From the President
“A Successful DeLillo Adaptation? Never Ever”
A Jaimais (Never Ever; 2016), based on The Body Artist, remains only the second film adaptation of a Don DeLillo novel, after 2012’s Cosmopolis. If Cosmopolis never benefitted from wide release and remains mostly underappreciated (Rotten Tomatoes Audience score: 31%, even though I loved it), then Never Ever fared even worse, lacking Cosmopolis’s big names, Robert Pattinson straight off his Twilight fame, and director David Cronenberg. Never Ever seems to have flown almost entirely under the radar, and those who did see it did not care for it; it has no score and only four reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, two of which are scathing, and a 4.8 of 10 on IMDB. For a writer who has so many stated film influences (Antonioni, Godard, and Truffaut), has incorporated film into so many novels (Americana, Underworld, and in different ways, Running Dog and Libra), and for so much of his career seemed directly in tune with the currents of popular culture, DeLillo—unlike, say, Cormac McCarthy—has not made the jump from page to screen.
Now having seen Never Ever, I think I understand why. In many ways, Never Ever is a remarkably faithful, DeLillo-esque adaption of The Body Artist—and that’s the very problem. Certainly actors Mathieu Amalric as Rey and Julia Roy as Laura are well cast and apt, especially considering that, as usual, DeLillo does not give a casting director much visual description to go on. The film, in keeping with the novel, manages to compress their rapid courtship, marriage, and love—and Rey’s death—into under 15 minutes of screen time. So far, so faithful.
And yet, what for me works as the quick shock of loss in the novel, since the reader learns of Rey’s death though a chapter that is obituary after just one scene, fizzles on screen. On the one hand, it feels rushed in the film—why should we care about a character’s death when we’ve barely seen him? Yet at the same time, on the other hand it is also somehow too long—if the character’s death is pivotal, why not open with it, as movies from Citizen Kane on have done? That his death is also off screen and ambiguous is again in keeping with the book yet, for most conventional viewers, it doesn’t make dramatic sense. DeLillo’s novel shows, rather than tells, the closeness, then death, then mourning, leaving an adaptation stuck between choosing whether to tell or remain vague—or in this case, somehow, doing both.
I had been concerned about dialogue, since I was not able to watch a subtitled version and took only one semester of French, but my lack of fluency was almost never an impediment: much of the movie is eerily silent, with little to no extra-diegetic music or sound for more than a third of it. Given Laura’s lengthy solitude, the film contains no dialogue for long stretches, including the first five minutes, and then even longer to show Laura wiling away her time in the big house, made bigger by Rey’s absence. Afterward, dialogue is often whispered and murmured to better convey the plot’s strangeness, the possibility of the numinous, and Laura’s subsequent uncertainty. Again, the attempt to capture on film what DeLillo’s does with language turns DeLillo’s mediation on time and loss into a simple and inert ghost story.
DeLillo’s moody, atmospheric strangeness on film feels flatter, a small story rather than an intimate one, and the attempt to represent what DeLillo does on the page—inhabit Laura’s mental and emotional states, even as she is able to transform them through her art—seems simply silent and empty. Nearly all of the action and conflict in The Body Artist are internal, yet they must be rendered external to be filmable. When Laura and Rey eat breakfast at their table, as they do early in the novel and in the film, DeLillo is able to suffuse every word with portent and portentousness, whereas the film just shows a couple eating breakfast. The novel’s later silence is of course conveyed through words, whereas in the film silence is just silence in a medium that values sound. Laura is emotional restless but physically inert in the novel, but the film suggests only her stillness, conveyed by the film’s frequently static camera at odds with our era of frenetic cinematography. Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis potentially had some of these same problems to contend with, but that film has a black-comic heart with an icy sheen. Never Ever, correctly, and to its credit, attempts heat, through sex, then warmth, through demonstrative longing, but it never quite works. It is finally when the film indeed breaks sharply from the novel (in a way I won’t reveal) here that it becomes most interesting.
Never Ever is, then, in many ways, a faithful adaptation, but not a successful film. What’s worse, I’m concerned that being a faithful DeLillo adaptation may be the very reason it is not a successful film. But we will learn more soon: a Zero K television adaptation is in production, headed by Noah Hawley, the person responsible for the faithful-and-successful TV continuation of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo and the quasi-faithful-and-quasi-successful quasi-superhero adaptation Legion as well as someone who seems to understand DeLillo deeply. Maybe television is sufficiently different medium, so it will work better this time. Or maybe Noah Hawley has already learned one of the basic, if ironic, lessons of adaption studies: a good adaptation is not necessarily a faithful one, and a faithful adaptation is not necessarily a good one.
“I think of Artis”: Jeffrey Lockhart as Embedded Author within Don DeLillo’s Zero K
Graley Herren’s recent article about narrative techniques in Underworld (1997) has inspired me to think about the narrative technique of Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Zero K (2016)—and particularly about the relationship of its protagonist and narrator, Jeffrey Lockhart, to the short monologue that is the novel’s interlude, “ARTIS MARTINEAU.”
As you might recall, Herren claims that DeLillo “is the sole author of [Underworld], but he is not the sole author within it. Rather, a separate character, distinct from DeLillo, functions as the creative agency behind the story of what happened on [October 3, 1951],” which is the day the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson hit a game-winning home run against the Brooklyn Dodgers to win the National League pennant (450; italics original). Herren suggests that it is Nick Shay who invented the chapters about Cotter and Manx Martin, which chronicle the events of October 3 (including how Cotter catches Thomson’s homer—only to have his deadbeat dad, Manx, steal and then sell it). Nick creates this story not only to account for the missing day in the ball’s history, but also to understand his relationship with his own deadbeat dad, who abandoned the Shay family when Nick was a boy. The process of authoring the Martin story gives Nick the representational strategies to discard his criminal past and construct a new story for his life. In other words, DeLillo embeds a story within Underworld to illustrate the transformative power of fictional thinking for the writer himself.
At first glance, Zero K may not seem related to the discussion about the power of fiction. In its depiction of the Convergence, a subterranean compound in Kazakhstan that houses a cryopreservation facility, Zero K deals with DeLillo’s familiar themes of death, media, and technology. Jeffrey Lockhart is not a writer by trade, but instead holds positions in the corporate world and at a university as a compliance and ethics officer. Nor is Jeffrey much of a reader. Although he tries to read “a lengthy and intense European novel” (26), his endeavor is one of several unsuccessful attempts “to steep” himself in literature (102). Despite his lack of formal training, though, Jeffrey understands the power of words, and he thinks like a writer, as his habit for naming people and giving them backstories is testament to. As a boy, Jeffrey had taught himself new words by searching the dictionary, and he develops his use of language by trying to define abstract concepts and ordinary objects without looking up their definitions. Jeffrey also perceives the power of language to shape his identity: “Bessarabian, penetralia, pellucid, falafel. I saw myself in these words,” he explains (107). Jeffrey’s interest in language, therefore, is not an ornamental detail in Zero K. Rather, it serves an important purpose, qualifying Jeffrey to assume the role of an author and invent the short monologue, “ARTIS MARTINEAU.”
Situated between the two main parts of the narrative, the six-page interval “ARTIS MARTINEAU” is focalized through the consciousness of its namesake, Artis, whose body has been interred in a cryogenic pod to be preserved until scientists can devise the technology to achieve her cyber-resurrection. The section’s sparse, restricted, almost fragmentary prose seems to render the inchoate thoughts of Artis’s mind as it is awakening from cryogenic suspension. The section begins,
But am I who I was.
I think I am someone. There is someone here and I feel it in me or with me.
But where is here and how long am I here and am I only what is here. (157)
At first glance, Artis’s monologue seems to confirm that the Zero K procedure is a success. The way one of the unnamed leaders of the Convergence describes the procedure to eager patients closely resembles the style and content of the monologue:
First you will undergo the biomedical redaction, only a few hours from now. The brain-edit. In time you will re-encounter yourself. Memory, identity, self, on another level. This is the main thrust of our nanotechnology. . . . You will have a phantom life within the braincase. Floating thought. A passive sort of mental grasp. Ping ping ping. Like a newborn machine. (238)
Indeed, Artis’s internal monologue invites comparison to the Cartesian ghost in the machine. As Artis begins to awaken from her cryogenic sleep, she evokes Descartes’s famous philosophical proposition, cogito ergo sum, with statements like “I know that I am inside something. I am somebody inside this thing I am in” (159)—this thing referring, perhaps, to the cryogenic pod, or her body, or language itself.
In spite of the similarities between the Zero K procedure and Artis’s monologue, however, there’s evidence suggesting that the section “ARTIS MARTINEAU” is entirely fictitious; in other words, the section appears to be mimetic but is in fact diegetic. Although the section is placed in the middle of DeLillo’s novel, it’s distinguished from the rest of the novel by several formal differences. First, there’s a difference in orthography. The words “ARTIS MARTINEAU” are typed in ALL CAPS as if the title were printed on the cover of a book, setting off the section as a separate, self-contained work. In comparison, the titles for Parts One and Two, “In the Time of Chelyabinsk” and “In the Time of Konstantinovka,” respectively, follow the standard capitalization rules for titles, in which the articles and prepositions (except the initial preposition In) are lower-cased while the nouns are capitalized. None of the words in these titles are written in all uppercase letters. Second, there’s a difference in organization. The sections “In the Time of Chelyabinsk” and “In the Time of Konstantinovka,” in addition to having syntactically parallel titles, are identified as “Part One” and “Part Two.” In contrast, the section “ARTIS MARTINEAU” doesn’t feature such a description. Finally, there’s a difference in typography. In the section “ARTIS MARTINEAU,” the leading, or the vertical distance between successive lines of type, approximates the practice of double spacing on a word processor (or a typewriter) and is noticeably larger than the leading in Parts One and Two, which are single spaced. These formal differences between “ARTIS MARTINEAU” and the two sections flanking it suggest that the intervening segment is separate from the rest of the novel—separate in the sense that Artis’s internal monologue should be treated as a story within Zero K, one that’s authored by a separate character distinct from DeLillo himself.
There are several details in Zero K suggesting that Jeffrey has invented his stepmother’s internal monologue. It’s clear that Jeffrey and Artis have a special relationship, as their conversations at the Convergence reveal. In particular, her description of a previous ocular surgery that left her, momentarily, with a heightened sense of the “radiance in things” (46) has an especially profound influence on Jeffrey, even though he admits, “It was outside my range, all of it” (47). Throughout the novel, Jeffrey finds himself thinking about Artis, who’s entombed in a cryogenic pod. For example, late in the novel, when Jeffrey’s father, Ross, admits that his thoughts center on his wife, Jeffrey concurs: “Artis in the chamber. I think about her also, now and then, shaved and naked, standing and waiting. Does she know she’s waiting? Is she wait-listed? Or is she simply dead and gone, beyond the smallest tremor of self-awareness?” (203-4). The thought that Artis is “simply dead and gone” unsettles Jeffrey as much as her demonstration of unshakable faith in the Convergence to undergo cryogenic preservation in the first place.
But it’s the final pages of Zero K that provide the clearest indication that Artis’s monologue is fiction. After Jeffrey has returned to New York City from his second visit to the Convergence, he says,
I think of Artis in the capsule and try to imagine, against my firm belief, that she is able to experience a minimal consciousness. I think of her in a state of virgin solitude. No stimulus, no human activity to incite response, barest trace of memory. Then I try to imagine an inner monologue, hers, self-generated, possibly nonstop, the open prose of a third-person voice that is also her voice, a form of chant in a single low tone. (272)
Jeffrey’s description of his imaginary rendition of Artis in her cryogenic pod resembles the content and style of her internal monologue in the section “ARTIS MARTINEAU” in nearly every way. Not only does the monologue reflect Artis’s “minimal consciousness,” isolation, and “barest trace of memory,” but it’s also represented in both first- and third-person voices. Whereas the first lines of the monologue, which begins in medias res in a first-person voice, “But am I who I was,” some of the subsequent lines are italicized and are written in a third-person voice. For example:
She knows these words. She is all words but she doesn’t know how to get out of words into being someone, being the person who knows the words. (157)
She is first person and third person both. (158)
And the monologue’s final line: “On and on. Eyes closed. Woman’s body in a pod” (162). Devoid of question marks and even most commas, the monologue achieves the “nonstop,” “open prose” that Jeffrey imagines; repeating the same words and phrases (and at times entire sentences), it resembles the monophonic, monotonous rhythms and inflections of a Gregorian chant. But perhaps the most obvious sign Artis’s monologue is a fiction is that it foregrounds its own construction as a text: “I am made of words,” the speaker says (158), before asking a few pages later, “Am I someone or is it just the words themselves that make me think I’m someone” (160).
For Jeffrey, the practice of thinking about Artis becomes an exercise in compassion and reconciliation. He imagines that the Zero K procedure is a success and that his stepmother is conscious in her cryogenic sleep, even though this fiction violates his “firm belief” to the contrary. But this compassion for Artis becomes a means of personal transformation for Jeffrey. By generating a meaningful communion with Artis through his imaginary rendition of her cryogenic suspension, Jeffrey appears to invoke her ability to perceive the “radiance in things,” what she had called “the world as it truly looks … the reality we haven’t learned how to see” (46). The last chapter of Zero K, which begins on the page immediately following Jeffrey’s attempt to imagine Artis, suggests that Jeffrey has learned the ability to see the world in the way Artis had been able to—possibly by thinking about her in the way a writer thinks about one of his characters. The novel concludes with Jeffrey riding in a city bus, noticing “a glow, a tide of light” as an incandescent sun sets over Manhattan:
[T]he streets were charged with the day’s dying light and the bus seemed the carrier of this radiant moment. … It was a striking thing to see, in our urban huddle, the power of it, the great round ruddy mass. … The full solar disk, bleeding into the streets, lighting up the towers to either side of us, and I told myself that the boy was not seeing the sky collapse upon us but was finding the purest astonishment in the intimate touch of earth and sun. (273-74)
For a narrator who has been obsessed with the subterranean, interior spaces of the Convergence and the human consciousness, this ending—celestial, exterior, and celebrating the radiance in dailiness—is a testament to the transformative power of fictional thinking.
DeLillo, Don. Zero K. Scribner, 2016.
Herren, Graley. “‘The Martiniad’: Nick Shay as Embedded Author within Don DeLillo’s
Underworld,” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, vol. 56, no. 4, 2015, pp. 449-65.
Recent and Upcoming DeLillo News
DeLillo published a new story “The Itch” in the New Yorker (online & Aug 7-14, 2017 issue). Try to read it without scratching.
Johan Simons has adapted Cosmopolis as a work of music theater. It was performed at the Ruhrtriennale arts festival in September 2017.
A Note from the Editor
After ten years as the editor of the Don DeLillo Society newsletter, I’ve decided to step down from the position. In the past decade, I’ve had the privilege to enjoy editing and reading countless thought-provoking short essays on DeLillo’s work from the articulate and smart individuals who make up the Don DeLillo Society. I’d like to thank them all for having made this task so rewarding.
I’m also delighted to announce that Aaron DeRosa, an impressive scholar of DeLillo’s work, will be taking over as newsletter editor. Watch for a CFP for the next issue from Aaron very soon.
Aaron DeRosa is an assistant professor of twentieth and twenty-first C. American literature at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He is the coeditor MFS: Modern Fiction Studies’ special issue, “Enduring Operations: The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” and his scholarship has appeared in Arizona Quarterly, Studies in the Novel, LIT: Literature, Interpretation, Theory, and the LA Review of Books. His scholarship on Don DeLillo has appeared in Arizona Quarterly, 9/11: Topics in Contemporary American Literature, and forthcoming at Contemporary Literature. He is currently working on a manuscript titled This Book is Not For Sale: Advertising and American Fiction since 1945.
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.
Josh Privett is a third-year doctoral student at Georgia State University in metro Atlanta, where he studies post-1945 American literature and teaches freshman composition and upper-level grammar courses. He has presented conference papers on Don DeLillo’s fiction at the American Literature Association and the South Atlantic Modern Language Association, has published essays on Zadie Smith and Kurt Vonnegut, and has co-authored the student’s and teacher’s editions of a high school American literature anthology.