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The Law of Ruins and DeLillo’s Twin Towers

Newsletter 7.1 (2013)

-Aaron DeRosa

“Very terrible thing but you have to look at it, I think.”

“Yes, you have to look.”

~ Don DeLillo, Underworld

Given his fascination with the twinned existence of the towers, it makes sense why Don DeLillo would be so drawn to the figure in Richard Drew’s September 11, 2001 photo, “Falling Man,” the titular image of DeLillo’s fifteenth novel. Tom Junod said of the unidentified man in the photo, “He splits them, bisects them: Everything to the left of him in the picture is the North Tower; everything to the right, the South. Though oblivious to the geometric balance he has achieved, he is the essential element in the creation of a new flag, a banner composed entirely of steel bars shining in the sun.” Junod’s elegy to the two towers resonates throughout DeLillo’s fiction, which has consistently come back to this detail. In Mao II, photographer Brita Nilsson comments on their twinned existence to the aging author, Bill Gray: “But having two of them is like a comment, it’s like a dialogue, only I don’t know what they’re saying” (40). For DeLillo, the towers speak of their own destruction, and continue to do so even after their collapse.

In White Noise, DeLillo references the “Law of Ruins,” the philosophy that underlay German architect Albert Speer’s desire to “build structures that would decay gloriously, impressively, like Roman ruins. No rusty hulks or gnarled steel slums” (246). First proposed by John Ruskin, the Law of Ruins holds that the final record of a civilization is its architecture, and thus the chief purpose behind a design was posterity. “The ruin is built into the creation . . . which shows a certain nostalgia behind the power principle, or a tendency to organize the longings of future generations.” For DeLillo, we build in the present with a mind toward the future’s vision of the past. And by controlling this future self-image, by allowing our ruins to speak of our glory, a civilization demonstrates its true power.

DeLillo expands on this sentiment in Underworld, a novel oft-discussed in the post-9/11 period for its ominous cover that features the WTC towers in a fog, a giant bird visible in the distance and a church cross bisecting the two towers. (The story goes that DeLillo selected the cover image but felt it too heavy-handed. When Scribner assigned the task to an independent researcher, they independently settled on the same image.) The novel is largely about building towers of waste, and DeLillo juxtaposes the Fresh Kills landfill with the Twin Towers (again, oddly forecasting the main site of the WTC detritus). Surveying the tower of refuse, waste manager Nick Shay finds “the sight inspiring. All this ingenuity and labor, this delicate effort to fit maximum waste into diminishing space. The towers of the World Trade Center were visible in the distance and he sensed a poetic balance between that idea and this one” (184). The nature of that balance seems to rest in the unseen relationship between what has been discarded, and what will be discarded, and how both speak to the nation’s glory.

The juxtaposition of the towers against the landfill speaks to the inevitability of their collapse. DeLillo says as much when he brings these disparate comments together in Falling Man where art critic Ernst Hechinger rhetorically asks,

But that’s why you built the towers, isn’t it? Weren’t the towers built as fantasies of wealth and power that would one day become fantasies of destruction? You build a thing like that so you can see it come down. The provocation is obvious. What other reason would there be to go so high and then to double it, do it twice? It’s a fantasy, so why not do it twice? You are saying, Here it is, bring it down. (116)

Again, the towers’ twinned existence resonates for DeLillo in terms of a conversation. The towers speak to one another, to New Yorkers, and to the world. What they speak of is their own inevitable destruction, and the glory attendant to that destruction. They flaunt their existence and invite disaster, welcome it, and even need it. They are built, Hechinger would probably say, according to the Law of Ruins, which stipulates glory takes shape not in their presence, but their absence. Hechinger’s later criticism of the United States’ post-9/11 diplomacy (or lack thereof) speaks to this brazen attitude born in what DeLillo elsewhere calls “the ruins of the future.”

Now that the towers are gone, DeLillo’s oracular powers once again ring true, as the ruins return to Ground Zero—the iconic pillared tridents now stand in the memorial’s on-site museum. The 9/11 memorial bespeaks a tragic loss, but in designing the memorial around the footprints of the towers, architect Michael Arad reifies a misplaced nostalgia for the ruins. That is, the loss of human life is clearly recognized, but the towers themselves are anthropomorphized, becoming victims themselves. However, long perceived as a blight on the New York skyline, the towers are commemorated not for what they were when they stood, but the glory their absence represents. As the first (and second) landmark(s) of the American empire to crumble under the Law of Ruins, the towers are certainly glorious in their destruction.

Brita was correct, the towers do speak to one another; now more than ever. The 110-story skyscrapers inverted to 30-foot waterfalls are specifically designed to generate white noise that drowns out the sounds of the city. And as much as the “Freedom Tower’s” 1,776 feet testifies to the United States’ continuing glory, Speer’s logic suggests it is the ruins on which our future will be shaped. Ruins. Laws of Ruins of the Future. This is not only how civilizations are remembered, DeLillo tells us, but how they are built.

Works Cited

DeLillo, Don. Falling Man. New York: Scribner, 2007.
—. Mao II. New York: Viking, 1991.
—. Underworld. New York: Scribner, 1997.
—. White Noise. 1985. New York: Penguin, 1999.
Junod, Tom. “The Falling Man.” Esquire (1 Sept. 2003): 176+.


Meeting Don DeLillo

Newsletter 5.1 (2011)

—Jesse Kavadlo

On the day of the announcement, friends from all over the country forwarded me link: Don DeLillo would appear in my city to accept the Saint Louis Literary Society Award.  A book signing, talk, interview, and banquet.  Although I heard DeLillo read from Underworld in 1997, he didn’t answer questions or sign books.  All the better, I thought at the time.  I wouldn’t have to decide whether a signature from an author who seems so uncomfortable with the public constituted some kind of literary betrayal.  Yet now I was guiltily, self-consciously, excited.  More than most novels, DeLillo’s work complicates the simple Meet the Author, since, from Americanaonward, DeLillo has complicated the concept of authorship itself.  In Great Jones StreetRatner’s StarUnderworld, of course Mao II, and now Point Omega, DeLillo has continuously, self-consciously, and ironically questioned the rhetorical triangle between the viewer, the art, and the artist.  Yet his readers can’t be immune to the allure and aura of the author himself.  Bucky Wunderlick’s and Bill Gray’s self-imposed exiles and diatribes against fame couldn’t keep me away.  They just made me feel sheepish about it, then silly for feeling sheepish.

And so on October 21, 2010, I made sure to arrive over an hour before the signing, which was already an hour before the talk.  After all, this was Don DeLillo, and I would be lucky to make it to the front of the line in under a mere hour.  In retrospect, my anticipation seemed sweetly misguided—no one was there yet, and only three other people arrived over the next hour: an Italian (from Italy) grad student writing a thesis on DeLillo, his German (from Germany) Political Science grad student girlfriend, who had road-tripped together from Pennsylvania, and a man in a Saint Louis Cardinals jersey who told me that he wasn’t an academic, but he “really liked Don DeLillo.”  In a way, along with me (former musician turned college professor and New York City émigré to the Midwest) and the venue—the Jesuit-affiliated Saint Louis University—it represented a perfect cross-section, not of DeLillo’s readership, but of his books’ themes.  And of course, just before the signing began, a few dozen others arrived.
When DeLillo was eventually escorted into the room, despite knowing his photos by heart, I didn’t recognize him. He was much smaller than I’d anticipated, which of course struck me as another cause for DeLillo-esque embarrassment.  Why should I care about an author’s physical presence?  Why should we expect writers, of all people, to be larger than life?  Of course, stature is equally unexpected: in person, Jonathan Franzen’s and Octavia Butler’s imposing heights had surprised me as well.  And Michael Chabon was exactly as tall as I expected, whatever that means.  I was awash in sheepishness.

Yet when my turn came and I presented my first-edition hardcover of White Noise, I also gave Mr. DeLillo (a name I’ve now written hundreds of times in academic criticism, syllabuses, and comments to students, but never before with an honorific) a copy of my book, Don DeLillo: Balance at the Edge of Belief.  As I did, I ad libbed, despite the hour to plan, “I’ve spent the last decade thinking about your work.”  Which wasn’t really true: I’d spent the last thirteen years, but “decade” sounded cleaner, and rounding down made me seem less like a Scott Martineau-style stalker or JAK Gladney-esque fraud.  After giving me a humble look of surprise and gratitude, he returned White Noise and graciously took my book.  But as I walked away he called back: “Jesse!”  No amount of Barthes or Foucault, reception theory or reader response, could have prepared me for the visceral fanboy jolt of hearing DeLillo call my name, or what came next: he asked me to sign my book for him.  (And so: “I never imagined I’d sign a book for you.”)  Then he amended his own signature in White Noise, no longer just “To Jesse, A reader, Don DeLillo,” but now, to “A reader and writer.”

Instead of being a scholar, or even an admirer, I got to be the boy in the Mean Joe Greene Coke commercial: “Hey, kid. Catch!”  Despite, then, the hours reading the novels, and years writing the scholarship, the dozens of classes I’ve devoted to helping students ponder DeLillo’s work, it’s impossible to discount the palpable presence of the author himself, however much I—or Don DeLillo—would like.  DeLillo’s own responses in the subsequent Q&A only deepened this contradiction.  Asked about his much-touted reclusiveness, DeLillo denied shunning the press and public, instead suggesting, of his pre-Names career, “No one wanted to talk to me, and I didn’t want to talk to anyone, and everyone was happy.”  Yet he didn’t seem unhappy on the day of the award, only cautious and contemplative, a man who wants his words to embody him rather than allow him to embody the words.  And while many of his other responses to the questions would be familiar to anyone who has followed DeLillo over the years (cheat sheet: “the way the words look on the page,” “typewriter,” “Kennedy,” “Greece,” “Joyce,” and “Godard”), I certainly enjoyed meeting the man and, his response to the contrary, hearing the words outside of the page.

According to interviewer Tom LeClair, Don DeLillo has an engraved card that says “I don’t want to talk about it.”  But that doesn’t mean that we don’t—or shouldn’t—want to listen.

Lost in DeLillo

Newsletter 4.2 (2010)

—Randy Laist

When I finished the manuscript of my recent book on Don DeLillo, Technology and Postmodern Subjectivity in Don DeLillo’s Novels, I knew that I wanted my next project to be a kind of vacation from the hypnotic seriousness and esoteric hyper-literacy that I had come to associate with DeLillo’s writing.  When an opportunity presented itself to edit a collection of essays about the television show Lost, my first thought was that this excursion into a madcap expression of popular culture would be a perfect change of pace.  Imagine my surprise when one of the first writers to contact me with an abstract was Jesse Kavadlo, whose book about DeLillo, Balance at the Edge of Belief, had been published by the same press that issued my DeLillo book.  As the abstracts continued to come in, it became a recurring pattern that many of the same scholars who had something to say about Lost had published on or taught DeLillo at some point in the recent past.  You might scoff and say that DeLillo is a popular enough author that there is no coincidence here, but when you add to this quasi-anecdotal evidence the startling fact that DeLillo’s most recent book, Point Omega, and the sixth (and final) season of Lost both debuted on the same day (February 2, 2010), you have a clue that neither DeLillo fans nor Lost fans – both practiced in teasing out the semantic nuances of manifestly meaningless coincidences – could possibly ignore.

This paranoid mood of radical connectivity is certainly the most obvious relationship between DeLillo’s oeuvre and Lost.  The theme that “everything is connected” is explicitly invoked in Underworld, but it runs throughout all of DeLillo’s novels, which all weave patterns of suggestive coincidences between entities that share no obvious relationship.  Think of the parallels between football and nuclear war in End Zone, Elvis and Hitler in White Noise, or between Kennedy and Oswald in Libra.  Even when such a parallel is not explicitly drawn, DeLillo’s enigmatic juxtapositions – for example, the framing of the main story in Point Omega with the narrative about 24-hour Psycho – provoke us into attempting to discover the buried logic at work.  DeLillo’s attentive prose encourages us to assume that such a logic does in fact exist, however obscure it may be.  Consequently, the reader of DeLillo is always penetrating deeper and deeper into an atmosphere of mystery that becomes more complex with every step.  This same atmosphere of vaguely sacred mysteries is the primary hook of Lost.  Of course, “mystery shows” are not foreign to television, but Lost is unique because the “mystery” the show deals with is DeLillian in nature, rather than, say, Agatha Christie-an.  The question of Lost has no specific form; it is atmospheric and generalized.  Lost’s central question, as one character expresses it in the pilot episode, is an existential one: “Where are we?”  There is a vast catalogue of particular mysteries throughout the plot, but the real subject of the program is “mystery” itself as a human condition.  In the same way that DeLillo frequently uses juxtaposition as a way of insinuating a hidden relationship, Lost’s formula of relating two parallel narratives in each episode prompts the viewer’s disposition to scan both narratives for points of contact.  As a result, the diegetic mysteries that arise on the island (who kidnapped Claire?  Who built the hatch?) are subtended by a larger extradiegetic mystery concerning the relationship between the various narrative strands.  Of course, Lost being a television show, subject to all the generic conventions pertaining to that medium, the viewers would reject the show if it were to end – Players-style – abruptly, with the supreme revelation eternally deferred, or if it ended, White Noise-style, with the characters gazing off into some haze of unanswerability, stranded with the impossible responsibility of living in an atmospheric smog of strangeness.  The more Lost plugs in agents to explain the various mysteries of the show, the less it reads like DeLillo, Kafka, and Conrad and the more it reads like Stephen King.  But the appeal of the show has always been the promise of mystery, rather than the (inevitably disappointing) moment of revelation.  In the early seasons, before the producers announced that they were going to write the story toward a definitive resolution, it was possible to read Lost as a DeLillian interrogation of answerless questions and our mechanisms for coping with them.

One of the most compelling mysteries thematized by both DeLillo and Lost is the relationship between agency and environment.  Both texts address the question of whether human choices are free expressions of the unique will of the actor or whether they are the mechanistic outcomes of inhuman forces.  Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Gladney join Lost’s John Locke and Jack Shepherd in their sense of having their free will usurped by forces that are associated with both international finance and with cosmic ontology.  In the same way that DeLillo’s characters often seem to be dimly aware that there is something artificial in the plots that they find themselves participating in, so do the characters of Lost frequently approach the realization that they are trapped in a television script that keeps relentlessly making outrageous demands on them.  DeLillo’s characters, from David Bell to Richard Elster, often respond to this intuition by dropping out, going to the desert, and starving themselves to the brink of death.  Lost characters are also typically prone to recalcitrance in the face of existential coercion.  They smash mirrors, blow up submarines, and perform various acts of narrative sabotage for the purpose of resisting the pull that the ambient plot seems to be exerting on them.  The Losties’ free will frequently seems to have been co-opted by the island itself in a manner reminiscent of that in which DeLillo’s characters tend to fall into the modes of behavior assigned to them by their American mass-culture.  The Lost island appears to be a natural, untouched wilderness, but it turns out actually to be a thoroughly colonized space that has been designed and controlled by various human (and superhuman) activities to such an extent that it hardly qualifies as a “natural” landscape.  It is impossible not to think of Jack Gladney’s sunsets, which undermine any attempt to dichotomize nature and artifice, or of the West into which David Bell drives toward the end of Americana of which he writes, “Literature is what we left behind, more than men and cactus” (349).  DeLillo’s USA and the Losties’ island are both landscapes that have a kind of conscious presence embedded within them, an uncanny consciousness that has the capacity to subsume the will of the landscape’s human inhabitants.

Arguably the most prominent mystery in both DeLillo’s novels and Lost is the mystery of time.  Indeed, all of the other mysteries in these texts can be understood as metonymic stand-ins for the ultimate imponderability of time.  As DeLillo writes in The Body Artist, time is “the thing you know nothing about” (101).  All of DeLillo’s novels are meditations on temporality.  DeLillo’s famously stagnant plots are expressions of a desire to reduce time to its barest elements and hold it under a microscope.  While Lost differs from DeLillo markedly in its preference for plot-heavy narration, Lost shares DeLillo’s obsessive preoccupation with the phenomenology of time.  DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, is built around a “flashback” chapter and a “flashforward” frame story in a way that is remarkably reminiscent of Lost.  In both cases, the experimentations with narrative temporality provoke questions about how the past, present, and future are connected to one another through the lived experience of an individual human being.  As a kind of post-apocalyptic narrative, Lost interrogates the temporality of trauma in a manner that is reminiscent of The Body Artist and Falling Man.  Indeed, The Body Artist’s Mr. Tuttle would be right at home on the Lost island, which is populated by characters whose consciousnesses bounce around unpredictably through time.  But in addition to the traumatic intrusion of the past into the present, Lost and DeLillo both consider the mysterious intrusion of the future into the present.  Underworld’s backwards narrative weaves a kind of reverse-suspense.  Rather than the conventional narrative question – What happens next? – the reader of Underworld asks, How did what I know already to have happened come about?  The reversal redirects the reader’s attention from the passage of time itself to the content of time, to the consideration of the choices and happenstances that caused reality to take the shape that it took.  DeLillo also plays with this convergent temporality in Cosmopolis, in which he narrates Eric Packer’s story and Benno Levin’s story in opposite directions, as if the two characters were moving in opposite directions through time, personifying the intersecting lines of temporality that combine to articulate lived experience.  Lost’s season four transition from flashbacks to flashforwards has a similar effect on the way we follow the characters’ stories and encourages an understanding of time not as a dot moving forward on a single line, but as an Einsteinian field in which past, present, and future are all concurrently active.

Of course, there are many important differences to be acknowledged between DeLillo’s novels and LostLost’s characters are drawn broadly out of stereotypes and caricatures that DeLillo would touch only with the ten-foot pole of irony.  DeLillo is as independent as it is possible for a mass-marketed artist to be, while Lost is a corporate commodity stamped with the Disney logo.  And Lost is consumed with the kind of meticulous plotting that both Jack Gladney and Don DeLillo hold in fearful suspicion.  At its best, however, Lost achieves the feat of communicating some of DeLillo’s complex intuitions about mystery, agency, and temporality to an audience that has been shaped by the same contemporary influences of which DeLillo is such an astute observer.  When we consider DeLillo and Lost as companion texts, the correspondences between DeLillo’s literary artistry and the television writers’ bid for commercial appeal suggest a wider set of cultural concerns about the texture of lived experience in the twenty-first century.

Works Cited

DeLillo, Don.  Americana.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971.  Print.
—. The Body Artist.  NY: Scribner, 2001.  Print.


A Defense of Point Omega

Newsletter 4.2 (2010)

—Paul Giaimo

In light of the recent extreme divergence of reactions as to the quality and value of Don DeLillo’s latest novel, Point Omega, here a defense of the novel is offered in terms of “liberal irony” an idea which finds its origin in the field of philosophy. Richard Rorty defines the liberal ironist in his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity as the writer for whom a “sense of human solidarity” is “ a matter of imaginative identification with the details of others’ lives” (Rorty 190). In terms of what we’ve called “the divided opinion” on DeLillo’s Point Omega, the book has been criticized for disabling the reader’s imaginative and compassionate identification with said details because it does not resolve its ambiguous plotlines and seems deliberately to avoid making concrete anti-Iraq war statements – for instance as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did against slavery in the mid-19th century through the use of traditional realist modes of plot and character which condemned the cruelty of slavery through clear portrayals of the same. But it is precisely the ironic strategy of Point Omega to subvert traditional identification with the novel’s details via omission. This strategy forces readers to look for imaginative identification between the sparse details he or she is afforded and significant conditions of the war itself. What we are given is the tragic and forever unexplainable disappearance of Jessie Elster, daughter of Bush-era Iraq mastermind Richard Elster, whose visit to her father provides a temporary respite from his visit with James “Jim” Finley, a documentary filmmaker who wishes to make an Americana-style soliloquy film of Elster as “a flawed character in a chamber drama, justifying his war and condemning the men who made it” (99). The narrative is abruptly truncated when the two return to find nothing left of the gentle Jessica. The inexplicability of her disappearance is complicated by the fact (amongst other causes) that the local sheriff is reluctant to suspect the house caretaker, the only other man to hold a key to Elster’s home where Jessie and the men were staying, because he has known this caretaker for 30 years (82).  Accountability and criminal investigation are obstructed, finally impassibly. As the novel ends with Jessie’s disappearance, the truth of her situation remains an unsolved mystery.

Therefore, it would seem DeLillo has failed us in the traditional realist sense by refusing to provide an allegorical resolution to illustrate more fully the evil of the Iraq conflict. Yet this insolvability is the perfect motif with which to represent the phenomenon of embedded journalism. On April 8, 2003, a U.S. tank attacked the Palestine hotel in Baghdad, a well-known haven for international journalists who were not embedded with the American military and therefore not committed to give a pro-American bias to their reporting of the conflict. Just as this outrageous attack pre-empted true reporting of the many injustices involved in the war in Iraq, the truncated narrative of Point Omega pre-empts the true resolution of Jessie’s disappearance. Ironically, Jessie’s perspective on what might have happened is as lost as is the camera work of Ukrainian cameraman Taras Protysuk, an accomplished video journalist for Reuters killed in the attack (“Three Journalists Killed in Iraq”). Jim Finley’s inane comment that “the story was here, not in Iraq or in Washington” (99) becomes ironic as well, because in both the fictional and historical cases the realstory cannot be anywhere as the reader’s sole means of getting to the truth has been obstructed, with DeLillo’s termination of the story artistically representing the effect of the Palestine hotel attack. In contrast to the age of Stowe, the contemporary American fiction writer presents social evil with a stunned silence, like the silence of the anti-nuclear protester Matt Costanza Shay tries to engage in Underworld (412). Inquiring readers interested in the real story in Baghdad must be inspired to find the truth on their own. If they do, then they’ll find Rorty’s ironic “imaginative identification with details of others’ lives” or as DeLillo puts it more eloquently: “the omega point has narrowed, here and now, … funneled down to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not” (99).


Works Cited 

DeLillo, Don.  Point Omega. New York: Scribner, 2010. Print.
DeLillo, Don.  Underworld. New York: Scribner, 1997. Print.
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print.
“Three Journalists Killed In Baghdad.” Online Newshour Update. PBS. 8 April 2003. Web.  15 April 2010.