Newsletter 10.1 (2017)
From the President
In the Ruins of the Present: Don DeLillo and the Age of Social Media
Last year, with the release of Zero K, while Don DeLillo was once again chronicling the future, I attempted to bring the Don DeLillo Society into the present—or, really, recent past—by creating a DDS Facebook page. Yet as much as I wanted a platform to share DeLillo scholarship and the slew of forthcoming Zero K reviews with a wider audience, it was not created without some typically DeLillian ambivalence toward technology.
Clearly DeLillo and social media feel antithetical. Witness the spate of “DeLillo-is-on Twitter!” hoaxes best debunked by Alex Shepherd, writing for the New Republic, in his beautifully titled “Don DeLillo Isn’t on Twitter and Will Never Be on Twitter.” Citing a faux-Tweet that states, simply, “No,” Shepherd writes, seemingly borrowing DeLillo’s own famous expletive construction, “This, of course, is not really Don DeLillo, who is 79 years old, writes on a typewriter, and clearly does not give a shit about social media.”
But what if he does? Or, at least, what if the novels seem to? While DeLillo’s extensive writing about authorial seclusion in Great Jones Street and Mao II confirm he won’t be on Twitter himself any time soon, his ideas perfectly prefigure and critique social media’s simulacrum of relationships and cultural saturation, the ways technologies pull us deathward while making us believe we’re having religious experiences, and the nefarious possibility that truth—and indeed, one gets the sense that so-called postmodernist DeLillo believes, like a good Catholic or at least paranoiac, that the truth is out there—becomes another unstable commodity once it’s mediated. In 2004—the year Facebook launched and therefore an eternity ago by social media standards—Cosmopolis had already declared that “It was time to retire the word phone” (88) and “Even the word computer sounds backwards and dumb” (104). He was right—as I discuss in my recent book, people long ago stopped using “their phones for phonetics or computers for computing” (88). On the one hand, for Shepherd, DeLillo is too far behind; on the other, if you look at the novels themselves, we can agree DeLillo has always, famously, been ahead.
Still, to those who love his work, DeLillo is, to borrow the vexing but accurate word of my undergraduates, deep—too deep for something DeLillo himself could have named, with deadpan irony, “status updates.” (But not “Tweets”—Kurt Vonnegut came close to inventing that term at the beginning and then last line of Slaughterhouse-Five.) Yet his gem-like, often epigrammatic indeed style lends itself to Goodreads-style quotations, including a smart, if typically context-free, quote of the day in the Economic Times.
Passages in many novels, including Americana, Libra, Underworld, and especially White Noise, have been parsed and analyzed by critics dozens, if not hundreds, of times, yet the language and ideas remain fertile, to be refreshed—or maybe, to borrow a conceit from Underworld, recycled—each time the literary and political landscape turns again. And for me, the depth and richness of the novels, to say nothing of their prescience, become all the more reason for the Facebook page rather than an incongruity. Is there any American novel of the past fifty years that better prefigures the rise of a President Trump than White Noise? (Margaret Atwood is Canadian.) Even Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, dystopian in 2005, feels optimistic today, with its celebrity anti-Semite removed from the Presidency in the book’s resolution. Contrast it with Cosmopolis, published a year earlier, where the emotional and sexual instability of a single entitled estranged-from-his-wife megalomaniacal New York billionaire threatens to ravage the whole world’s economy.
But even the clairvoyance of Cosmopolis pales next to serial divorcer Jack Gladney’s fascination with Hitler Studies—“the continuing mass appeal of fascist tyranny, with special emphasis on parades, rallies, and uniforms” (25)—but never the Holocaust, which Jack never considers. In light of the past year, passages that I’ve read dozens of times are suddenly, scarily fresh. Here are a few, taken, naturally, from a list of quotes on Goodreads: “‘Nostalgia is a product of dissatisfaction and rage. It´s a settling of grievances between the present and the past. The more powerful the nostalgia, the closer you come to violence. War is the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country’”; “‘Murray says we are fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts. Facts threaten our happiness and security. Pain, death, reality, these are all unnatural. We can’t bear these things as they are. We know too much. So we resort to repression, compromise and disguise’”; “‘For most people, there are only two places in the world. Where they live and their TV set. If a thing happens on television, we have every right to find it fascinating, whatever it is.’” Nearly every page seems newly suffused with American magic and dread.
In that sense, then, the DeLillo Society needs to be on social media, because DeLillo has always understood, as he wrote in Mao II, that “the future belongs to crowds” (16): the mob’s potential for violence, the faithful’s possibility of mass, and the people’s possibility of democracy. Plus, the Likes feel good. Unfortunately, like DeLillo, the DDS has not yet made it on to Twitter. For that, you’ll have to be content following Don DeLillo’s Jacket.
DeLillo, Don. Cosmopolis. New York: Scribner, 2003.
—. Mao II. New York: Viking, 1991.
—. White Noise. New York: Viking, 1985.
Kavadlo, Jesse. American Popular Culture in the Era of Terror: Falling Skies, Dark Knights Rising, and Collapsing Cultures. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2015
Reflections on Zero K: The Cost of Immortality
I first read DeLillo the summer I graduated college in 2013, picking up White Noise in a Barnes & Noble somewhere in the Midwest on a drive back to New York from Milwaukee. Since then I have read all 17 of his novels and consider him the greatest influence on my adult life. What intrigues me about DeLillo is how he internalizes the patterns of society, politics, pop culture, and ancient philosophy, articulating exactly what is different about being alive now, and using that to interrogate modern American culture. He breaks down power structures that thrive on complexity and secrecy, like the CIA, the internet, academia, terrorism, nuclear missile codes, all which have only existed since World War II, but have shaped so deeply what it means to be human today.
His most recent novel, Zero K, takes place at a secretive laboratory in a post-soviet Eurasian desert where the 1% are plotting to live forever. They will by freezing their bodies at the temperature Zero K, which is a method called cryonic preservation. Zero K reads as a meditation wary of the collapse of the current order, yet is less about the end of capitalism and more about what comes next. Looking at society as a whole, divided by race, class, ethnicity, and language, the story unfolds between a billionaire with a career in global finance, Ross, and his son, Jeffrey. Jeffrey is a confused 34-year-old who struggles with introspection, and the career ambiguity of living in the shadow of his father’s earthly accomplishments. He wonders whether it has “been money, my father’s money, that determines the way I think and live?” (224). I think the overall question of the book is whether evolution, both social and biological, have become too capital intensive.
The book ruminates on the implications of a growing wealth gap and challenges that poses for immortality and death itself. Not that death hasn’t been the centerpiece of DeLillo’s novels for the past 40 years, but now he seems to be researching practical ways to avoid it. DeLillo turned 80 in November, and in a February 2016 interview with Shakespeare & Co. he said that given the option, cryonic preservation would be his preferred means for passing. He never indicated whether he would be able to afford to do that, but throughout the novel he examines the relationship between wealth and longevity. A character asks “Why should we keep living while others die? Half the world is redoing its kitchens, the other half is starving” (70). Can working capital shelter us from the tragedies of existence, weather shocks, holy wars, climate change, pollution, and over-population? Will the poor die out and only those rich enough to afford cryonic preservation outlive the final days of life as we know it?
The lust for immortality is an actual trend happening right now, and having recently attended an academic futurist conference, I saw firsthand the excitement people like Ray Kurzweil elicit in investors who attend these meetings. The book is grounded in today’s political crises, featuring millions of displaced refugees, political instability, racial tension, police brutality, wars, Putin, the South China Sea and smartphone headlines constantly indicating humanity is heading towards destruction. DeLillo has never shied away from the impending doom of civilization, and similar to Underworld, he is well versed in the modern technology that allows humanity to self-destruct while also transcend our biological limitations. As Murray says in White Noise, “This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other” (285).
With Zero K, DeLillo plays more the role of the philosopher than the story teller, sentence creator than plot seducer, and healer than entertainer. He is entering the final stage of his life, as our society seems to be in the fifth act of the post-war period, emerging to a new order that is yet to be negotiated. There is still plenty of room for mystery, acquisition and discovery. Who will live and who will die, who will inherit what’s left? The opening lines of the book are “Everybody wants to own the end of the world” (3).
DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin, 1985.
—. Zero K. New York: Scribner, 2016.
Don’t blame the players, blame the “system”: a systemic reading of Don DeLillo’s The Names
“how do systems typically manage to maintain a steady flow of support?”
David Easton (1957)
If we are to speak about The Names, then we are to speak about systems. Indeed, a lecture on the novel The Names can be a lecture on “systems theory,” that is, on Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s General Systems Theory: Foundations, Developments, Applications (1968), which Thomas LeClair helped us access in his book, In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel (1987).
Purification, obsession, secrecy and stillness are motifs that mark Don DeLillo’s oeuvre, which gathers some of the messages and the noises and sound bites of contemporary communications and technologies. Another piece of gold here concerns the number of DeLillo’s literary themes: fascism, espionage, the communication system, power in its many forms and disguises, plus the perception of man as inserted (but lost) in a systemic world. And, with due respect and distance, the novel seems to suggest an idea of metasystem, in its search for stylistics strategies, whose function to imitate “living systems” (LeClair 18).
All systems are calibrated in multiple ways and no system exists inside a vacuum. Indeed, in The Names, there is an explicit analysis of American foreign policy, opposing two realities (the West and the East) and observing the influence that systemic “loops” have on contemporary life, and on the media as well. The Names’s story relates to and meditates on both the power of language and passions as a mysterious component of the individual. In The Names, James Axton’s work as a risk analyst involves a rather distinct element of feedback, that is, a contemporary looping. One of James’s tasks is: “tapping out messages” (192). This operation requires both skills of analysis and several decisions. Indeed, Don DeLillo himself, in his fiction, proves that he comprehends those messages that leave and come back to the individual. Moreover, what seems to be implied here is that a small “tapping out” is sufficient to knock over governments and cultures. The Names’s mediation on the impact of these messages is characteristic of the concerns of DeLillo’s oeuvre as a whole.
Athens, in and of The Names’s story, is central and capital. As LeClair argues, the city highlights the concept of the “global village,” by appearing as a “[s]ymbol of ecosystemic disaster and possible answer to contemporary alienation . . . a multinational crossroads . . . a test of man’s capacities for connection” (187). If an expatriate does not learn the local language or does avoid a plain communication, he suffers from the inability to read and see both people and places. In The Names, James Axton (but not only) keeps his eyes wide shut before events around him, but neither his thoughts nor opinions deepen. Ironically, “Western man . . . a confession animal” (Foucault 59) is obstructed in the “global village,” because the English language is fundamentally used only for doing business (The Names 42). Due to linguistic, social, and cultural phenomena, James Axton cannot become much of a “confession animal.”
Indeed, The Names is a “systems novel.” Relating to the merits of a systemic analysis, the “systems novel” is sufficient for the representation of characters and circumstances in such a way that can stimulate the reader to the act of questioning what is wrong about the world. As a result, the reader soon can verify that he is co-responsible for a systemic ineffectiveness.
However, the simultaneity and the relations established in DeLillian fiction include unresolved states. According to Thomas LeClair, Don DeLillo’s novels show as their main action the communication of what is best known as “looping uncertainty” (LeClair x). DeLillo’s characters and plots call out for a sort of articulation between themselves and a specific image, cosmovision, a specific event, locally, internationally. In addition, DeLillo exposes the degree of participation of his characters in more than one system: the individual turns from the fear of a life in separation to the “environment” (political, economical, social), thus exposing himself to the inherent consequences of the design to achieve personal and collective landmarks.
The representation of global society through the typewriter of Don DeLillo attempts a criticism of the falsity and the power of closed systems. Nevertheless, there is a mighty insistence on the vitality of what is conceived as “ordinary human life” (Hungerford 377), even before any system or History. And, in reality, the rhetoric of this “ordinary human life” is the synthesis of a moral perspective which tackles, more properly, human survival before all and any pressure of the world.
Don DeLillo is one of the contemporary authors who better represents and dramatizes a variety of social and political phenomena which the reader themself has to (and can) reflect on. Breaking with literary representations of bohemia, love and stoicism “to find deep textures” (6) in The Names, James and his peers focus themselves on the worship of the due “skills” of contemporary life: “We were versed in percentages, safety records, in the humor of flaming death. We knew which airline’s food would double you up, which routes connected well. . . . We knew which airports were efficient . . . [w]e told each other where you had to sign a legal document to get a drink, where you couldn’t eat meat on Wednesdays and Thursdays, where you had to sidestep a man with a cobra when you left your hotel” (6-7). These businessmen, these freemarket players, do not fulfill personal desires. They play and focus on the distance provided by documents, bureaucracy and institutional secrets. There will always be business and politics, and in such a way that will maintain these men, these players, simultaneously in transition (6) and in the middle (98), like athletes who run the relay race, in sport events; systemic athletes, running in circles inside the closed track of the “System” on the name of an American hegemony that seems not to survive the test of the “real world”. As Anne Longmuir suggests: “contact with non-Western cultures forces DeLillo’s business travellers, like the American officials involved with the hostage crisis, to recognize ‘truth’ as a function of culture” (117).
In fact, Don DeLillo is a novelist, let us say, a “systems novelist,” who presents himself as justly lucid about his circumstances: even though DeLillo problematizes and deconstructs socio-political systems (and subsystems), he understands that he too is inside them. One of the aspects that define the open systems is “constraint.” Ultimately, in DeLillo’s vision, the idea of the individual who withdraws or goes outside institutions is of no importance. The individual lives in the entanglement which is the “System.” And it is from its interior that the individual can put information into (his) perspective, the rules. DeLillo executes a work that inspires the reader to live the reality with responsibility (Underworld 82), meditating on the systems that communicate with him. Don DeLillo’s “prescience” surprises his readers: as he recognized over thirty years ago, American “neocolonialism” would result into violent repercussions (Longmuir 107).
In effect, a punishing bullet hits the story of The Names. The attack, whether on James’s life or whether on David’s, is an attack on a “System”: more concretely, the American “System.” The question of the individual is thus neutralized. Displaying a perennial attitude (43), in circumstances of predatory investment (Giaimo 67), contributing with his share in systemic collateral damages, James Axton is metamorphosed into the Other, in the eyes of a terrorist, “Axton’s face is not his own at that moment, but one shared with all Americans: bankers, businessmen, and spies” (Foster 169). Don DeLillo confronts the reader, before The Names’s epilogue, with uncertainty about the target of the attempt of murder. In truth, it is a discussion of no importance. Both James and David are technocrats with a rather dense networking, in a world that is considered through this one expression: “How big the world is…. It’s one big tangled thing” (322-23).
More than 30 years after the publication date of The Names, it is easily recognizable that this novel that has generated an outstanding amount of criticism. Nowadays, our world knows a little more about the operations and the machinations of economic systems that try to enact a closed logic. The world is waking up and falling asleep to the news of terrorist attacks, of technological and environmental disasters, of the instability of markets, plus of a growing lethargy relatively to local and global political action. If the reader is to alter the world, then don’t blame the players right from the beginning: The Names can become a sort of map which is, in synthesis, the only card (or trump) that one has to play if we are not to be lost even more.
Bertalanffy, Ludwig Von. General Systems Theory: Foundations, Development, Applications. New York: Braziller, 1968.
Delillo, Don. The Names. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
—. Underworld. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Easton, David. “An Approach to the Analysis of Political Systems.” World Politics 9.3 (1957): 383-400.
Foster, Dennis A. “Alphabetic Pleasures: The Names.” Introducing Don DeLillo. Ed. Frank Lentricchia. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. 157-73.
Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon, 1978.
Giaimo, Paul. Appreciating Don DeLillo: The Moral Force of a Writer’s Work. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011.
Hungerford, Amy. “Don DeLillo’s Latin Mass.” Contemporary Literature 47.3 (2006): 343-80.
LeClair, Thomas. In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1987.
Longmuir, Anne. “The Language of History: Don DeLillo’s The Names and the Iranian Hostage Crisis.” Critique 46.2 (2005): 105-22.
–Jaime M. M. Soares
Recent and Upcoming DeLillo News
- In October 2016, The Guardian reported that White Noise is to be adapted for the big screen by Michael Almereyda.
- “The Body Artist,” a conference on DeLillo’s work was held at the New School, New York, April 28-28, 2017. Featured keynote speakers included Vince Passaro, Scott Cheshire, Ed Park, Albert Mobilio, and Jacqueline Zubeck.
Don DeLillo Society News
Despite DeLillo’s own well-publicized aversion to social media, the Don DeLillo Society now has a Facebook page. You’ll find links to reviews, interviews, and all kinds of DeLillo-related news, as well as a space for discussion. Please “like” us! As Jesse Kavadlo notes in this issue, “Likes feel good!”
A Note from the Editor
I’d like to offer thanks to all those who contributed material to this issue of the newsletter.
If you’d like to send comments, reviews, or short articles for the next issue of the newsletter, please email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org (deadline: January 15, 2018).
Sam Fuhrer is a 25-year-old songwriter living in Los Angeles. He runs an eCommerce based standing desk store called Stand While Working. He will be releasing his debut album this spring, recorded in the Catskill Mountains with renowned producers, Simone Felice and David Baron. Sam graduated from Muhlenberg College ’13, studying theater and neuroscience.
Jesse Kavadlo is President of the Don DeLillo Society and a Professor of English and Director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Maryville University in St. Louis. He is the author of American Popular Culture in the Era of Terror: Falling Skies, Dark Knights Rising, and Collapsing Cultures (featuring chapters analyzing Falling Man and Cosmopolis); Don DeLillo: Balance at the Edge of Belief; and he is co-editor of Michael Chabon’s America: Magical Words, Secret Worlds, and Sacred Spaces.
Anne Longmuir (DDS Newsletter Editor) is an Associate Professor of English at Kansas State University. She completed a Ph.D. on the fiction of Don DeLillo at the University of Edinburgh in 2003 and has published articles on DeLillo’s work in Critique, Modern Fiction Studies, Journal of Narrative Theory, and Modern Language Studies.
Jaime M. M. Soares works at CETAPS (Centre for English, Translation, and Anglo-Portuguese Studies) as a Junior Researcher, after being awarded a trainee scholarship by ALB (Associação Luso-Britânica). He holds a Master’s degree in Anglo-American Studies (Literature and Culture) after writing his dissertation entitled “’O meu nome é Abecedariano’: mistério, ritual e sistemas em The Names, de Don DeLillo”. Fields of interest: Modernism; Postmodernism; Politics; Philosophy; Religion; Cinema; Computer Science.