“They Laugh in Chicago, but not in Los Angeles”: Don DeLillo on Tour

Newsletter 3.1 (2008)
— Julia Apitzsch, Bonn

DeLillo at the movies: Cologne’s Odeon Theatre provided a perfect venue to launch DeLillo’s third reading tour in Germany. Sponsored by the newspaper Die Zeit, the tour went on from Cologne to Hamburg and Berlin, before continuing on to Zurich, Switzerland.

Frank Heibert, DeLillo’s German translator, opened the evening by asking about audience reactions on the American tour for Cosmopolis. DeLillo replied that the characteristic humor varied from city to city: “They laugh in Chicago, but not in Los Angeles. Tonight—we’ll see” (laughter in Cologne).

The reading was split between English and German. DeLillo read from the narrative sections of Cosmopolis, stressing the hypnotic rhythm of his prose, while Frank Heibert read from his translation of the dialogue in the limo. Here is the discussion that followed the reading.

Question: Why does Eric Packer destroy his whole life, fortune, and in the end even his physical existence? Is it the author’s intention to illustrate decadence, nausea and perversion?

DeLillo denies that this is his intention. He explains that many actions, like Eric Packer’s, are carried out without logic, plan, or strategy. When constructing Packer’s persona, he had in mind a particular clinical condition, the so-called Icarus Complex, named after the figure in Greek mythology who flew too close to the sun. The term is used to describe extremely powerful men who move toward their own destruction. Eric Packer is a brilliant, ruthless young man who wakes up one morning with a compelling sense of his own mortality. The novel, DeLillo continues, moves inevitably in that direction.

Question: In the novel, Vija Kinski talks about the need for “a new theory of time.” The novel is saturated with allusions to this motif. What might a new theory of time look like? What might it involve?

DeLillo responds that time was the dominant topic in The Body Artist. A smile. Silence. Enough said? (Laughter). He elaborates. Cosmopolis is essentially a novel about time and money. It occurs on a day that marks the end of the end of a particular era: the period between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of what is now known as The Age of Terror—essentially, the 1990s. It was a time whose theme was money, DeLillo adds. Corporate executives became global celebrities. Ordinary people spent enormous amounts of time staring at their computer screens as their money began to increase and the stock market kept rising. DeLillo calls attention to a special phenomenon of this period: something in the confluence of capital and technology seemed to make time move faster. We were all living in the future, he observes, at least for a while.

Question: A young woman in the audience confesses that eight years ago she was so moved by one of DeLillo’s books that it raised some questions she felt she could only ask him personally, but didn’t dare to at the time. Tonight, she has one simple but fundamental question: Why do you write?

It’s kind of a mystery, DeLillo replies. He explains that for a young person, starting to write is mostly connected with the essential urge to make sense of the world. For him, writing is just a deeper, more concentrated form of thinking. Often he does not know what to think about a particular subject until he sits down to write about it. With luck, it will become clear in the process of writing. But he feels there is a deeper answer to this question, which is quite difficult to give. Writing became for him the way one eats or sleeps or breathes—not only what you do, but who you are. He confesses that he always thought about himself as a writer even when there was absolutely no evidence of it (laughter): “And now here I am reading to a group of people in a city in another country. I have no explanation.”

The next question is aimed at DeLillo’s reputation as Mr. Paranoia. Question: Is there a specific image or event to which he owes this interest?

DeLillo remains calm. No, he is not paranoid himself—except about certain questions! His interest in the topic came out of American culture in the most compelling way imaginable in the 1960s. “What I drew from the culture seemed to me to be powerfully located there, not in something I invented.” Although he does not wish to identify a single formative event, he stresses the importance of the Kennedy assassination. It seems that the assassination triggered a fall into suspicion, distrust, or paranoia in response to the actions of the government—or the lack of actions of the government. Vietnam and Watergate added fuel to the fire. As the paranoia of the ‘60s and ‘70s receded, the topic became less dominant in his novels.

Question: Is there a between Eric Packer and Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of American Psycho?

DeLillo says that he wasn’t aware of a parallel and hasn’t thought of it until now.  He sees some basic differences between the two characters: Eric is not at all a typical Wall Street person: he speaks several languages, collects serious art, reads serious poetry, and loves women, quite in contrast to Bateman (laughter). In fact, the only person Eric listens to in the course of the novel is his chief of theory, Vija Kinski. But DeLillo confesses that his memory of American Psycho isn’t that sharp, though he did admire the book at the time.

The next question concerns the different aspects and functions of art and artists that run through his novels. In Cosmopolis, some of the art functions similarly to art in Running Dog, where film and art serve mostly as a vehicle for perversion, sex, and power (e.g., Packer’s trying to buy the Rothko Chapel just for the sheer idea of buying it, or the way Packer’s limo works in terms of power, decadence, and aggression). But in other novels artists—for example, Klara Sax, Lauren and Sully, Acey and Moonman—take up serious parts and carry dominant topics. This accounts for a deeper function and meaning. How does he see the role of art in Cosmopolis and the artist as a special type of protagonist in his books?

In regard to Cosmopolis, DeLillo agrees that people of a certain type do gain power by spending enormous amounts of money on art, in a form of conspicuous consumption with art as a special type of consumer good. In his works, he elaborates, there are often instances of movies, of pieces of art (he refers to radio programs and Lenny Bruce in Underworld), references to TV commercials and many other manifestations of sound and images that surround us. They play a dominant role in the culture and thus appear in his books—as parts of our lives. Since we spend enormous amounts of time watching television and going to the movies, why not give these events some presence in our fiction? Lacking a deeper answer to the appearance of artists in his work (“I have no idea what the answer is”), he adds that it might just be his own interest in painting, film, and jazz that makes him enter the characters of such people.

A young man refers to the fact that DeLillo is known for doing a lot of research for his novels and mixing historical facts into his fiction—the Warren Report for Libra, the pictures of Salinger or crowd photographs for Mao II, newspaper articles for Underworld. Was there a similar trigger for Cosmopolis, such as an ad in the news or the like?

DeLillo explains that the book started with one very simple idea: a man traveling across town in Manhattan. He knew at once that the trip would take him all day and shortly afterward that the trip would take place on only one street. The only research for Cosmopolis concerned financial markets “about which I knew very little and still know very little” (laughter in Cologne).

The Literaturhaus’s moderator closes the evening and redeems the slightly exhausted Don DeLillo: “Mr. DeLillo, thank you very much for your coming. If you are ever in need of evidence that you are a writer, please give us a call—we will organize a meeting.”