I’ve spent the weekend writing, recording and editing a short video for a class. I don’t like my voice. I struggled with the recording process. I’m not 100 percent happy with the video. I started out with one idea, then decided to do another, and then tried to kind of mash them together. The words read better than they sounded. Anyway, I thought I would share. The images are almost all William Blake paintings or Jack Kirby line drawings. The music is Moby and Underworld. Everything else is me.
We know so little about him. He cannot be the quiet, simple man he seems. His fiction is too strong, too vital and strange.
His work is often compared with Thomas Pynchon, although whereas Pynchon revels in the pandemonium of his fiction like some cosmic coyote trickster, DeLillo constructs vise-like novels where characters are slowly crushed by immense systems of control.
His is an intimidating body of work—fifteen novels—and he stands as one of the most beguiling, and important, post-1960s novelist in the U.S. He’s also cool as hell, and has lost none of his outsider sheen with the passing years. This is partially because his themes have remained relevant since he began publishing, making him one of the most prescient writers around: the insufficiencies of language to define, decipher or even navigate the real world; the perilous influence of certain ideas; the plight of the individual in a world increasingly documented and controlled; the tendency towards digital complexity, and the profound technological impact on our lives; and the allure of terrorist organizations and the dangers—physical, psychic, ontological—these pose to humans.
His life is loosely sketched. He’s notoriously private. He worked in advertising until his mid-thirties, and then began writing fiction. He’s written very few short stories, and his talent emerged fully formed. He writes on a typewriter. His technique is to rewrite each page until it meets his aesthetic standards. There are a handful of photos of him floating around. Until the mid-90s, he was a total recluse, lumped in with Pynchon and Salinger as some polymath super-genius.
He’s written some incredible books.
Start with White Noise. It’s funny and scary and riveting, following a professor of Hitler studies in a small town university. He navigates some mysterious airborne event, as well as the strange disintegration of his homelife, including the absurd existentialism of his teenage son. Move on to Great Jones Street next. It’s been called the first Rock N Roll novel. It follows a rock singer who has removed himself from public life for no apparent reason. He sequesters himself in a brownstone in New York, and is visited by an increasingly bizarre cast of addicts, weirdoes and criminals. The narrator floats through the story with a disaffected haze. Like White Noise, Great Jones Street appears to be an exercise in beautiful writing, until a plot kicks in with a killer revelation right at the end. End Zone combines football and nuclear weapons and it’s incredible. Running Dog is probably my favorite. It’s DeLillo’s take on a crime novel—a man murdered in a strange dress, a dealer in rare erotica, a secret cabal of murderous government agents—familiar yet strange. Raymond Chandler by way of Donald Barthelme and Steve Erickson.
Libra, like James Ellroy’s American Tabloid, is DeLillo’s fictional re-enactment of the Kennedy assassination, following Oswald through his various peregrinations. (His conclusions, although different from Ellroy’s, are intriguing; he argues that the government didn’t kill Kennedy, but covered up because that’s what governments do.) Libra is long, intriguing and beautiful, it feels important but I don’t think it is; you can skip it.
Underworld is his magnum opus, an epic character study of 15 or so people through forty years of American life. It’s haunting, elegiac, tough, thrilling and hypnotic. The book is stunning, one of the great and most important novels of the last thirty years. Read the prologue—published separately as Pafko at the Wall. It follows many of the novel’s characters, including J. Edgar Hoover and Jackie Gleason, at a famous baseball game in New York. This little prologue is a must-read, an essential piece of fiction as rich and strange as it sounds. (Like all of his books, it isn’t for everyone. It’s wordy, occasionally dense, sometimes hard to follow and often meandering. It’s puzzling, too, and if any of the above sounds annoying in fiction then DeLillo is probably not for you.)
Some of his novels misfire. Ratner’s Star follows a young genius trying to decipher space messages for the military. A great idea, but a major disappointment. Players and The Names both involve vague terrorist groups and Grecian ruins. Neither is all that spectacular. Mao II follows a reclusive author making his way, perhaps, into a terrorist organization. It’s interesting, but a lesser novel, more for devoted fans.
The general consensus is that after Underworld, DeLillo lost some essential piece of himself and that his work since has been a series of interesting failures. This is mostly true. Falling Man is a work of exceptional beauty about New York after 9/11. It’s plotless, but interesting and stunningly written. Point Omega, however, is unreadable, a pale imitation of his earlier work.
This year he published some short stories for the first time in The Angel Esmerelda. Like many novelists, his short stories are a mixed bag. The stories lack a certain vitality that much of his longer fiction has. The stories feel simple, yet unfinished, too.
Still, DeLillo stands as a major writer of ideas, like so many postwar writers straddling the worlds of literary fiction and the “lesser” genres. Check him out.