From the President: The Aura of Zero K
In what may be White Noise’s Most Discussed Passage, Murray Jay Siskind now famously describes the experience of visiting a tourist attraction known as The Most Photographed Barn in America. After “a prolonged silence,” Murray makes his portentous announcement:
“No one sees the barn,” he said finally.
A long silence followed.
“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.” (12)
As literary critics have noted over the decades since the novel was published, the seemingly simple passage enacts, among other things, the complex relationship between language and perception. Trying to see The Most Photographed Barn in America only adds to the “‘accumulation of nameless energies’” (12), absorbing the unnamed people who would put up the signs, or follow them, take pictures, or sell postcards. The passage implicates White Noise narrator Jack Gladney, listening silently (passively? approvingly? skeptically?); Murray, the critic and theorist, who feels, according to Jack, “immensely pleased by this”; the reader, who watches Jack observe Murray observe the people observe the phenomenon and reinforce “the aura” (12) of the barn; and even the literary critic, who examines the reader’s response to watching Jack observe Murray observe the people observe the phenomenon and take pictures of the barn. This is the barn that Jack built.
Zero K, Don DeLillo’s sixteenth novel, released in May 2016, has quickly become its own Most Photographed Barn: nearly every book review can’t help but treat DeLillo’s previous novels as the signs leading up to the new work’s appearance. In The Independent, Max Jliu leads by noting, “Don DeLillo has always been interested in death. His first novel, Americana (1971), was narrated by a TV executive who, at 28, was already obsessed with ageing. In White Noise (1985), a couple discussed who will die first, with the husband saying: ‘All plots tend to move deathward.’ That was true of Libra (1988), which approached the Kennedy assassination from the perspective of Lee Harvey Oswald.”
In his New York Times Book Review, Joshua Ferris names The Names (1982) in his second paragraph, while in the New York Review of Books, Nathaniel Rich decides that main character Ross Lockhart “is an immediately familiar DeLilloan character, a sibling of the television executive–turned–documentary filmmaker David Bell (Americana, 1971), the non-German-speaking Hitler academic Jack Gladney (White Noise, 1985), the freelance technical writer James Axton (The Names, 1982).”
In The Nation, Jon Baskin begins by observing that “Ever since Underworld, the 1997 book that marked the end of his ambitious middle period, Don DeLillo’s novels have been creepy, inconclusive, and short. Zero K, his 16th novel and a book that has the feel of a parting gesture, is no exception.” A review in USA Today immediately name checks “White Noise (1985) and Libra (1988) to Mao II (1991) and Underworld (1997).” And of course, with my introduction to this piece, I get to play Murray, commenting on commentary even as I am guilty of doing the same.
No one sees the barn.
Of course, that’s unfair. It might not even be accurate—it’s Murray’s self-satisfied observation, and his ideas grow increasingly suspicious as the novel goes on. In fact, some of the fun in reading Zero K is precisely the thrill of recognizing DeLillo’s recurrences. Death, of course, is everywhere, including the mix of commerce and apocalypse of the opening sentence (“Everybody wants to own the end of the world” ) down to a revision of White Noise’s “Who will die first?” marriage debate. Recalling critic David Cowart’s book title, Zero K again conveys “the physics of language,” including thoughts on the word “lunula” (108) that similarly occur in Cosmopolis (36). The novel emphasizes the feeling of “time compressed” (115), familiar from Point Omega, together with narrative and linguistic tightness to mirror DeLillo’s post-Underworld characters’ spatial and spiritual displacement—in The Body Artist, “people in landscapes of estrangement” (29). Plus, we witness the familiar-sounding names, and the recurring idea of naming itself: Ross Lockhart, linguistically similar to Jack Gladney, is another “false character that follows the name around” (White Noise 17), and in my head, I couldn’t help but refer to Ross’s second wife, Artis, as Body Artis.
How, then, can DeLillo scholars and critics read Zero K as more than a game, remix, or a White Noise-like mass of compacted signs, and a work in its own right? That, I feel, will be what will separate the scholarship to come over the next few years from the reviews cited, which, by necessity, were quickly written, without the requisite academic rereading, researching, and rethinking. For me, as always, DeLillo’s work is ripe for analysis and close reading, and scholars will find additional meaning, interpretation, and context within DeLillo’s own work, but also beyond it.
Murray concludes, “What did it look like, how was it different from other barns, how was it similar to other barns? We can’t answer these questions because we’ve read the signs, seen the people snapping the pictures. We can’t get outside the aura. We’re part of the aura. We’re here, we’re now” (13). It has been over thirty years since that passage was written. We are no longer in the Barn’s, or Murray’s—or DeLillo’s—same now. To quote Heinrich, another character in White Noise, “Is there such a thing as now? ‘Now’ comes and goes as soon as you say it’” (23). Heralded as one of our most prescient writers, DeLillo has always asked, and always complicated, what we mean by “here” and “now,” more so than ever in Zero K. Scholarship does not have to be another version of the camera’s “the incessant clicking of shutter release buttons” (White Noise 13) but, rather, it can provide the possibility of reading outside the road signs. To Murray Jay Siskind or detractors, scholarship can seem like mere “taking pictures of taking pictures” (13). Yet Murray’s self-satisfaction to the contrary, of course we can’t see the barn in a novel —DeLillo never represents it photographically, only verbally, on his page. Even figuratively, perhaps it’s possible to see that there can be many barns, Mao II-esque Warholian reproductions in many hues. Critics, then, do what we can to make the barn’s possibilities visible, not by selling postcards, but through imagination, thought, language, and time. Maybe it’s possible to see the barn after all. Or maybe we can even see beyond it. The same is true for Zero K.
DeLillo, Don. The Body Artist. New York: Scribner, 2001.
—. Cosmopolis. New York: Scribner, 2003.
—. Point Omega. New York: Scribner, 2010.
—. White Noise. New York: Penguin, 1985.
Reflections on a first reading of Zero K
In my current research I am interested in representations of the body in DeLillo’s fiction, from his debut novel Americana to the present. Faced with Zero K, a novel that centres on cryopreservation, I was aware that it might significantly change how I theorise DeLillo’s attitude to embodiment. Such a subject might bring to mind writers whose work grapples explicitly with future possibilities of the human, such as the near-future speculative fiction of Margaret Atwood, or Donna Haraway’s philosophical engagements with the posthuman. Yet on first reading I find more common threads leading back to DeLillo’s body of work than any expression of a break, or any radically new conception of selfhood.
The plot is focused tightly on Jeffrey Lockhart, a directionless man who accompanies his father Ross, a billionaire businessman, and stepmother Artis, to the eerie and isolated location of the “Convergence,” where they intend to have their bodies cryogenically frozen. What strikes me about a novel with an ostensibly sci fi subject is how un-futuristic it seems; this is a vision of the future that is strongly evocative of the past. The associations of cryonic preservation are inescapably retro, perhaps best known in popular culture through its most famous (while apocryphal) client, Walt Disney. The descriptions of the strange environment of the remote Convergence are a throwback to Cold War conceptions of technological spaces. For me, the setting resonates particularly with the 1971 film The Andromeda Strain, in which a group of scientists descend into a custom made lab facility to study a deadly and mutating alien life form. A substantial portion of the film is given over to their descent into the bowels of this structure; an unprecedentedly expensive set, all eyesore red decor, computerized interfaces, automated voices and blinking buttons. The compound in Zero K is also strongly evocative of the involuted and progressively complex setting of Ratner’s Star, a huge research complex in which work is underway to decipher a purported signal from outer space. In that novel the protagonist Billy travels down deeper into the building, in tandem with the progression of the plot into stranger and more surreal directions. Similarly in Zero K the environment plays an important affective role. The space of the compound is a maze of sealed compartments, doors leading to unknown spaces, and numbered levels. As Artis has made the decision to undergo the process of cryonic freezing, in Ross’s words, “there’s nothing left for her on this level” (99).
Throughout Zero K, Jeff’s scepticism about the project is unwavering. Jeff rejects the possibility of transcending one’s own biological death, but rather than representing an embodied certainty in the face of “faith based technology,” his own psychic position, the business of inhabiting a mortal body, feels little more secure (9). An untethering of self to space and place occurs in the strange environment of the Convergence. The facility is navigated by means of a number of “veers,” a kind of elevator that transports its occupants in an unnerving manner—perhaps sideways, perhaps diagonally—invoking a sense “of angled descent, the feel of being detached from our sensory apparatus, coasting in a way that was mental more than physical” (138). In this environment Jeff becomes cut off from his surroundings and from the physical world itself, in a way that eerily echoes his general inner state. Jeff repeatedly attempts to see himself manifest as a being in the world, enacted through language: “the room, the scant roomscape, wall, floor, door, bed, a monosyllabic image, this thing and that thing and the man in the chair” (271). A kind of blankness characterises this endeavour, and Jeff’s struggle to see himself is exacerbated further by his narcissism, to which there is a kind of facile, dark comedy. While exploring the facility he happens upon a mannequin, “naked, hairless, without facial features, […] There were breasts, it had breasts, and I stopped to study the figure, a molded plastic version of the human body, a jointed model of a woman. I imagined placing a hand on a breast. This seemed required, particularly if you are me” (24). This detail is telling of the mode in which Jeff navigates his surroundings, a mode marked by interiority and self-absorption.
Elsewhere in DeLillo’s fiction technology has been portrayed as profoundly interactive, enabling an opening up of the closed boundaries of the self. In Americana David Bell watches television, his “molecules mating with those millions of dots” (43), and at the conclusion of Underworld, Sister Edgar seems to become absorbed into the Internet in a strange, transcendent moment of sublimity. There is no such openness in Zero K. When Jeff finally descends to the cryonic storage facility and beholds the rows of frozen bodies housed in their pods in “structured ranks,” he sees “no lives to think about or imagine. This was pure spectacle, a single entity […] a form of visionary art, it was body art with broad implications” (256). These bodies seem unified in their loss of selfhood and individuality, but any possibility of inter-ontological connection suggested here is overwhelmed in the rest of the text by the protagonist’s profound interiority. Jeff is cast adrift, repeatedly attempting and failing to find meaning in relation to the other; he watches a woman with the thought that “she would not be real until I gave her a name” (72). Elsewhere he comes up against a fundamental, impassable sovereignty when regarding another member of the project; “Could I even try to imagine his life? Someone else’s life. Not even a minute. Even a minute is unimaginable. Physical, mental, spiritual. Not even the merest second. Too much is pledged into his compact frame” (126). These narrative threads raise questions about the nature of self and world, creating an unsettling undercurrent, a sense that anything outside the self is fundamentally unknowable, unreachable.
The subject matter of Zero K abuts against perceptions of death and the possibility of transcending it, but goes no further. The characters speculate on what can come after death but we are given no access to the eventual successes or failures of the project, deliberately cut off from this imagined future point. The uncertainty of the self is exacerbated by the short, strange, Beckettian middle section, a meditation on selfhood that is either Artis’s experience following successful cryonic preservation, or Jeff’s attempt to imagine what such an experience might be like. The looseness and fragmentation of this central part contrasts starkly with the rest of the novel, in which every sentence reflects DeLillo’s characteristic strictness and economy of language. The narrative does little to account for the mechanics of the freezing process, or the planned revival, repair, and reanimation of body and regeneration of consciousness. These processes are explained simply by “nanotechnology” (238). There is none of the intense research visible elsewhere in DeLillo’s work, in particular the engagement with the philosophy of mathematics in the dense and complex narrative of Ratner’s Star. Eschewing further engagement with technological details, the sci fi elements in Zero K invoke a sense of something ancient. There is talk of “medieval” foreboding (267) and of the “local lore” of the complex (258). Zero K’s subject is not a modern immortality but a meditation on an ancient kind of death. Similar to the “body art” of the preserved subjects (256), the first description of the complex in the novel’s opening, a structure partially embedded underground, is “an earthwork, a form of earth art, land art” (10). It is suggested that we view it in aesthetic terms, rather than for its use, and the bodies are similarly depicted, aligned more strongly with their aesthetic qualities than what they are there for.
A voracious desire to attain, to “own the end of the world” characterises Ross’s desire for immortality, becoming the logical extension of the businessman’s accruing of capital (3). Against this avarice we are presented with Jeff’s wonderful, evocative memories of his mother, that align her with an attention to the everyday and with the minutiae of domestic space. Jeff recalls the “unseeable texture of a life” (104) in his mother’s placement of a spoon, her use of a paper napkin, details through which he is able to see that “ordinary moments make the life” (109). This revelling in the mundane and the commonplace invokes a return to the celebration of “the surge and pelt of daily life” of The Names (269), and the “radiance in dailiness” with which DeLillo describes the project of White Noise (DePietro 70-71). In Zero K, through the speculative subject matter of transcending death, and the portrayal of Jeff, an interior selfhood in all its minutiae, its “drizzly details” (109), notions of selfhood and embodiment are presented as unstable categories threatened by uncertainty, and attempts at meaning making come up against unknowability, as “what we don’t know is what makes us human” (131). The central conceit of the cryogenic process is oddly blank and mysterious, a tool that is used as a way into the novel’s central subject: the matter of occupying a body in the world, and the problems and uncertainties that are inherent to any attempt to address this through language. The act of cryonic freezing, the journey into the unknown, is understood ultimately as a return to the body. As one disciple of the process puts it, “we will know ourselves as never before, blood, brain and skin” (130). Many of the markers of DeLillo’s style are pleasingly present in this novel—crowds, global conflict, even a signed baseball. Yet in Zero K I find, above all, a measured and philosophical reflection on selfhood and embodiment, complete with the necessary problems and contradictions of such an endeavour.
DeCurtis, Anthony. “‘An Outsider in This Society’: An Interview with Don DeLillo.” Conversations with Don DeLillo. Ed. Thomas DePietro. Jackson, MS: University of Mississippi Press, 2005. 70-1.
DeLillo, Don. Americana. London: Penguin, 1971.
—. Ratner’s Star. London: Vintage, 1992.
—. Underworld. London: Picador, 1997.
—. The Names. London: Picador, 1999.
—. Zero K. London: Picador, 2016.
Don DeLillo’s Players: “Embodied in Objects”
Don DeLillo writes about the power of things. An image, a phrase, a word, a letter. He notes the power of a name. The power of alphabets. He points out what is weighty, dense, overarching, oftentimes regarding things that may not seem critical at a first glance, or in the everyday flow of life. He brings to light the cosmic nature in ordinary things, of a pencil on a desk, a barn (or lack thereof), a tabloid magazine on a supermarket rack, a commercial. DeLillo understands that in waking life all things matter and have an inherent power to them.
DeLillo, in Falling Man (2007), has a character named Rumsey realize that “everything in his life would be different… if one letter in his name was different. An a for the u. Making him, effectively, Ramsey. It was the… rum that had shaped his life and mind, the way he walks and talks, his slouchings, his very size and shape… This would all be different if he were born a Ramsey” (149-150). In his 1977 novel Players, DeLillo begins to similarly explore the power of space and objects as he so fantastically has explored the power of names. DeLillo shows how a tangible item’s alignment in a room matters and has a profound effect on people. In Players, as in Falling Man, he does essentially the same thing, but with objects. Rather than exemplifying the power of a name, DeLillo exemplifies the power of an object in a room. He poses that, just like a name, if an object were changed (in dimension or in placement in a room) everything would be different. The world to that character, in the world of that moment, would be altered. If an apple were to sit on one table rather than another, would things really be the same?
In Players, Lyle Wynant shares an apartment in New York City with his wife Pammy. DeLillo immediately pays close attention to the apartment’s space and objects and how that alignment affects its inhabitants. For Lyle the “presence of his objects and their locations” is “supremely important” and “reassure[s] him” (26). Lyle “stack[s] coins on the dresser,” and uses his good ties “sparingly…preferring to see them hanging in the closet” (26). Beyond being humorous (which DeLillo is and does not get enough credit for) this habit implies that Lyle would rather have his good ties be a presence in the room than actually use them; that is, wear them. A room and its objects’ alignment is all “part of a breathtakingly intricate quest for order and elucidation, for an identity among the constituents of a system” (28), as DeLillo writes, whose fiction, in tandem with that of his coeval Thomas Pynchon, continually seeks order within chaos. Is not a room with objects in them simply a form of chaos seeking order? DeLillo sees the room as a “system” in quest for such an “order.” To put the book shelf on the left, or on the right? That is the question.
DeLillo also sees the room as a sense of a deeper, unconscious self. “Objects were memory inert…uniform cubes of being… their sweet mercenary space, was self-enchantment, the near common dream they’d countenanced for years” (54). DeLillo continues to write of the apartment space as a shared conscious when he writes of Lyle and Pammy: “Embodied in objects were a partial sense of their being” (53). Later in the novel Lyle “walk[s] through the apartment” and seems to take stock of his rooms, noticing “an airy span about the place, the re-distancing of objects about a common point” (88). The room is a chaotic system, in which, at this moment, Lyle finds the common orderly point. The passage goes on to touch on the idea of self as well, however. DeLillo writes of Lyle, “There was an evenness of feeling, a radial symmetry involving not so much his body and the rooms through which he passed but an inner presence and its sounding lines, the secret possibilities of self” (88). The rooms in his apartment reassert himself as a being as he walks through them, making him realize himself in a way, which is to say that he sees himself from a distance, as a man in a room with an identity, someone alive on this earth, all by the unique chaotic order of the room and of the objects that represent him.
A character warns Lyle at one point that “you have to be dependent on the environment to give you an awareness of yourself” (182). In other words: objects matter; your surroundings have a profound effect on you; and you ought to pay attention to them for your own sense of being. It makes sense then that DeLillo’s prose is celebratory when his characters do take stock of their rooms and objects, suggesting this warning is worth heeding. In a novel riddled with terror, death, and disaster, beauty emerges in the simple objects that surround the characters and create the rooms: “The apartment was serene. Objects sat in pale light, reborn. A wicker basket she’d forgotten they had. A cane chair… her memory in things” (204).
In contrast, there is also, of course, something prophetic at work when DeLillo writes of spaces that are too-large: “What…was the World Trade Center itself? Was it a condition, an occurrence, a physical event, an existing circumstance, a presence, a state, a set of invariables?” (48) Too large, no doubt, to define or articulate, too large to have an individualized effect at all on a person. And certainly too populated (with people and objects) to instill a sense of self from it at all. Small spaces and small rooms would become a motif of sorts in DeLillo’s sprawling revisionist JFK assassination novel Libra, and there are hints of it here in Players. There is a power to small spaces and to the small objects that speckle them, and even when dismissed regularly, they are already imprinted into our inner selves, defining who we are in ways we may not even control.
DeLillo, Don. Players. New York: Knopf, 1977.
—. Falling Man. New York: Scribner, 2007.
Don DeLillo: Fiction Rescues History, University Paris-Diderot, 18-20 February 2016
Fiction Rescues History, an international Don DeLillo conference held in Paris was one of those academic events which generates authentic scholarly excitement and the cordial collegiality which inspires another generation of critical work. DeLillo himself was not only present for the festivities, but talked at some length to a rapt audience and gave much time and attention to the French students who are now reading Falling Man as part of the standardized syllabus in French universities. DeLillo was insightful and funny—no surprise there—but also marked by humility and a gentle quality that does not detract from his mischievous glint. On the last day of the conference, he answered a student’s question as to why he had agreed to come to an academic event, of all things. He replied that he “didn’t know how much work it was going to be,” and added that he felt “gratified” by the attention to his fiction.1 And “no one was more surprised” by this reaction than he was!
DeLillo’s Allocution opened the conference and he spoke for more than an hour. He noted that he had reached a “certain age,” and now, more than ever, thought of himself as a “kid from the Bronx” whose memory is still “clear and sharp.” He thinks of the past as a palimpsest clearly visible through subsequent decades of life but then, according to physics, a distinction between “past, present, and future” is only an illusion, and “it is time,” after all, “that defines your existence.”
It was enjoyable to listen to the author reminisce about the past. He spoke about his Italian roots, which are, he said, “very, very important to me. Eleven people grew up in my house. My parents spoke English well. It wasn’t till I left home, I found what a crowded life we lead. I slept in the living room and remember my cousin Tony coming through the window” late at night. “It’s me. Be calm,” Tony said. As a young writer, he had lived on “bacon and eggs on a hotplate” and once came upon Ernest Hemingway “walking west between Madison and Fifth,” the author who would “be dead within the year.” He recalled recently finding “seven brittle type-written pages” written in the 1970s, a film treatment about “a sensitive” working for U.S. intelligence. “Did I write this?” he wondered. He spoke of his “astonishment” that he actually wrote a novel about the JFK assassination and had hoped that Lee Harvey Oswald was a “Scorpio” which would have made a “strong good title.” “Libra” was somewhat disappointing! James Axton, he felt, was also wrongly named. He “deserves a softer alphabet” and DeLillo thought that he should have stuck with the original “Benedict.” Eric Packer, on the other hand, had “the thrust of the name I needed.”
DeLillo also considered the genesis of some of his work. “I need dimension… a man and a woman in a room” and made reference to the “strong grip that place names generate.” Later, in answer to a question, he noted the prevalence of place in his work: New York City and deserts, Greece, remote southwest Texas, “a track used for a tire test… and wondering about the driver.” More specifically, he made reference to Great Jones Street, which came into being during “the age of the double-locked door” and great numbers of the “homeless” populating the streets. He doesn’t “remember writing White Noise.” But he could not forget the “Athenian soundscape” which nourished The Names nor the earthquake that he and his wife experienced in Greece, translated much later into the Esmeralda story, “The Ivory Acrobat.” The Names in particular marked a new approach to writing, “sentence by sentence” as he “looked more carefully into everything new” and found the “pleasure” to be had in simple acts, like “paying a bill.” The conference was entitled Fiction Rescues History after a DeLillo quotation, but in the 1970s, he said, “I was thinking about writing novels not about history.” But Rolling Stone ran an ad for a 27-minute version of the Zapruder film, offered by a Canadian company; the footage was expanded through slow motion and stop action and was “hard to look at.” The events of 1963 and subsequent shootings suggest that “the gun is the motive; give a man a gun and he will find some people to shoot.” This act “will correct all the wrongs he has suffered … or imagines he has suffered.” DeLillo also noted the “terminal state” of many of the novels: End Zone, Point Omega, and now Zero K. This latest work took almost four years to write and began as an “image of tall buildings clustered together,” “blind buildings by a river,” which morphed into “low buildings” amidst “desert waste.” He likened the writing to “carving words on volcanic rock.”
DeLillo made mention that science, film, art, and jazz inform his work. Currently, however, it is clear that 9/11 is the single event which has affected him most profoundly and, as he said, would resonate with him for the rest of his life. Able to pierce the police lines that surrounded the disaster site, DeLillo was moved by the “three-dimensional aspects of the streets, the broken windows” and “police troopers” and “practically no other people in the street.” All these elements had a “very powerful effect.” Thus he felt “driven to write” Point Omega, Cosmopolis, and Falling Man “through 9/11.” Many people were moved to tears on the last day of the conference when he read the last page of Falling Man, “like nothing in this life.”
DeLillo also answered questions about his work habits. At times, he will check into a word’s etymology, he said, or consider the appearance of a word. Fascinated by a life-size facsimile of the Rosetta Stone (the language key written in hieroglyphic and demotic Egyptian as well as Greek), he got to thinking about “what language looks like.” Do the words “physically describe what they say?” he asked. “Is this crazy?” He also finds interest in the “curious juxtaposition of letters within words” – “stood” and “looked” or “spare land” or “day fading.”
And by the way, “Mr. Tuttle is a real man” and not an illusion.
It is important to mention some of the scholars present at the conference, many of whom we have quoted over the years for their insights into the DeLillo oeuvre. The two plenary sessions were attended by DeLillo himself but, as someone else noted, he had the grace to leave before the Q&A so as not to put the speakers in an awkward position. Michael Naas, a philosopher and translator of Derrida, is also an accomplished reader of DeLillo and did a terrific job with “DeLillo’s Contraband” and the “illegal goods and substances” as well as “doubles, knock-offs, [and] imitations” that provide a good deal of the “uniqueness of DeLillo’s works.” Peter Boxall, author of Don DeLillo: The Possibility of Fiction, among other books, provided an equally articulate and insightful take on DeLillo’s work. He considered the frequent inclusion of “tautology” in DeLillo’s work—“The word for moonlight is moonlight”—to suggest a new way of thinking about the “pressure that history exerts on the body” and the “relation between history, aesthetics, and contemporary bio-matter.”
Other speakers included Matt Kavanagh who read “American Bloodlines: On the Origins of Libra.” Matt recently discovered an early 16-page film treatment regarding the “inner life of the plotters” in the JFK assassination, one early manifestation of the author’s “ventriloquism.” This sketch was found among Lois Wallace’s papers. Linda Kauffman’s “History and Slow Time: Don DeLillo’s Point Omega” explored the identity of Richard Elster and his likeness to, among others, Robert McNamara, especially as he emerges in the documentary film The Fog of War. She considered Richard/Robert in terms of their “failure of foresight and insight” and more importantly, their “moral evasion.” The novel’s inclusion of 24 Hour Psycho suggests the psychological impact of events on the perpetrators: “no matter how long events take in time, still there is not enough time to stop or slow those events.” Mark Osteen, who can pack more critical insight, etymological exploration, and humor into a paper than anyone I know, did not disappoint in Paris. He noted that DeLillo’s later works let us hear the “hum of morality” in “everyday life.” The “gallery of ghosts” who comprise the cast of DeLillo’s later characters are threshold figures who demonstrate the “lingering impact of loss.”
It was a real treat to see DeLillo’s dramatic reading The Word for Snow adapted by a small Parisian company, directed by Julie Vatain-Corfdir. They produced a thoughtful rendition of this little play (which consists of only 24 typewritten 8” x 11” pages including photographs.) The players employed music and dance and captured the hopeless and humorous possibilities of its topic, global warming. DeLillo and his wife were in attendance once again and afterward, he made everyone laugh: “There were no bare feet in it” when he wrote it.
On the last day, students presented their papers on Falling Man and DeLillo answered questions from the audience. He was asked about speaking in tongues and answered that he is “fascinated by people who do this” and that he “had fun making up the language” used in The Word for Snow. He was questioned about his goals for Falling Man and said that his “first decision was very clear. The book had to go into the Towers and into the hijacked planes.” “A photograph I saw helped me in,” he said, “a man covered in dust and… I think with a briefcase.” When he began the novel, he knew that it was not “his briefcase” but someone else’s. “Once I had a family in place,” he knew that the book would have a circumscribed, domestic focus. “Bill Lawton” was the construction of “the son of someone I know, so I used that.” Why does Keith Neudecker go to Las Vegas? “The character wanted to go,” he replied. But the research for the trip came when he accompanied a friend, a “serious gambler,” to the casinos and DeLillo seems to grasp the “séance in hell” (FM) quality of the place from this experience. Yet, the trip was “valuable,” despite its briefness. Why was Florence Givens drawn as an African-American woman? “She’s an African-American because she is,” he said simply. “Characters do build themselves somewhat mysteriously.”
In conclusion, DeLillo’s presence at the conference, the quality of the papers, the chance to present one’s work in Denis Diderot University and the legendary Sorbonne, the organization and attention to detail, the scrumptious food and champagne at the conference reception, and the opportunity to dine with DeLillo and his wife on the last evening combined to make Fiction Rescues History an utter success. This event will continue to bear fruit in the years to come, as scholars and students build on the subject matter of the papers and create new links and confluences of thought. We owe the organizers— Jean-Ives Pellegrin, Antoine Cazé, Anne-Laure Tissut, and especially Karim Daanoune who hosted the DeLillo portions of the program— a debt of thanks for their hard work and their vision. Many thanks!
1 Most of the quotations here–except those clearly ascribed to a certain source—are transcriptions of hand-written notes that I took during the conference.
— Jacqueline A. Zubeck
Art and the Artists in the Works of Don DeLillo, ALA, San Francisco, 28 May 2016
Despite some initial apprehensions—in no way related to the caliber of the presenters—about what seemed a thematically disparate collection of papers, this year’s society panel, Art and The Artist in the Works of Don DeLillo at the annual American Literature Association conference, coalesced around an unexpected set of critical concerns: what seems an ever-present role of the quotidian in a corpus of works that otherwise concerns itself with grand topics such as language, death, and the force of history.
The panel opened with a presentation from Chiara Patrizi (Roma Tre University) entitled “Turning Grief into Art. A Reading of The Body Artist.” Chiara’s careful close reading of DeLillo’s twelfth novel (excluding The Amazons) concerned the ghostly Mr. Tuttle’s role in Lauren Hartke’s grieving process following the suicide of her husband, film director Rey Robles. Rather than simply elaborating upon how the unexplained appearance of the bizarre, ostensibly languages-less Tuttle helps define Lauren’s mourning, however, the paper instead explored how Lauren’s relationship with Mr. Tuttle subtly brings to light an essential distance between audiences and works of art. At first parroting Lauren’s own words, Mr. Tuttle eventually reveals himself as a sort of linguistic time-capsule, recreating moments of Lauren’s and Rey’s brief marriage in the form of bits of dialogue clipped from their shared life. Ostensibly a gestalt of both Lauren’s experiences of grief and her memories of Rey, it is Mr. Tuttle who is the “true work of art,” according to Patrizi, and it is from Mr. Tuttle that Lauren draws inspiration for her public performance piece Body Time. The relationship between these works, one personal, the other public, is helpfully clarified in Patrizi’s paper by way of art critic Amelia Jones’s commentary on body art which, despite its tendency to “solicit rather than distance the spectator,” is marked by an “inability to deliver itself fully” to its audience (Jones 34). For Jones, it seems, there is something simultaneously intimate and inaccessible about body art, and it is much the same “transparent but thick” gulf between novel and reader that Patrizi claims is an essential characteristic of The Body Artist (Patrizi). Similar to how Body Time provides a brief glimpse into the personal experiences of life and death which inspired it, DeLillo’s novel provides its reader with a “window” into Lauren’s experience of grief. Despite such a privileged perspective, however, the reader of The Body Artist is ultimately kept at a distance by the novel’s prose, which emphasizes a certain irreducibility of individual experiences to language, thus suggesting the inability of literary works to fully mediate between the lives of artists, subjects, and audiences.
Independent scholar Emily Simon’s presentation, “’No Longer Talking about Fear and Floating Terror’: The Surface Aesthetics of Don DeLillo’s White Noise,” switched orientations from how daily experiences generate works of art to how such works can aestheticize death and violence, making them the background “noise” of contemporary life. Framed by the recurrent references to the works of Andy Warhol in DeLillo’s novels, Simon’s paper argued that the “surface aesthetic” commonly attributed to Warhol’s paintings is useful for considering how representations of death and violence function in White Noise. Much as critics like Ingrid Mössinger and Michael Hardin have claimed that Warhol’s Death and Disaster silkscreens turn images of death into signifiers available for everyday manipulation, White Noise’s reduplication of “death in casual, colorful terms” causes it to become a “flat” background trope within the text: “the difference between death as ‘floating terror,’ which permeates the story world [of White Noise], and ‘the hard and heavy thing, the fact itself’(DeLillo 202-3)” (Simon). In both Warhol’s silk screens and DeLillo’s novel, however, traces of the elided depths of these experiences remain. In White Noise, Simon claims, this tension between surface and depth can be interpreted in terms of a reversal of Gerard Genette’s distinction between story and narrative. Functioning as a converse of Genette’s narrative theory, White Noise appears to flatten its representations of characters and objects (the contents of story) while simultaneously providing a particularly “textured” series of discourses about these topics (narrative forms), such discourses unexpectedly crystallizing the hard and heavy fact of death otherwise elided by the surface aesthetic. According to Simon, this dynamism between the ostensibly superficial characters and themes of White Noise and the depths of DeLillo’s characteristically nuanced, precise, and often philosophically-inflected prose, both defines the aesthetic experience of the novel and relates this aesthetic to what Simon claims is the ur-trope of the text: the interface between life and death.
The final paper, given by John Duvall (Purdue University), “‘False Documents’ and ‘Counterhistory’: DeLillo on Doctorow’s Turf,” provided an interesting contrast to the first two presentations. Framing his paper in terms of DeLillo’s joke about avoiding Doctorow’s “turf” in New York (Remnick), Duvall claims that it is precisely when DeLillo occupies Doctorow’s terrain, specifically what DeLillo himself terms “counterhistories,” that he produces his most compelling works. In addition to challenging orthodox historical narratives, these “metafictional” histories, ostensibly the middle works of DeLillo’s career—most notably Libra and Underworld—also tend to champion the ability of the writer (artist?) to “Pull authority figures’ pants down. Fight the power” (Duvall). Such ebullience for the radical powers—what George Will termed the “bad citizenship”—of writerly language and imagination, however, seems to have waned in DeLillo’s works post-September 11th. In the novels which follow, first Falling Man and then Point Omega (The Body Artist and Cosmopolis seem oddly positioned here), DeLillo turns away from the historical scope of his earlier works, while also inventing a new term to describe his writerly commitments: the “counternarrative.” Despite the ostensible similarity of these terms, Duvall claims that the distinction between counterhistory and counternarrative in fact marks a distinct shift in DeLillo’s writing. That is, next to the idea of counterhistory, counternarrative “seems to insist on a focus on the local, the small, and the specific—all of which diminishes the possibility for historical thinking” (Duvall). As it was precisely this element of historical thinking that Duvall feels made DeLillo such an important author, this turn to the quotidian, a product of the need for DeLillo to reconsider the role of the artist in a post-September 11th world, seems to challenge what some readers of DeLillo’s earlier fiction found so intriguing about his work.
Considered together, the three presentations seem to emphasize an interesting constellation of questions for DeLillo scholarship. What does one make of the role of the quotidian in DeLillo’s novels, as the specifics of daily life have been a major feature of DeLillo’s writing throughout his career—most notably in novels such as Americana, The Players, White Noise, and the later works referenced by Duvall and Patrizi? How does this persistent evocation of the quotidian relate to the larger “systems” themes in DeLillo’s novels—one might be reminded of Thomas LeClair’s seminal In The Loop here—and how does this affect one’s interpretation of DeLillo’s own commitments about what it is to be a writer, especially given his aversion to the sorts of “around-the-house-and-in-the-yard” fiction of writers like John Updike (Harris)? Finally, how have these elements of DeLillo’s fiction evolved over time? Interestingly, these questions seem to divide serious DeLillo readers, Patrizi’s reading of The Body Artist ostensibly celebrating the very elements of DeLillo’s fiction critiqued by Duvall. Simon’s paper seems a potential mediator in this regard, suggesting that it is precisely how DeLillo’s works emphasize the quotidian that informs how the “larger” themes of his works are approached.
DeLillo, Don. White Noise. New York: Penguin Books, 1985.
Duvall, John. “‘False Documents’ and ‘Counterhistory’: DeLillo on Doctorow’s Turf.” American Literature Association Conference. Hyatt Regency in the Embarcadero Center, San Francisco, CA. 28 May 2016.
Harris, Robert R. “A Talk With Don DeLillo.” New York Times On The Web. The New York Times Company, 1982.
Jones, Amelia. Body Art/Performing the Subject. U of Minnesota P, Minneapolis 1998.
Patrizi, Chiara. “Turning Grief into Art. A Reading of The Body Artist.” American Literature Association Conference. Hyatt Regency in the Embarcadero Center, San Francisco, CA. 28 May 2016.
Remnick, David. “Exile on Main Street: Don DeLillo’s Undisclosed Underworld.” The New Yorker. 15 Sept. 1997: 42-48.
Simon, Emily. “’No Longer Talking about Fear and Floating Terror’: The Surface Aesthetics of Don DeLillo’s White Noise.” American Literature Association Conference. Hyatt Regency in the Embarcadero Center, San Francisco, CA. 28 May 2016.
Recent and Upcoming DeLillo News
In November 2015, DeLillo was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters by the National Book Foundation.
In May 2016, DeLillo published his sixteenth novel, Zero K. You’ll find links to reviews and interviews related to the novel on our new Facebook page (see below).
On May 31, 2016, the journal Orbit: Writing Around Pynchon published a special issue on the works of DeLillo. The issue is available here: https://www.pynchon.net/collections/special/DDL/.
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! (https://www.facebook.com/dondelillosociety/)
A Note from the Editor
I’d like to offer thanks to all those who contributed material to this bumper 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 email@example.com (deadline: January 15, 2017).
Rebecca Harding is a current doctoral candidate at the University of Sussex. Her research interests lie in modern and contemporary American literature and culture, and her thesis focuses on portrayals of the body in the fiction of Don DeLillo. She holds an M.A. in English Studies from the University of Sussex and a B.A. in Music and English from Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge. She co-organised the conference “The State of Fiction: Don DeLillo in the 21st Century” in 2015, and she is co-editor of the postgraduate journal Excursions.
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.
Aaron Schneeberger is a PhD Candidate studying contemporary American literature and literary theory at the University of Nevada, Reno. His dissertation—still in a seminal phase—considers the works of Sylvia Plath, E.L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, and Don DeLillo in the context of contemporary research on embodied cognition and affect theory. He also organized and chaired this year’s ALA panel for the Don DeLillo Society.
Rob Sobel is finishing up an M.F.A. in fiction at Fairleigh Dickinson University, where he is also a reader for The Literary Review. He graduated from James Madison University with a degree in English and was given the Departmental Award in Creative Writing. His fiction has appeared in The Magnolia Review, Lunch Ticket, Cigale Literary, Pound of Flash, Gardy Loo, and The Literary Itch. He has been working with special needs children in northern New Jersey for the past four years.
Jacqueline Zubeck is an Associate Professor of English at the College of Mount Saint Vincent and is editing a collection of essays on the work of Don DeLillo’s twenty-first-century fiction entitled Currencies.