From the President
Don DeLillo, Living Writer
This article was cross-posted with my blog, Hourman: Cultural Analysis on 60 Minutes or Less, under a different title.
While it seems impossible to believe, some people don’t know who Don DeLillo is; or, as I say to students, he’s the most famous author they’ve never heard of.[i] And many of those people, including my non-academic acquaintances—yes, I have some—presume that Don DeLillo is dead. They’re surprised that he’s not.
Their assumption raises a few interesting problems for teachers and scholars of living authors. The first is the notion that the only authors worth studying must come from a previous era, a line of reasoning that English Departments discarded decades ago but that the general public may not have. Not that they don’t read, or even prefer, living authors themselves, but that living authors don’t produce Literature, only books, and ideally bestsellers. We can’t, in this line of thinking, really know an author’s place, value, or contribution in his or her own lifetime, as though authorship were akin to sainthood.
The second is what I think of as the Back to School Problem. If you’ve seen the movie (1986), Rodney Dangerfield (who is, in fact, now dead) plays his usual self-deprecating schlub. In the words of IMDB’s tagline, “To help his discouraged son get through college, a funloving and obnoxious rich businessman decides to enter the school as a student himself.” When Dangerfield’s character needs to write a paper on the novels of Kurt Vonnegut (who is also now dead), he hires Vonnegut himself to do the work (link warning: offensive language). The cameo alone is funny, but the punchline is that Dangerfield fails the paper, not just because the professor knows right away that someone else wrote it, but also because “whoever did write [this paper] doesn’t know the first thing about Kurt Vonnegut.”
The joke, as usual I suppose, is on the professor, who, we understand through dramatic irony, only thinks she is an authority on Vonnegut’s work. Or worse, she (unknowingly) believes that she knows Vonnegut better than he knows himself. Despite decades of reader response theory and deconstruction, despite cases where authors themselves have claimed not to have understood what at they wrote at the time, despite authors admitting only a hazy notion of how their work would be interpreted, in the popular mind, the author is still the best, and maybe only, authority on his or her work. Shakespeare can’t tell you that your, say, Lacanian readings of Hamlet weren’t what he intended. Well, how could they have been? And contemporary critics understand that intentions are not the only point—if not beside the point entirely. But Don DeLillo can still tell you that your, say, ecocritical reading of White Noise isn’t what he intended. Or, as he has suggested in interviews, that he never reads critical or literary theory. And, unlike, Back to School, it would not be a joke. If students worry that they’re not entitled to form opinions on Shakespeare because his work is centuries old, endlessly discussed, and firmly canonical, they can feel equally constrained by the living author, because they can still be proven wrong, if the author only says so.
Which takes me to my final problem. DeLillo, unlike, say JD Salinger (who died only recently), is not only alive but still prolific. The last decade alone has produced The Body Artist, Cosmopolis, Falling Man, Point Omega, and the new collection of short stories, compiled from 1979-2011, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories. This work alone could be the envy of many authors—consider that in about the same time, Jonathan Franzen produced a single novel, Freedom; in only a little less time, Jeffery Eugenides wrote The Marriage Plot.[ii] So in addition to what I see as the indisputably Great Novels—White Noise, Libra, and Underworld—such an output is astonishing.
And these works can’t help but change how I read DeLillo now. Point Omega is almost the anti-Underworld (Overworld?), so sparse and imagistic as to be nearly inscrutable. If Underworld overwhelms readers, Point Omega underwhelms them, by design. Libra is often read as speculative fiction, a conspiracy-minded counter-narrative to the prevailing Kennedy history. But rather than taking on what could have been a similar approach to 9/11, DeLillo completely eschews paranoia in Falling Man, surrendering his anointment as chief shaman of the paranoid school of literature. And Angel Esmeralda, for me, provides the greatest pause. Perhaps I shouldn’t admit that I had never read the first story “Creation,” published in 1979, but reading it now reveals a writer interested in mixing breezy eroticism into his usual—and now, arguably since White Noise, semi-suspended—absurdist, black humor.
Overall, what the collection—and the past decade’s work—demonstrates is an author who is unrepentantly alive, in all senses of the word: animated, energetic, relevant, and changing. It gives the reader a lot to live up to, and much to look forward to as well.
[i] Chances are that this isn’t even true, since many have not heard of Joyce or Faulkner or even Austen, but I like the line.
[ii] Not that these aren’t great achievements, I hasten to add, since Franzen and Eugenides are alive and likely to get annoyed at such comparisons.
— Jesse Kavadlo
Calls for Papers
“Riddled with Epiphanies”: DeLillo, New York, April 20-21, 2012, College of Mount Saint Vincent, Riverdale (Bronx) New York
2nd Literary Conference devoted to the work of Don DeLillo
“‘Riddled with Epiphanies’: DeLillo, New York” is a conference based on conversation. Presenters’ abstracts will be circulated amongst the participants, organized according to subject matter, and summarized during the conference itself. We are looking to foster an atmosphere of intellectual play and a kind of collaborative inquiry long known to the sciences. In foregoing the customary model of twenty-minute presentations, we hope to create a more lively atmosphere—a cross between a workshop and brainstorming session—which we hope will foster a fruitful dialogue about DeLillo’s work and inspire more scholarship on his work. Thus, we encourage fully developed work on the author as well as more tentative projects.
The College of Mount Saint Vincent is especially beautiful in the spring, with its rolling- hills campus and flowering trees, sitting on a broad expanse of the Hudson River. It is located in the very northwest corner of the Bronx, a stone’s throw from Westchester County (Yonkers). It is a short distance to DeLillo’s old neighborhood in the Bronx and very close to Manhattan as well. Accessible by all forms of public transportation as well as by car (right off the Henry Hudson Parkway), the Mount is a perfect venue for this event.
See Call for Papers for further information.
Recent DeLillo News
On November 15, 2011, Simon & Schuster published The Angel Esmeralda, a collected edition of a number of DeLillo’s previously published short stories.
David Cronenberg’s adaptation of Cosmopolis is now in post-production, and slated for release in 2012.
Granta published a short interview with DeLillo in the Winter 2012 issue.
— Anne Longmuir
Don DeLillo, Norman Mailer, Stephen King, and Lee Harvey Oswald: Notes on a pair of letters from the Ransom Center Archive
Stephen King’s most recent best-seller, 11/22/63, recounts the narrative of a time-traveling English teacher on a mission to prevent the Kennedy assassination. In making his protagonist an English teacher, King suggests a self-conscious continuity between himself and the many other American writers who have applied their artistry to the challenge of comprehending this historical calamity. Two of the most prominent novelists in this category are certainly Norman Mailer and Don DeLillo, who have both turned their attention to the figure of Lee Harvey Oswald. Mailer’s 1995 novel Oswald’s Tale is a mixture of research, dramatic reenactment, and speculation that arrives at the conclusion that Oswald acted independently, while DeLillo’s 1988 Libra, a more straight-forwardly fictionalized account, plays with the possibility that Oswald was manipulated by a loose conspiracy to simulate an assassination attempt. Although Oswald’s Tale and Libra differ in ways that underscore the dramatic differences between these two writers, their attraction toward the assassination as a novelistic subject reflects an underlying affinity between these two chroniclers of American dysfunction and disaster.
This affinity in the artistic temperaments of Mailer and DeLillo exists alongside a personal affinity the two writers express toward one another in a pair of letters included in the archives of the Ransom Center Archive. Several letters between Mailer and DeLillo are included in the archive, but, to the best of my knowledge, Don’s letter to Norman in praise of Oswald’s Tale (dated 5/1/1995) and Norman’s response to Don (5/9/1995) constitute the only instance of a call-and-response dialogue on a specific topic. Both letters brim with their respective authors’ fascination with the intricate and well-worn details of the case, while simultaneously reflecting each author’s own characteristic approach to the material. DeLillo’s letter begins with words of gratitude for a signed copy of Oswald’s Tale that Norman had sent to DeLillo, followed by admiration for the vividness with which Mailer presents the fruits of his research into declassified KGB files in Russia and Belarus. Specifically, DeLillo praises Mailer’s book for having filled out more completely the impression of Oswald’s story that DeLillo himself had staged in Libra. DeLillo’s comment that “I found myself seeing the book to some degree as an Orwellian morality tale (‘Orwell’s Tale’) about an ordinary man under unremitting state surveillance” echoes DeLillo’s Lee’s reflections in Libra as he sits in the brig at Atsugi: “This was history out of Orwell, the territory of no-choice” (100). DeLillo goes on to read Mailer’s account of Oswald in Minsk as a validation of his portrait in Libra of Lee as someone whose inner life aligns magically with the forces gathering around him. “The horrible irony,” DeLillo proposes to Mailer, “is that all this bugging and tailing and close observation, on both sides of the cold war rampart, turned out in the end to be justified.” Oswald turned out to really be the double agent he was mistakenly suspected of being, or, as Dave Ferrie tells Lee in Libra, “They devise a plan, you fit it perfectly” (330). DeLillo is conflating Mailer’s KGB as described in Oswald’s Tale with his own depiction of the CIA operatives who manipulate Lee in Libra when he suggests to Mailer that Oswald’s legal defense would probably have been that “they made him do it.” It is a clear indication of the Rorschach quality of the Kennedy assassination and everything associated with it that DeLillo is able to read the somewhat dry and plodding Oswald’s Tale as a supplement to his own complex dramatization of the event.
There are, however, some points of disagreement between the two authors. The most pointed objection DeLillo raises regarding Mailer’s account comes at the end of a paragraph that lauds Mailer for demystifying Oswald’s time in Russia. Mailer clearly demonstrates that Oswald was no tool of the Soviet government, “But I still have trouble accepting,” DeLillo ventures, “that [the KGB] wouldn’t have had an intimate chat with a fellow who worked at Atsugi.” Indeed, DeLillo depicted such an intimate chat in Libra when Alek grills Lee on his impression of Francis Gary Powers’s testimony. This is the only quibble DeLillo expresses in his letter, but true to his combative persona, Mailer takes up DeLillo’s challenge, and the vast majority of Mailer’s letter in response is a vigorous insistence that no such intimate chat ever occurred. Something like eighty percent of Mailer’s letter consists of a single paragraph in which Mailer supports his account of events. Mailer writes that he began his research with the “absolute conviction” that the KGB debriefed Oswald on Atsugi, but that, as he became more familiar with KGB psychology, he came to understand that the post-Stalinist KGB was a culture concerned more with individual job security than with geopolitical gamesmanship, and that formally debriefing Oswald would have involved occupational and bureaucratic risks that no one wanted to take. The KGB was confident that it possessed sufficient intelligence on Atsugi and, moreover, as Oswald’s Tale does vividly demonstrate, Oswald was kept under such intensive surveillance that he was constantly being debriefed “unwittingly.” Mailer’s lengthy response to DeLillo’s skepticism is a blend of verbosity, bombast, defensiveness, and boastful confidence in his own intuition into the psychology of the organization man; in short, it is vintage Mailer.
Another, subtler point of disagreement involves the subject of a “second shooter.” Both writers articulate a qualified acceptance that Oswald acted alone, but the manner in which they frame this judgment differs in ways that are emblematic of the typical attitudes that characterize each writer. DeLillo proposes a postmodern historiographical model reminiscent of the experience of Nicholas Branch, the archivist in Libra charged with composing the “secret history” of the assassination, who can never arrive at any final conclusion because of the infinite variety of evidence that continues to reshape the “truth” of the assassination. “As to whether there was a second shooter, the force of history right now seems to tend against, but that will change, and then will change again.” For DeLillo, the meaning of the assassination is an open-ended human project. Despite the assertion in the title of Gerald Posner’s influential defense of the lone-gunman hypothesis, Case Closed, DeLillo suggests that the Oswald case, like the “case” of history itself, is never closed, but is continually reconfigured through the kaleidoscope of the present. Mailer also admits room for ambiguity, but his response to DeLillo’s comment dispenses with the pomo flim-flam and casts Mailer himself in the role of historical bloodhound on the scent of a foundational truth. “As for the second shooter, let’s discuss that too. My mind is not closed on that either although, as you can see, I lean to Oswald alone.”
King employs a quotation from Oswald’s Tale as an epigraph to 11/22/63: “It is virtually not assimilable to our reason that a small lonely man felled a giant in the midst of his limousines, his legions, his throng, and his security. If such a non-entity destroyed the leader of the most powerful nation on earth, then a world of disproportion engulfs us, and we live in a universe that is absurd” (Mailer 198, King x). The epigraph is appropriate, for both King and Mailer’s books are attempts to counteract the absurdity of the assassination. 11/22/63 does so by portraying the past as “obdurate” – the Kennedy assassination was meant to happen, and the protagonist’s attempts to save the President are not only resisted by the force of universal inertia, but also, upon being successful, bring about a present that is a nuclear wasteland. Mailer’s statement in his letter that he went to Moscow and Minsk under the working assumption that he would find evidence of a formal arrangement between Oswald and the KGB suggests that he originally imagined that his novel would save the universe from absurdity by elevating the figure of Oswald to a stature worthy of the world-historical significance of his deed. If Oswald had shared some kind of dark understanding with the Soviet Organs, it would help to recast him from simply a “small lonely man” into the figure of international intrigue that Oswald imagined himself to be. While combing through endless transcripts of Oswald and Marina’s domestic quarrels, Mailer must have gradually come to the sinking awareness that the Oswald he was uncovering was someone who had less in common with such Mailerian heroes as Gary Gilbert, Stephen Rojack, and the White Negro than with DeLillo’s evanescent protagonists such as Jack Gladney, Bill Gray, and Nick Shay. Indeed, one might attribute the half-hearted nature of the second half of Mailer’s book, a collage of primary and secondary sources quoted at length throughout which Mailer recedes into the role of a “literary usher who is there to guide each transcript to its proper place on the page” (352), as an admission that Mailer himself grew weary of his project upon discovering that Oswald’s tale was obdurately absurd, mocking any attempts to transfigure it into tragedy. During the rest of his career, Mailer would turn his novelistic attention to more worthy figures of biography, such as Jesus, Hitler, and himself.
Mailer’s Oswald, to the extent that he has any literary dimension, is DeLillo’s Oswald, a figure memorably described in impeccably DeLillian terms at the end of DeLillo’s letter, the final full paragraph of which reads, “The man endlessly scrutinized by the instruments of state security. This is where Oswald tends to resemble a Beckett character improbably dosed with politics. He’s Krapp’s last tape as it was recorded by the KGB without his knowledge.” DeLillo is able to get closer to the phenomenology of Lee Harvey Oswald than Mailer because he is willing to embrace the absurdity of the assassination (and, correspondingly, of contemporary reality) and also because his novelistic project is more porous, more fluid, and more oneiric than Mailer’s devotion to the historical record will allow him to be. Libra replaces the binary choice posed in Oswald’s Tale between tragedy and absurdity with a motif of intersecting lines – forces of chance and fate, alienation and embeddedness, solipsism and engagement – interacting in uncanny ways.
DeLillo, Don. Libra. NY: Penguin, 1988. Print.
Henderson, Cathy, et al. “Mailer Takes on America: Images from the Ransom Center Archive.”
The Mailer Review 1.1, 2007. 141-175. Print.
King, Stephen. 11/22/63. NY: Scribner, 2011. Print.
Mailer, Norman. Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery. NY: Random House, 1995. Print.
Both letters are reproduced in Henderson, et al., pp 171-174.
— Randy Laist
Don DeLillo and Paul Auster at Barnes & Noble, New York City
Don DeLillo appeared at the Union Square Barnes & Noble in NYC, following the publication of Angel Esmeralda. He was joined by Paul Auster and both authors read from the latest Granta entitled Horror—DeLillo from “The Starveling” and Auster from “Your Birthday Has Come and Gone.” John Freeman, an editor of Granta, “interviewed” the writers, but the three abreast seating arrangement seemed to create a certain awkwardness, and instead of speaking to each other, the writers had to talk through Freeman. After the standing-room-only presentation, both authors prepared to sign books for attendees. After waiting almost two hours, I finally approached, and asked DeLillo to sign my new Angel Esmeralda and the actor’s copy of Love-Lies-Bleeding that I had brought along. I reminded him of the first DeLillo conference at Rutgers University in the Spring of 1998 and to inform him of the upcoming conference in April 2012. I gave him a copy of the early poster/cfp and the information about the 2012 version as well. “Thank you very much,” he said.
— Jacqueline Zubeck
Don DeLillo Society News
In Fall 2012, the Don DeLillo Society held elections for a number of its officer positions. The finals results were as follows:
- President: Jesse Kavadlo, Maryville University of St. Louis.
- Secretary: Paul Giaimo, Highland Community College.
- Treasurer: Andrew Strombeck, Wright State University.
- Bibliographer: Karim Daanoune, Université de Bordeaux III.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank to our former President, Mark Osteen, and former Secretary, Marni Gauthier, for their outstanding contribution to DeLillo studies and to the DDS over the years. Thanks also to Matt King for staying on as listserv editor and to Phil Nel for continuing to act as our webmaster.
— Anne Longmuir
A Note from the Editor
Also usual, I’d like to extend thanks to all those who contributed to this edition of the newsletter. The continuing interest generated by the newsletter proves definitively that—as Jesse Kavadlo notes—neither DeLillo nor interest in his work is dead. And if any are still in doubt, the organization of a second conference devoted to the Don DeLillo surely signals the continuing vitality of scholarship on his work, produced both inside and outside of the academy. The conference promises to be a lively, stimulating event, and I’d like to take this opportunity to encourage all DDS members to submit paper or panel proposal. Finally, I’d also like to thank Jackie Zubeck for putting the conference together: without her effort and hard work, it would not be have been possible.
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: September 7th, 2012).
— Anne Longmuir
Jesse Kavadlo is the new President of the Don DeLillo Society and an Associate Professor of English at Maryville University in St. Louis. He received his Ph.D. in English from Fordham University in the Bronx (DeLillo’s alma mater) and has written a book, Don DeLillo: Balance at the Edge of Belief, as well as essays about DeLillo in Studies in Popular Culture, Academic Exchange Quarterly, Critique, and Don DeLillo (Bloom’s Major Novelists). He’s also written about Chuck Palahniuk, contemporary fiction, scholarship of teaching and learning, writing centers, and television and film. Read his blog, Hourman: Cultural analysis in 60 minutes or less.
Randy Laist is Professor of English at Goodwin College. He is the author of Technology and Postmodern Subjectivity in Don DeLillo’s Novels, the editor of Looking for Lost: Critical Essays on the Enigmatic Series, and the author of numerous articles on literature, popular culture, and pedagogy.
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, and Journal of Narrative Theory.
Dr. Jacqueline Zubeck is an Assistant Professor of English at the College of Mount Saint Vincent. She teaches “Core” classes in writing and literature, and is happily teaching an entire class on Don DeLillo this Spring, 2012. Zubeck has published articles on Dostoevsky, Flannery O’Connor, and DeLillo. She is completely enthused about the upcoming DeLillo Conference, “‘Riddled with Epiphanies’: DeLillo, New York” and is happy to report that the event is eliciting a great deal of interest.