Month: April 2010

DeLillo Binge, part 5 (or 7)

And my DeLillo Binge continues. The 7 in the title takes into account White Noise and The Body Artist, a couple of DeLillo’s books that I’d already read. I’ll probably reread White Noise when I get down to it, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t like The Body Artist since I remember nothing about it. Maybe that means I should read it again.

This time it’s Americana, DeLillo’s first novel. After Libra, I kind of shifted into an I-want-to-study-DeLillo mode, so I figured it was best to start at the beginning. So here I am. I really liked Americana. DeLillo’s style didn’t change between this one and, say, White Noise, like I’d assume it would: my last post included lists (he loves his lists!) from both novels that had lots in common. I can, though, see marked differences between Americana and Point Omega. But I’ll talk about that later. For now, here’s another list in Americana that definitely brings White Noise to mind:

I visualized my apartment then, empty and dark and quiet, furniture from John Widdicomb, suits from F.R. Tripler and J. Press, art books from Rizzoli, rugs from W&J Sloane, fireplace accessories from Wm. H. Jackson, cutlery from Bonniers, crystal by Steuben, shoes by Banister, gin by House of Lords, shirts by Gant and Hathaway, component stereo system by Garrard, Stanton and Fisher, ties by Countess Mara, towels by Fieldcrest, an odd and end from Takashimaya. (353)

The narrator, David Bell, says all this as he’s hitchhiking along the edge of the desert, having left his apartment, his job, and all this stuff behind in New York City. DeLillo addresses consumerism in some form in all his novels.

Speaking of consumerism and other Postmodern issues, I’ve begun studying DeLillo in earnest. I’m even seriously considering changing my entire thesis from Shakespeare (i’m totally burnt out on him) to DeLillo. So I figured it’d be good if I learn something about Postmodernism since I only had vague ideas about it. I ordered Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge and The Routledge Companion to Postmodernism, and, in the meantime, I discovered that I owned Butler’s A Very Short Introduction to Postmodernism, which I read while I was waiting for Amazon to send the first two. Once I started to get a better idea about what Postmodernism really is, the types passages I found myself marking in Americana changed: they went from “I like this passage” to “Oh! I can probably use this in a paper!” You can see from this photo about where it hit me:

DeLillo is ridiculously postmodern. Ridiculously. Here’s another list that directly addresses consumerism. It’s a dialogue between David and another character, Glenn Yost:

“We begin, simply enough, with a man watching television. Quite possibly he is being driven mad, slowly, in stages, program by program, interruption by interruption. Still, he watches. What is there in that box? Why is he watching?”

“The TV set is a package and it’s full of products. Inside are detergents, automobiles, cameras, breakfast cereal, other television sets. Programs are not interrupted by commercials; exactly the reverse is true. A television set is an electronic form of packaging. It’s a simple as that. Without the products there’s nothing. Educational television’s a joke. Who in America would want to watch TV without commercials?”

“How does a successful television commercial affect the viewer?”

“It makes him want to change the way he lives.”

“In what way? I said.

“It moves him from first person consciousness to third person. In this country there is a universal third person, the man we all want to be. Advertising has discovered this man. It uses him to express the possibilities open to the consumer. To consume in America is not to buy; it is to dream. Advertising is the suggestion that the dream of entering the third person singular might possibly be fulfilled.” (270)

So maybe I should talk about consumerism, but that’s another post. This one is getting too long already. Here’s one more quote (then I’ll stop!). At one point, David is filming a sort of autobiography, and he films an actor who is playing him (David). This section not only involves consumerism but what I’m pretty sure is self-conscious reflexivity, which I really don’t understand but am better able to identify now. This dialogue is scripted, and they’ve just begun filming.

I sighted on Austin against the wall and then started shooting, my voice a cheerful machine designed for the interrogation of the confused and the dislocated.

“Marital status.”






“What do you think of the war?” I said. [The novel is set in the 1960s.]

“I’ve seen it on television. It’s sponsored by instant coffee among other things. The commercials are very tasteful in keeping with the serious theme of the program’s content. Some of the commercials are racially integrated. Since I worked for seven years as an employee of the network responsible for the warcasts, I am in a position to point out that the network and the agency joined forces in order to convince the sponsor that integrated commercials were desirable. Their argument was that the war itself is integrated. Balanced programming has always been one of the network’s chief aims.” (283-284)

The interview continues, and has Austin address the camera rather than himself: “Can you tell the camera why you didn’t have children?” and later, “The camera dislikes evasiveness,” and so on.

I’ll stop talking now.

Up next is End Zone, DeLillo’s second novel, which is about football. I’m slowing down because it’s the end of the semester (papers!), and I’ve added all those books about Postmodernism to the list.

An early example of Don DeLillo’s enduring love of lists

Now that I’ve read a few DeLillo novels, I’m continuing my binge from the beginning. Right now I’m reading Americana, DeLillo’s first novel. I’ll talk more about it later, but I just can’t help posting this passage:

What we really want to do, he said, deep in the secret recesses of our heart, all of us, is to destroy the forests, white saltbox barns, colonial inns, riverboats, whaling villages, cider mills, waterwheels, antebellum mansions, log cabins, lovely old churches and snug little railroad depots. All of us secretly favor this destruction, even conservationists, even those embattled individuals who make a career out of picketing graceful and historic old buildings to protest their demolition. It’s what we are. Straight lines and right angles. We feel a private thrill, admit it, at the sight of beauty in flames. We wish to blast all the fine old things to oblivion and replace them with tasteless identical structures. Boxes of cancer cells. Neat gray chambers for medication and the reading of advertisements. Imagine the fantastic prairie motels we could build if only we could give in completely to the demons of our true nature; imagine the automobiles that might take us from motel to motel; imagine the monolithic fifty-story machines for disposing of the victims of automobile accidents without the bother of funerals and the waste of tombstones or sepulchres. Let the police run wild. Let the mad leaders of our nation destroy whomever they choose. That’s what they really want, Black Knife told me. We want to be totally engulfed by all the so-called worst elements of our national life and character. We want to wallow in the terrible gleaming mudcunt of Mother America…We want to come to terms with the false anger we so often display at the increasing signs of sterility and violence in our culture. Kill the old brownstones and ornate railroad terminals. Kill the rotten stinking smalltown courthouses. Blow up the Brooklyn Bridge. Blow up Nantucket. Blow up the Blue Ridge Parkway. We must realize we are living in Megamerica. Neon, fiber glass, Plexiglass, polyurethane, Mylar, Acrylite.

Doesn’t it sound like White Noise? DeLillo published this novel almost fifteen years before White Noise. It’s really funny that he has such an identifiable style even from the beginning. For comparison, here’s the very first paragraph of White Noise:

The station wagons arrived at noon, a long shining line that coursed through the west campus. In single file they eased around the orange I-beam sculpture and moved toward the dormitories. The roofs of the station wagons were loaded down with carefully secured suitcases full of light and heavy clothing; with boxes of blankets, boots and shoes, stationery and books, sheets, pillows, quilts; with rolled-up rugs and sleeping bags; with bicycles, skis, rucksacks, English and Western saddles, inflated rafts. As cars slowed to a crawl and stopped, students sprang out and raced to the rear doors to begin removing the objects inside; the stereo sets, radios, personal computers; small refrigerators and table ranges; the cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows, the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags–onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.

DeLillo loves him some lists. They are, of course, about different things, and the second is more of a list in the strictest sense of the word. Something about them rolls off the tongue when spoken aloud like a super-postmodern poem of sorts. I think I could probably get a whole dissertation out of these things: they’re everywhere!

DeLillo Binge, part 4

I finished the second of my three term papers yesterday, a day ahead of schedule, so I declared today a Mental Health Day and spent a good chunk of the day at Starbucks finishing Libra, the fourth novel of my Don DeLillo Binge. I had a hard time getting through this one because it’s a historical novel, and I don’t like historical novels. It’s about Lee Harvey Oswald and conspiracy theories and things (as Jacob says, SPOILER ALERT: he dies at the end). Lots of FBI and CIA people lurking about. It’s not exactly my kind of novel.

DeLillo is a brilliant novelist, though, and even though I wasn’t interested at all in the subject matter, his writing is fantastic, and that makes up for a lot. Here are a couple of snippets I particularly liked:

Spy planes, drone aircraft, satellites with cameras that can see from three hundred miles what you can see from a hundred feet. They see and they hear. Like ancient monks, you know, who recorded knowledge, wrote it painstakingly down. These systems collect and process. All the secret knowledge of the world…I’ll tell you what it means, these orbiting sensors that can hearus in our beds. It means the end of loyalty. The more complex the systems, the less conviction in people. Conviction will be drained out of us. Devices will drain us, make us vague and pliant.

Well, that’s about it. Libra definitely isn’t White Noise. But he did call Bossier City “a place where you could get a social disease leaning on a lamppost” (!) and Dallas “the city that proves God is really dead.” Those were the best two parts of the whole damn novel. And there’s the disturbing description of Jackie Kennedy crawling over the back of the car in which her husband has just been shot trying to recover a piece of his skull. Every time I mention that description, someone tells me it really happened. I know.

And that’s about all I have to say about Libra. It’s not bad or anything – I just didn’t like it. I think it’s better-written than Falling Man. Next up is Americana, DeLillo’s first (published?) novel. I have no idea what it’s about, and that makes me happy. I’m going to do my best not to read the blurb on the back. I’ve decided to tackle the rest of the novels in the order they were published, though if I get too close to the end of the summer before I get to Underworld, I’ll skip to that one because it’s so damn long.

Oh, how I love Don DeLillo.

What I found in an article about Mao II

I found this quote in an article by Joe Moran called “Don DeLillo and the Myth of the Author: Recluse,” and it makes me happy:

“There is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” – Susan Sontag, On Photography

That is all.

(And yes, I’ve branched out into critical articles. This DeLillo binge is getting out of hand.)

DeLillo Binge, parts 2 and 3

So. Remember when I talked about going on a DeLillo binge? Well, that’s what happened. I finished Point Omega and couldn’t stop. And I still can’t stop. I went to Marshall, TX, last weekend and bought a lightly-used copy of Falling Man from a little bookstore called Prospero’s. Falling Man is the novel DeLillo wrote just before Point Omega, and it’s about 9/11. I’m not a big fan of historical (or historically-based) novels, so I wasn’t too enthusiastic. Turns out it’s pretty mediocre. It’s short and about what happens to a family post-9/11. Post-trauma, etc. The second half is much better than the first. This isn’t a review, so I’ll stop there. Here’s the paragraph on which I stuck a post-it note:

But that’s why you built the towers, isn’t it? Weren’t the towers built as fantasies of wealth & power that would one day become fantasies of destruction? You built a thing like that so you can see it come down. The provocation is obvious. What other reason would there be to go so high and then to double it, do it twice? It’s a fantasy, so why not do it twice? You are saying, Here it is, bring it down.

That’s Falling Man, and it was acceptable, though I have almost nothing to say about it.

You’d think a mediocre experience like that might make me wander off to another author, at least for a while, but no! I’m obsessed and insatiable. So, before I even finished Falling Man, I ran off to Barnes & Noble and bought a copy of Mao II, which I thought was supposed to be a historical novel, which explains why I hadn’t read it already. This one is fantastic, a relatively close second to my beloved White Noise. It’s about a reclusive writer, his assistant, his assistant’s girlfriend, and a photographer who takes photos of writers. And Beirut. And a few other things. It’s incredibly DeLillo in all of his listing, sometimes flat ways. I loved every second of it. A couple quotes:

Sitting for a picture is morbid business. A portrait doesn’t begin to mean anything until the subject is dead. This is the whole point. We’re doing this to create a kind of sentimental past for people in the decades to come. It’s their past, their history we’re inventing here. And it’s not how I look now that matters. It’s how I’ll look in twenty-five years as clothing and faces change, as photographs change. The deeper I pass into death, the more powerful my picture becomes. Isn’t this why picture-taking is so ceremonial? It’s like a wake. And I’m the actor made up for the laying-out.


The novel used to feed our search for meaning…It was the great secular transcendence. The Latin mass of language, character, occasional new truth. But our desperation has led us toward something larger and darker. So we turn to the news, which provides an unremitting mood of catastrophe. This is where we find emotional experience not available elsewhere. We don’t need the novel…We don’t even need catastrophes, necessarily. We only need reports and predictions and warnings.

I’ve stopped writing in books and started putting little post-it notes over paragraphs that stick out of the side of the book just enough to be detected. I don’t know where this aversion to writing came from, but it started last semester in a modern fiction class when I was reading White Noise. I just couldn’t bring myself to write in it. I don’t think I’ve ever written in a DeLillo book, which is strange because I tend to write everywhere. I’ve even been known to pencil notes into the margins of library books, and I sometimes forget to erase them. But that’s neither here nor there.

Speaking of the library. Just after I finished Mao II, I shut down the Writing Cave for a few minutes to run to the library and pick up Libra. They also had The Names, so I grabbed that one too. I couldn’t decide which to read first, so I chose the former since that was the original plan. They’re both historical novels, and I’m already having a hard time reading Libra, which almost immediately involves CIA and Cuba and other Historical and Political Things I Don’t Really Care About. But it sounds like DeLillo, and, I think, in the end, that’s all that really matters.

ALSO: As a brief interlude between novels, I read a lovely short story DeLillo wrote called “Midnight in Dostoyevsky” that was published in last November 30’s issue of The New Yorker. It’s about two college boys who basically make up the life of an old man they see walking on the street nearly every day, kind of like the game Grady Tripp and Terry Crabtree play with Vernon in Wonder Boys. (As a side note, can you imagine if DeLillo had written Wonder Boys? It would have been even more fantastic. Seems like his kind of novel.)

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