the highly scientific, “history-has-no-worthwhile-statements-to-make-to-us” level in other persons as well. Ratner, for whom the star is named, and who has abandoned abstract mathematics for the strict codes and rules of Orthodox Judaism, tells Billy that “g-dash-d” could exist anywhere in the universe, since the universe is a system which “works on the theory of...

(The entire section is 1897 words.)