9 November 2011
Don DeLillo makes some people’s brains ache. They hurry to consign his novels — from Americana and Ratner’s Star to the great Underworld — to curiously inappropriate categories, whether readymade (“postmodernism”) or jerry-rigged for the purpose (“hysterical realism”). Minds skid on the glacial beauty of his fictive thought. Perhaps a slower pace, encouraged by the short-story form, will facilitate a better grip.
In these stories, previously published between 1979 and 2011, DeLillo’s prose punctuates the exactly casual with a rich compression of imagery or argument. A narrator in the tropics is driven through “the total rain” with “the actual jungle pressing in”, the tourist’s inarticulate thrill at unmediated reality economically evoked by that “total” and that “actual”. A man in an orbiting spacecraft thinks of “California, where women wear their hair this year in aromatic bales”, his nostalgia for sex and smell balled up in that savouring “aromatic”. During an earthquake, a woman “crouched in the open doorway like an atomic child”, the “atomic” recalling nuclear-age government-information campaigns, and also picturing the character’s loneliness and feeling-small. DeLillo knows what he is doing with adjectives. (Adjective: something thrown-towards, like a perfectly pitched baseball.)
DeLillo’s characters are often frozen momentarily in attitudes of looking, at whatever might be total or actual. It is not in a burnt-out Bronx that one expects to find such a visual glorying as this: “The projects appeared at the rim of the sky, upper windows white with sunplay against the broad dark face of beaten stone.” In a small college town, another character sees “a face in the window of a passing car, runny with reflected light”. The DeLilloan consciousness is routinely pummelled by photons.
Nearly all these stories, indeed, are in one way or another about looking. The most recent, “The Starveling”, begins by describing the protagonist having once been sitting “staring into space”; now he is “watching another woman”. What? Where and who was the first woman? This strategy of almost subliminal epistemic suspense primes the reader to be on the lookout for what people are looking at. It might mean something, in retrospect.
In “The Runner”, a circling park jogger sees a fragment of a crime, buried in a list of heterogeneous sense-impressions; only afterwards do we understand what he witnessed. In “Baader-Meinhof”, a woman comes to an art gallery to look, day after day, at a series of paintings about the gang, searching for consolation in a half-seen or wished-for cruciform tree in a gloomy canvas. In the title story, a crowd gathers every evening to witness the appearance of the face of a recently murdered child on a billboard. The “staring” protagonist of “The Starveling” takes this theme to its logical extremity: he has dedicated his whole life to looking, going to the cinema three or four times a day for decades. (“Days were all the same,” the narrative voice deadpans. “Movies were not.”)
All this gaze-tracing does not render DeLillo’s stories silent dioramas; they are noisy with thought and talk. The dialogue, as in his novels, is act-it-out-in-your-head good: jagged, glancing, witty, always avoiding the clichéd stylizations of ordinarily “naturalistic” literary speech. The title story gives a loving aural portrait of the kingpin of a scrap-metal gang: “One of my best writers, he does wildstyle, he’s exactly twelve more or less […] Hey, don’t be surprise my scrap ends up in North, you know, Korea.” In the same story, a worried urban nun is reassured by a wisecracking monk: “‘Who knows you? The dogs know you? There are rabid dogs, Mike.’ ‘I’m a Franciscan, okay? Birds light on my index finger.’” DeLillo’s third-person narrative voice occasionally speaks in its own personality of dreadful calm irony, like a jaded but sympathetic extraterrestrial: “A boy was dragged a hundred yards, it is always a hundred yards, by a car that kept on going.”
It would be condescending to say that, over the three-decade span of this collection (and the 15 novels since 1971), DeLillo has kept up with modern culture. More accurate to say that culture keeps catching up with him. (White Noise, his 1985 satire of media, the academy, and disaster, remains hilariously topical, while 2003’s underrated Cosmopolis now seems a prescient microcosmic allegory of the financial crisis.) Two of the most recent stories here touch on modern techno-anxiety: a prisoner misses all the gadgets housing “the memory that needs recharging”; and a university student relates how his fellows in a logic class eschew their computing paraphernalia, making old technology strange again: “Our notebooks had pages made of flexible sheets of paper.”
The latter story, 2009’s “Midnight in Dostoevsky”, also smuggles in what it is tempting to read as an artistic manifesto. The logic teacher, a wonderfully dishevelled character named Ilgauskas, emits among his gnomic pronouncements the following: “‘If we isolate the stray thought, the passing thought,’ he said, ‘the thought whose origin is unfathomable, then we begin to understand that we are routinely deranged, everyday crazy.” In these stories or lucid dreams — sometimes drily shocking or mournfully funny, always masterfully designed — DeLillo himself isolates that stray thought, and makes of it great art.