Category Archives: Don DeLillo

Little Sentences and Middle Ground

In Open Letters Monthly, Nicholas Nardini has an interesting take on Don DeLillo‘s first short story collection, The Angel Esmerelda, arguing that DeLillo’s sentences are better equipped for his big-canvas novels:

Despite the big novels, the basic unit of DeLilloan literature, the scale on which he seems to consciously work, is not the volume or the chapter or the paragraph, but only the lowly sentence—and usually a short sentence…. Momentum, in fact, is something that DeLillo’s novels seem to actively resist. They are best characterized not as plots but as conglomerations of sharp, individual perceptions, each competing for the limited attention of the reader…. DeLillo’s atomic sentences, bound only covalently to their neighbors, are the stylistic signature of the species of modern attention he records.

This approach works in his novels, Nardini, argues, because there’s a sense that his sentences are serving something all-encompassing, while in his short stories those sentences tend to read as an arid piling-on of gnomic utterances. I haven’t read The Angel Esmerelda, and it’s first DeLillo book I haven’t made time for since Underworld. That’s mainly because, as Nardini rightly points out, DeLillo’s short game isn’t very interesting: “Midnight in Dostoevsky” is a drab set piece about a pair of college students, and “Hammer and Sickle” is a stiff portrait of an inmate imprisoned for Madoffian crimes. Both felt like little more than sketches, overtures to novels that don’t exist, so I haven’t seen the point in investigating further.

Nardini’s piece is worth reading in full, though I think he neglects something in setting up this split between DeLillo’s short stories and his ambitious historical novels like Underworld and Libra: the short novels that have made up the bulk of his post-Underworld work. The Body Artist and Cosmopolis are lesser books, but 2010’s Point Omega was a novel that got to have it both ways: It had a brevity that drew attention to the (as Nardini calls it) Little DeLillo Sentence at its best and enough of a plot to make sure those sentences don’t feel almost comically overburdened with Import.

As I wrote about the novel at the time, the novel pits the big-picture musings of a retired war strategist with the more emotional concerns of the filmmaker who visits him, and neither feel like they’ve gotten short shrift. And the sentences can even be downright pretty, an adjective that rarely gets applied to DeLillo: “I looked out into blinding tides of light and sky and down toward the folded copper hills that I took to be the badlands, a series of pristine ridges rising from the desert floor in patterned alignment.” DeLillo may have abandoned the doorstopper and the short story may not be his former, but his late period may yet be redeemed by the short novel.

Real Life Rock

Last week, critic D.G. Myers moved his litblog, A Commonplace Blog, to the website of Commentary magazine. Soon after, we got to squabbling over Dana Spiotta‘s excellent new novel, Stone Arabia. We’re both fans of the book, so we’re not disputing whether the book is any good or not. Where we split is in a small matter about how rock music is represented in it, and, in a larger matter, how much the book is an inheritor of postmodern fiction.

Myers used Stone Arabia—which focuses in part on Nik Worth, a musician who’s turned his back on early success to make music in almost total seclusion—as a launchpad for discussing rock novels, a category that’s surprisingly low in quality. I think Don DeLillo‘s 1973 novel, Great Jones Street, is an exception, though, and Nik’s character bears a resemblance to DeLillo’s Bucky Wunderlick, a Dylanesque musician who rejects his stardom. Myers was having none of that: Great Jones Street “stinks” for the same reason End Zone stinks, he tweeted: “it is not about football as the game is played at Kyle Field, but a wild, wacky football which is more metaphor than reality.”

But in terms of metaphor and reality, I don’t think Stone Arabia considers rock music much differently than End Zone considers football, and I said as much—Nik’s character may be realistic, but his (and the novel’s) vision of rock music is off the grid. “It doesn’t follow that his music is ‘fake,’ even if his life is,” Myers responded, and I think we both learned that Twitter has its limits for arguing about books. In calling Nik’s vision of music a funhouse-mirror one, I don’t mean to suggest that the book is unrealistic, or that Nik’s motivations for his self-assigned obscurity don’t have real emotional underpinnings. Just that he’s less a rock musician than he is an outsider artist: In constructing fake albums with fake vinyl or real albums with anti-pop music on them, Nik is following in the footsteps of Mingering Mike or Jandek, acts who earned their cults as much through obsessive crafting of personas than through any actual music they produced.

Nik himself acknowledges the Henry Darger-esque quality of his pursuit: Oceans of concocted diaries, reviews, and ephemera, like a set of liner notes written by “Mickey Murray, Greil Marcus Professor of Underground, Alternative, and Unloved Music.” Nik is obviously in on his own joke, but that doesn’t make the joke any less obscure. As his niece prepares to film a documentary about him, she writes that it will be “about a life spent making music and art outside the mainstream. Way outside. It is a celebration of a devoted unrepentant eccentric…. Garageland will question what makes a person produce in the face of resounding obscurity.”

Which is to say that Spiotta treats Nik’s career in rock music as more metaphor than reality, or at least as much metaphor as reality. Its central conflict is the effect of Nik’s pursuit on his sister Denise, the novel’s narrator, who’s left to manage Nik’s real life while he pursues his fake one, willfully neglecting the world nearly everybody else feels obligated to live in. And to better address that tension, Spiotta does a few things that could come from the DeLillo playbook: The way the narrative deliberately breaks down, with Denise scratching out chapter titles and starting over, or the way Denise fixates on how tragic events are mediated.

That’s not to say that Stone Arabia is strictly a DeLillo-esque novel (though he delivered a rare blurb for her first novel, 2001’s Lightning Field, and he’s thanked in the acknowledgments of Stone Arabia). But like DeLillo, she’s aware of how a subculture can be used metaphorically. In the case of Nik Worth, his fake career represents not just a commentary on selling out but on how we all concoct personas. Spiotta’s achievement is in drawing out how frustrating and heartbreaking such concoctions can be.

Links: Interior Ideologues

Ruth Franklin asks why American fiction writers have been so hamfisted at getting into the heads of terrorists: “[John Updike and Pearl Abraham's] uncertainty about their subject matter shows through on the page in the lack of precision that each brings to the Islamic trappings surrounding their character,” she writes I can’t think of any books to contrary, just one that bolsters the argument: Don DeLillo‘s Falling Man, which includes a couple of interludes featuring the 9/11 hijackers, though they tend to talk and think in the clipped style of lots of other Don DeLillo characters. There may be something to be said about that being exactly the right tone—cold certainty strikes me as a legitimate character trait in a jihadist—but the sections are so brief DeLillo isn’t especially invested in them. Andre Dubus III‘s The Garden of Last Days might also be worth another look on that front: It spent plenty of time getting into the heads of the 9/11 hijackers living in Florida, but I recall the story straining to Americanize the characters—or at least make them conflicted about American-ness, and less for the sake of realism than generating drama. And I’m still annoyed that one character is an illiterate bouncer who keeps a book-on-tape of The Waste Land handy; overworked symbolism drives a pickup truck.

Edward P. Jones is still not working on another book, but in an interview with the Rumpus he opens up on his writing process, which largely involves memorizing the story as he goes along: “When you’re working on these things in your head and you get to that point in the story of the novel, to the line that you’ve been memorizing, and you let it out, there’s a sigh. Now you don’t have to memorize it anymore. But it stays with you forever.”

I haven’t watched the whole thing, but this video of a recent conversation between Tobias Wolff and Tim O’Brien on war fiction opens with an interesting discussion about whether it’s possible to effectively write anti-war fiction that will always be perceived as such—that there is always somebody who’ll find a certain bloodthirsty inspiration from it.

Mona Simpson: “In my 20s I was less interested in plot. I thought everything with a plot was a sellout. Now I see what a great way it is to tell a story.”

Ward Just: “America is not easy with mystery. It doesn’t appreciate mystery and it assumes there’s a bottom to everything and if you’re just prepared to work hard enough you can get to the bottom. Well, sometimes that’s true; more often it’s not true.”

At Zyzzyva‘s website, Oscar Villalon reviews The Norton Anthology of Latino Literature and questions the audience for the collection: “A lot of books—the vast majority—don’t find the readership they deserve. Would it be surprising if there were just as many, if not more, Mexican Americans than Anglos who’ve never heard of the writers in the Norton Anthology of Latino Literature? It wouldn’t. So, again, whom are you writing for? A fraction of a fraction? Does it matter?” (via)

[Willa] Cather knows that we are many different people over the course of our lives, and that some of those incarnations will be more sympathetic to us than others, because we comprehend them better or they are more neatly aligned to our values and desires. Acceptance is the best we can hope for, although nostalgia provides a bittersweet comfort.”

Arthur Phillips, who prides himself on being pretty good at teasing out an author’s intentions, explains why he feels defeated at that task when he reads Vladimir Nabokov‘s Pale Fire

Why Elif Batuman doesn’t read her reviews. (via)

A trip to Oxford, Mississippi, where it’s clear the reason William Faulkner said the past isn’t even past is because the past is confronting you everywhere you go.

A beautiful piece in the London Review of Books on how the death of Mark Twain‘s wife reshaped the tone of his writing and defined his autobiography. (via)

David Shields: “John Cheever’s ‘legacy’ is based almost entirely on his stories, whereas for me it rests, or should rest, on the massive achievement of the posthumously published Journals. It’s simply a great work: it dwarfs everything else he wrote; it’s what all his other work was building toward.”

Sam Sacks has a fine tribute to Pauline Kael. All I’d add is that she’s as engaging in conversation as she is as a writer, on the evidence of the posthumous Afterglow, which captures her in conversation with Francis Davis.

Blogger Kif Leswing had questions for me about D.C. writers, Freedom, and blogging. I had answers.

Links: Filing Extension

I’ve read David Foster Wallace‘s The Pale King but feel at a loss to say anything about it. That’s partly due to its sheer sprawl; the time required to get a grip on it and say something cogent is time I don’t have. But that’s a bit of a lie, because there’s something else, something Robert P. Baird gets at in his essay on how much we can or should connect the text of The Pale King to its author’s suicide. As Baird suggests, a common instinct (and certainly my instinct) is to avoid the matter entirely by indulging in some New Critical close reading, but I’m more resistant than even that—I have an urge to say, screw it, that the whole enterprise of cobbling a novel together from the scraps he left behind was foolishness, and that it would’ve been better if Little, Brown had just released what is now chapter 22, the book’s masterpiece, as a trim, self-contained novella and left the rest for scholars to fight over. Or publish all of it, however large, because, as Baird writes in explaining why Wallace’s afterlife so ties us up in knots, “Wallace belonged to that slim class of writers—Frank O’Hara, Annie Dillard, and Martin Amis are three more—who knew or discovered or learned how to project intimacy with a force that felt literally telepathic.”

Karen Russell on Joy Williams‘ dialogue: “Exchanges as doomed and hilarious as those in a Beckett play fill her books. This speech rarely reads like a realistic transcription of the way that ‘normal’ people talk—but it gets at the primitive forces lunging under language.”

Dinaw Mengestu remains unhappy that his second novel, How to Read the Air, is being characterized as an “immigrant novel”: “The characters I’m writing about are Americans, even though they may be immigrants. So for critics to bring in part of my own identity, to say this is part of the novel as well, I find very problematic.”

Kyle Minor considers the last sentences of novels and whether or not they can be representative of the whole work in the way an opening sentence can. (A commenter points to the American Book Review‘s list of the 100 best last lines from novels, in a thread that also includes a good conversation about the last line of As I Lay Dying.)

Much of Lorrie Moore‘s essay on memoirs in the New York Review of Books feels like a series of cheap shots. The very structure suggests it: Here are two well-promoted memoirs about death from major New York publishers, and isn’t it interesting that they are bested by a little self-published book—one that, on the quoted evidence, seems stuffed with cliches and commonplaces. But I keep thinking about what seems at first like the weakest complaint in her review, about Meghan O’Rourke‘s The Long Goodbye: “O’Rourke’s mother and her mother’s sister, who both grew up in New Jersey, came down with the same disease and New Jersey’s alarming cancer rate is not given a mention.” I admire the book, and I don’t see it as losing something for lacking an investigation into Garden State carcinogens. But if we’re to respect memoirs as more than exercises in solipsism—or respect them at all, these days—a second effort to avoid trafficking in what Moore calls the “poetry of bereavement” may be worth the while.

William Maxwell is best known as a New Yorker editor, but he also wrote six novels. William Lychack recalls his correspondence with Maxwell and enthuses about his 1980 novel, So Long, See You Tomorrow.

Audio of Lydia Davis discussing her translation work.

Audio of Marilynne Robinson on the Old Testament roots of Christian liberalism.

Audio of Don DeLillo on the writer as a “bad citizen.”

George Saunders: “My experience of writing is that I had to work very hard to discover a tiny little wedge of talent, and almost immediately became aware that there were certain things I just couldn’t do. So then the challenge became something like: get through the rest of my life while running back and forth on that little wedge of talent, without blatantly repeating myself.”

Robert Gottlieb on how important editors are to writers: “Whether you’re a good editor or a bad editor or a non-editor, it doesn’t matter: You represent the crucial reading. Yes, his spouse has read it. Yes, her agent has read it. But you represent authority, even if you don’t deserve it. You also represent money. And if you have a decent reputation, a writer wants to know what a person with a decent reputation thinks. And of course, if it’s a writer you’ve worked with over the years, it’s even more crucial because there’s a visceral connection.”

Links: Dead Tongues

Marilynne Robinson: “If you want your prose to be good, studying Latin is good for you.”

Pushcart Prize founder Bill Henderson remains optimistic about small presses and literary magazine.

Paul Auster: “I believe that the whole idea of the consumer society is tottering. We’ve kept ourselves going by producing more and more goods, most of which people don’t need. I’m anti-consumerism; I own four pairs of black Levis and that’s it.”

However outdated its notions about psychotherapy might be, Millen Brand‘s 1937 novel, The Outward Room, is worth revisiting.

“I don’t think [Jonathan Franzen] was literally saying that America invaded Afghanistan so that Americans could continue to drive SUVs. I think he was trying to trace a connection between American foreign policy and Americans’ own understandings of freedom, which is both a value and an emotional imperative that they understand in particular ways and struggle to achieve in their personal lives.”

This nonsense about how “[dead writer] would never use Twitter and Facebook” needs to stop.

Rick Moody on parenthood and home.

“Twenty-five years since its initial publication, White Noise feels like an important and ongoing philosophical experiment…”

In praise of Leonard Michaels‘ Nachman stories.

An excellent interview with Boston Globe literary critic Katherine A. Powers (J.F. Powers‘ daughter), covering Charles Portis, rereading, short stories, fiction in translation, and her admirably simple metric for a book’s success: “When I think of the novels I really like, I can think of only one thing that unites them: their authors proved trustworthy, that is, my suspension of disbelief was not betrayed.”

“The internet’s most ruinous effect on literacy may not be the obliteration of long-format journalism or drops in hardcover sales; it may be the destruction of the belief that books can be talked and written about endlessly. There are fewer official reviews of novels lately, but there are infinitely more pithily captioned links on Facebook, reader-response posts on Tumblr, punny jokes on Twitter. How depressing, to have a book you just read and loved feel so suddenly passé, to feel—almost immediately—as though you no longer have any claim to your own ideas about it.”

Lastly, it’s off this blog’s chosen beat, but I had run catching up with Salman Rushdie‘s work while working on my review of his new children’s book, Luka and the Fire of Life, for the New York Times Book Review. Being a new father may have more kindly attuned me to it, but I suspect I’d recommend it regardless.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Yesterday Don DeLillo was awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, and to mark the occasion he answered a few questions from PEN. Discussing the future of the book, he said this:

The question is whether the enormous force of technology, and its insistence on speeding up time and compacting space, will reduce the human need for narrative—narrative in the traditional sense. Novels will become user-generated. An individual will not only tap a button that gives him a novel designed to his particular tastes, needs, and moods, but he’ll also be able to design his own novel, very possibly with him as main character. The world is becoming increasingly customized, altered to individual specifications. This shrinking context will necessarily change the language that people speak, write, and read.

As it happens, I came across this just as I finished Gary Shteyngart‘s Super Sad True Love Story, a funny and mordant novel that voices some of the same concerns about books that DeLillo does. In Shteyngart’s world—set either 15 years from now or in 2011, depending on when you think America’s debtpocalypse arrives—everybody is genially enslaved by handheld devices, which stream all manner of data points about one’s financial status, health, and sexual attractiveness. Shteyngart’s grim joke is that the devices are brimming with information but contain little to no actual news; the world is literally collapsing all around them, but, on the evidence of their tiny solipsism machines, Priority A is their potential for getting laid that night. So neither the devices nor most of the people who use them can quite process the concept of old-fashioned books. When hero Lenny Abramov scans his personal history, it shows the purchase of some “bound, printed, nonstreaming Media artifacts.” “You’ve got to stop buying books, Nee-gro,” a friend tells him. “All those doorstops are going to drag down your Personality rankings.”

Not that Lenny doesn’t know it. Fully aware of what a drag those books are, early on he proudly tells his diary that “I’ve spent an entire week without reading any books or talking about them too loudly. I’m learning to worship my new apparat’s screen, the colorful pulsing mosaic of it, the fact that it knows every last stinking detail about the world, whereas my books only know the minds of their authors.”

It’s hard to discuss how Shteyngart resolves the fate of the book in such a culture without giving away the ending, but suffice it to say that Shteyngart doesn’t think that novelists will be entirely out of a job—novels may change, but he doesn’t share DeLillo’s concern that technology will “reduce the human need for narrative.” And at any rate, I don’t think that either DeLillo or Shteyngart are especially concerned with the death of the novel per se. What they’re mourning is the death of reading novels as an aspirational activity—as something that people did in order to feel like an informed citizen, a part of the culture. (Part of the reason why the chatter over Freedom evokes so much high emotion is that it’s an “event” novel that hasn’t existed in decades, and we’re no longer sure what to do with “event” novels. Must we read them? We no longer live in a culture where we can tolerate being told to rally around one particular book or movie or film—a point Jessa Crispin smartly made in her essay about why she doesn’t want to read the damn thing.)

It may be that the literary world that DeLillo and Shteyngart are concerned about losing entirely has just found its level—it’s preserved all the people who love reading for its own sake, and lost all the people who read out of duty or obligation. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that the novel itself will become as corrupted and egocentric as DeLillo fears. I suspect even he would agree that the minds of other people will still be interesting 20 years from now—and if you’re so eager to customize another person’s mind, a novel probably isn’t what you want anyway.

Glenn Beck’s Roots

Glenn Beck says his new novel, The Overton Window, shouldn’t be categorized as either fact or fiction. “While nonfiction books aim to enlighten, the goal of most thrillers is to entertain,” he writes in the book’s introduction. “But there is a category of novels that do both: ‘faction’—completely fictional books with plots rooted in fact, and that is the category I strived for with The Overton Window.”

Setting aside any critical assessments of the book—which I haven’t read but sounds just awful—the portmanteau is interesting. What kind of book is Beck thinking of when he thinks about “faction”? The last author I heard proclaim a work “faction” was Norma Khouri in Forbidden Lie$, a 2007 documentary about how she hoodwinked the publishing industry with Honor Lost a fabricated memoir about honor killings in Jordan. By the point she calls Honor Lost “faction,” she’s looking fairly desperate to salvage her wrecked reputation, so that probably isn’t the tradition Beck wishes to be a part of.

Best as I can tell, the first modern author to embrace the term “faction” was Alex Haley, who told the New York Times that his 1976 bestseller, Roots, was a blend of fact and fiction: “The beginning is a re-creation, using novelistic techniques, but as it moves forward more is known and it becomes more factually based.” The criticism Roots received for its faction-ness my explain why the term never got much traction among publishers, even though the book was a huge success. “Faction” kept academics busy, though. Google the words “postmodern” and “faction” and you’ll find a fair amount of commentary, generally circling around the early 90s, about “faction” books like In Cold Blood and The Armies of the Night. For scholars wishing to riff on the instability of language and/or society in the modern age, the New Journalism offered plenty of thesis fodder. But in a 1993 interview with Salmagundi, Don DeLillo called bullshit on the term while discussing his 1998 novel about the JFK assassination, Libra:

Q: Do you approve of their being described as post-modern novels? How do you react to such a formulation?

A: I don’t react. But I’d prefer not to be labeled. I’m a novelist, period. An American novelist. When Libra came out some people started to talk about facts, fiction and writing, about documentary writing and so on. But Libra is just a novel. Look, Homer wrote about real people around 4,000 years ago and we continue to do the same things except we call it a novel. Right?

Q: And what do you think of that strange neologism, “faction”?

A: It’s terrible; it’s outdated. It was new a few years ago and then it disappeared. The term isn’t worth anything. It’s stupid.