Posts Tagged ‘Don DeLillo’

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In which Netty tells you why you should read DeLillo’s Underworld. Right. Now. In only slightly fewer words than the novel itself!

March 4, 2015

underworld-coverBack in 2011, Andy and I read Don DeLillo’s The Falling Man, our introduction to this towering American literary giant. In my post, I commented: “ Yeah, maybe we should have tackled Underworld …” – a reference to the weighty, award-winning and nominated tome that is perhaps the best known of DeLillo’s 16-novel career. 

Flash-forward, and here I am, four years later, fittingly closing my 2014 (yeah, yeah, I know it’s 2015, but hey – it’s a big book, OK?) ANRC DeLillo side challenge with Underworld. About which I have absolutely no qualms declaring The Great American Novel. Caps intentional. 

Seriously, guys. This book is the bomb. Quite literally, in fact, pun unintentional. For reasons that will soon become clear.   

Of the six DeLillo books I read last year – from his first, Americana, to his most recent, Point Omega, and concentrating on his mid-‘80s to mid-‘90s work – Underworld is by far the best of four exemplary works (the other three being White Noise, Libra and Mao II). The scope and breadth of this novel, set in Cold War-era America in the latter half of the 20th century, is truly breathtaking as it recounts the intertwined lives of a dozen or so main characters, including some historical figures – and the trajectory of a baseball at the epicentre of a legendary National League final. 

Its broad, overarching theme is weapons and waste. Its main character, NYC-born Nick Shay, is a waste management executive; his younger brother Matthew (Matty), a disillusioned former military man who served in Vietnam, then later helped develop nuclear arms for the US government, ends up at a non-profit research institute. The novel opens on October 3, 1951, with the National League final between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, a game won by the underdog Giants 5-4 thanks to a three-run homer known as “the shot heard round the world”. At exactly the same time, the USSR conducts an atomic test at a secret location inside its borders; FBI director J. Edgar Hoover receives the news whilst at the game with his celebrity buddies Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason. 

Four decades later Nick and his colleague Brian Glassic are at that Kazakhstan site, meeting with executives from Russian firm Tchaika (translated as that perennial scavenger the seagull), which trades nuclear explosions for cash, effectively destroying radioactive waste with its source material – “killing the devil”, as Nick puts it. His Russian counterpart says waste is the “devil twin, the secret history” of weapons; Nick agrees: “What we excrete comes back to haunt us,” he says. Later they tour a medical institute with jars filled with pickled malformed foetuses, then see the survivors of decades of inter-generational radioactive exposure at a regional clinic, dwarf children without limbs, eyes, with abnormal growths. Musing on the birth of the atomic bomb, knowing its aftermath, the Russian concludes: “Once they imagine in the beginning, it makes everything true. Nothing you can believe is not coming true.”

Four decades later Nick is also the owner of the baseball – which costs him $34,500 – from the Giants’ win. During the course of the novel, which is structured around a non-linear narrative that shifts across time and place, the reader follows its ownership – forming a detective-mystery-esque subplot that shifts and turns in unlikely ways, ultimately linking the various threads into a cohesive whole. Which is, in the bigger picture, an apt description of the novel itself. This is a book that relies on, and is guided by, synchronicity in all its befuddling, light-bulb ways – the ostensibly causal connections between people and places that are rooted in otherworldly relations. “Everything connects in the end, or only seems to, or seems to only because it does,” DeLillo notes. It is clever, fascinating concept that is deftly woven throughout these pages. 

The reader also learns Nick’s back story, the crux of which we know from the beginning – that he served time in juvenile detention as a 17-year-old for murder – but which is not fully explained till almost the novel’s end.  That particular section, Arrangement In Grey And Black – which covers the period (northern) fall 1951 to summer 1952 – so evocatively and beautifully details life in the Bronx that you can almost see and smell the streets. DeLillo adds wry touches that play back into the book’s main themes, such as making minor characters garbage men, et al. 

In another section, Cocksucker Blues (named after the infamous Rolling Stones film), set in NYC in the summer of 1974, the city is choking under a hot summer marred by garbage strikes. Again, DeLillo brings the redolent streets alive with his vivid portrayals ; it’s worth noting that he’s a born-and-bred New Yorker who lived there through the periods he depicts. Later, another character, self-styled garbage guerrilla Jesse Detwiler (a DeLillo invention, as far as I can ascertain) – once arrested for stealing J. Edgar Hoover’s trash – opines that cities rise on garbage, buried debris increasing through the decades, but that garbage has its own momentum and it will eventually push back. DeLillo scatters gems like these throughout the pages like big sly winks to his readers.

We are first introduced to a fiftysomething Nick in 1992. The Phoenix-based executive is driving into the Arizona desert, on a whim, after doing business in Houston, prompted by an article in Time magazine on the renowned American artist Klara Sax. As a 17-year-old Nick had a brief fling with Klara, who was then married to teacher Albert Bronzini, who taught chess to Nick’s younger brother Matthew. Now in her early 70s, Klara and her team of neophytes are working on a massive project nicknamed Long Tall Sally, involving the painting of decommissioned Cold War-era bomber jets (“We’re painting these old planes as a celebration,” she tells an interviewer, “… but how do we know for sure the crisis is really over? … is the whole thing a plot to trick the West?” One of the bombers, Long Tall Sally herself, makes an appearance much later in the novel in her original guise. And thus the circular nature of the narrative continues.

Klara becomes a recurring character throughout the book, transforming from 1950s wife-and-mother in the Bronx into toast-of-the-city painter. During the aforementioned interview, Klara recognises herself in a photograph taken at writer Truman Capote’s famous Black and White (masked) Ball in NYC in 1966; she is standing alongside J. Edgar Hoover.  In a subsequent section, Hoover, along with his (real-life) deputy Clyde Tolson, get ready for this ball; DeLillo pokes fun at the long-held rumours about the notoriously secretive Hoover and his sexuality, mischievously describing the FBI boss’s delight at his custom-made leather mask with its S+M undertones, and recounting how he tilts mirrors in adjoining rooms so he can watch his friend Tolson dress and undress.

I could go on and on, but that would only make this post about as long as the book itself (827 pages, in case you were wondering). But I’ll make my summation short. 

Underworld is a masterpiece. You should read it. No – you must read it. It is fucking brilliant.

That is all.

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In which Netty takes a gander around the grassy knoll, but is none the wiser about the whole JFK thing …

December 6, 2014

Of course one of America’s best writers was eventually going to tackle America’s most famous, most notorious, most far-reaching moment of the 20th century. Of course he was.

cover-libraDon DeLillo’s 10th novel Libra, published in 1988, is a hybrid factual/fictionalised reconstruction of the events leading up to the 1963 death of then US President John F. Kennedy. It concentrates on the back stories of the main participants, most notably the assassin himself, Lee Harvey Oswald. DeLillo has said he spent three years writing and researching the novel, extensively drawing on the official, government-sanctioned Warren Commission Report (which he  described as “the Oxford English Dictionary of the assassination, and also the Joycean novel”).

Everyone knows the basic story: that JFK was fatally shot while travelling in a motorcade down the streets of Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963. The gunman, Oswald, was captured later that day, but was himself shot and killed two days later – before he could go to trial – by local nightclub owner, and Kennedy fan, Jack Ruby.

There are three threads to DeLillo’s novel that are gradually, skilfully woven into its cohesive whole. The first traces the life and times of Oswald, a loner, misfit and outsider from the get-go; a classmate considers him “a misplaced martyr (who would) let you think he was just a fool, or exactly the reverse, as long as he knew the truth and you didn’t”. He grew up under a stifling existence with his single mother, who shifted her son from his native New Orleans to Dallas to New York City and back again.

In 1956, aged 17, Oswald joined the Marine Corps, which took him to Japan; a fervent interest in communism led to an attempt to defect to the Soviet Union in 1959. There, he married and fathered a child before returning to the States in 1961, bouncing between Louisiana and Texas before settling on the latter. Early in 1963 Oswald made a failed assassination attempt on Edwin Walker, a retired Major General and noted anti-communist, which did not come to light until after his JFK arrest. An attempt to get to Cuba via Mexico, as a precursor to returning to the Soviet Union, also fell by the wayside; he returned to Dallas in October, in time for the birth of his second daughter, and took up a job at the Texas School Book Depository – from where, on the sixth floor, he would fire off the three shots that would end Kennedy’s life.

The second thread, which is spliced into the retelling of Oswald’s life, starts in April 1963 and involves an array of characters – some real, some not; some involved with the FBI, the CIA, the military forces; some anti-Kennedy, some pro-Fidel Castro – who hatch an elaborate plan to make an attempt on the life of President Kennedy that will, initially, deliberately fail. The plan is set against the backdrop of the botched Bay of Pigs invasion and a growing disillusionment with, and suspicions about, Kennedy’s presidency and the true nature of his relationship with the Cuban president. Somewhere along the line it’s decided the impact will be bigger if the miss becomes a hit.

This motley bunch needs a patsy, and Oswald – known to some of them through chance and geography – is it; a puppet on a string who thinks he is in charge of his own destiny, until he realises, too late, that he is just a pawn in a much bigger game. The novel’s title comes from Oswald’s astrological sign, Libra, which is represented by a set of scales; indeed, one character describes Oswald as “a man who harbours contradictions … this boy sitting on the scales, ready to be tilted either way”. Later, in the days preceding the assassination, as the same character is putting the finishing touches on the project, he tells Oswald: “There’s no such thing as coincidence … it happens because you make it happen”.

This theme continues as Jack Ruby’s tragi-comic story – which offers plenty of opportunity for DeLillo to exercise his dry, sly wit – unfolds. It’s one of the highlights in a book chockers with them.

The third thread – the novel’s smallest, but perhaps most pertinent – is set some time in the future and involves a (fictional) retired CIA analyst, Nicholas Branch, who has spent 15 years of his life compiling material for a secret history of the JFK assassination that only will ever be seen by Agency eyes. It is a thankless job and seemingly without end; Branch concludes – even as the documents continue to flood in – that “the conspiracy against the President was a rambling affair that succeeded in the short term mainly due to chance. Deft men and fools, ambivalence and fixed will and what the weather was like”.

In a 1988 New York Times interview, DeLillo told fellow writer Anne Tyler: “The novel, working within history, is also outside it, correcting, clearing up, finding balances and rhythms … I don’t know any more than you do what happened in Dealey Plaza that day … Will we ever know the truth? I don’t know.”

I admit I have only a very rudimentary knowledge of the Kennedy assassination, and next to none of Oswald, Ruby, et al. I saw the Oliver Stone’s celluloid conspiracy theory JFK when it came out, but remember very little about it. I probably know more about the Kennedys themselves, the myth of Camelot, the latter generations – a lot of which comes about by osmosis, living in celebrity-obsessed times.

So while Libra certainly does not make me want to run out and devour the Warren Report, it sheds welcome light on the cast of characters surrounding this momentous historical event that, although partly fictionalised, is nonetheless thoroughly, meticulously researched – even while openly wearing its CIA conspiracy theories on its sleeve.

If the Kennedy assassination had never occurred, it could well be a plot in a DeLillo novel regardless. And you should read Libra, whether or not you are interested in the events it portrays. Because, at the end of the day, it’s one cracking helluva good read. That it’s based on actual events is the icing on the very delicious cake.

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In which Netty goes into the past to see the future – and why you need to read Don DeLillo’s Mao II right now

October 2, 2014

cover-maoiiWow. Just … wow.

Sometimes I wonder, as I make my way through Don DeLillo’s back catalogue, if the man isn’t half-clairvoyant. His 10th novel Mao II, published in 1992, is so eerily prescient of what is making headlines today – some 22 years later – that reading it feels almost like a warning sign (cue Talking Heads’ David Byrne, all the way back in 1978, singing: “Hear my voice, it’s saying something and it’s not very nice”.)

So, Don, about the numbers for this week’s lotto draw …

But seriously, this is the book they should shoot into space, so that long after we are gone, many, many light years later, some alien life form will stumble upon it and go, “Aha. We get it. That’s why they’re not around any more.”

Mao II – named after American pop artist Andy Warhol’s famous mass-produced silkscreen print of the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, which appears and recurs as a motif throughout the novel – is also a literature teacher’s wet dream. It’s a compact guide to the modern global world, chock-full of contemporary themes and mores, name-checking the major events of the late 20th century, from mass Moonie weddings to the Hillsborough football tragedy to the death and funeral of Iran leader the Ayatollah Khomeini. The book’s prologue ends with the sentence, “The future belongs to crowds”, and it is its overarching theme – from the safety and sanctity of the crowd, to its potential for mayhem and absolute disaster.

The main character is a man who wants nothing whatsoever to do with crowds – and to that end has become a virtual recluse. Bill Gray is a sixtysomething novelist in the Salinger/Pynchon mode – many years ago he wrote a couple of books that became touchstones for a generation, and the fact that he has disappeared off the radar, not releasing any new material since, just makes him more of a magnet for the people he most wishes to eschew.

Scott, the personal assistant who has lived with Bill for eight years, is one such tenacious fan who seeks out his literary hero and manages to secure a position in Bill’s life and home in upstate New York. He lives there with his girlfriend Karen, who, in the book’s prologue, is one of the 13,000 brides being married at Yankee Stadium under the banner of the Unification Church. After being captured and deprogrammed by her family, she escapes and is later found by Scott wandering the streets of a small town in Kansas. While Scott oversees Bill’s archives, deals with his fan mail and proofreads his new work, Karen keeps house and surreptitiously sleeps with Bill – which, bizarrely, seems to receive Scott’s tacit approval.

In anticipation of the release of a new novel, Bill agrees to be photographed by New York snapper Brita Nilsson, who has devoted her life’s work to taking pictures of famous and important writers. It will be the first new photos of Bill published in three decades. Afterwards, Bill goes to New York City to meet with his long-time publisher Charlie Everson, who, in addition to pressing Bill about his new work, tells him about a Swiss UN worker and poet who is being held hostage by a terrorist organisation in Beirut. Charlie, who also chairs a “high-minded committee on free expression”, has concocted a plan where Bill will appear at a press conference in London and read from the poet’s work before he is released. “Your group gets press, their new group gets press, the young man is sprung from his basement room, the journalists get a story,” Bill deadpans.

Without informing Scott, Bill jets off to London for the press conference, but bomb threats – and then an explosion on a London street – delay the event. Charlie and Bill meet with George Haddad, a representative of the Beirut group who later tracks down Bill and talks him into going to Athens, then Beirut, to negotiate the poet’s release without his publisher’s knowledge or intervention. Bill opines that novelists and terrorists are playing “a zero-sum game”. “What terrorists gain, novelists lose,” he says. “The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.”

Bill continues: “Beckett is the last writer to shape the way we think and see. After him, the major work involves mid-air explosions and crumbled buildings. This is the new tragic narrative.” When George chips in that terrorists are “the only possible heroes for our time”, Bill vehemently disagrees: “It’s pure myth, the terrorist as solitary outlaw. These groups are backed by repressive governments … they carry the old wild-eyed vision, total destruction and total order.”

Later, the photographer Brita, working as a freelancer, accepts an assignment in war-torn Beirut to take pictures of the organisation’s leader Abu Rashid, who says to her: “I will tell you why we put Westerners in locked rooms. So we don’t have to look at them. They remind us of the way we tried to mimic the West … which you now see exploded all around you.” And this: “Terror is what we use to give our people their place in the world … terror makes the new world possible.”

Read those words, written in 1992, and tell me you don’t have the chill of recognition. These scenarios, these words, could have been ripped out of yesterday’s newspapers. And, as has been said before, many times throughout the years, those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.

You need to read this book. Right now. It won’t always be a pleasant experience, and you won’t always enjoy it, but you will come away with the feeling that you can make just a little more sense of this convoluted, fucked-up, loony-toons crazy world we have created and continue to hone.

Wow. Just … wow.

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In which Netty tunes into DeLillo’s White Noise … and likes what she hears. Like, a lot.

July 30, 2014

noise-picI’m a big fan of white noise. I use white noise apps and machines on a daily basis: anywhere and everywhere I need to block out the incessant din of other people and the oft-annoying frequencies they generate, knowingly or otherwise. It’s not for everyone, but the distorted, all-encompassing buzz is both a source of comfort and salvation for this urban dweller (for anyone interested I recommend Simply Noise, and no – this is not an advertisement!).

Don DeLillo’s eighth novel, White Noise was published in 1985, well predating such devices. It wasn’t even his original title – electronics giant Panasonic vetoed DeLillo’s proposed use of its name as the book’s moniker. It’s widely considered DeLillo’s breakthrough novel – the book that, after a decade and a half, took him from a cultish underground following into the literary mainstream and won the first of many important awards to boot.

This being the fifth DeLillo novel I have read – and with three more to come in this mini-challenge – I feel like I’ve settled into his groove now. I go in knowing what to expect from this author – dense and difficult themes explored in clear and concise language, told in first or third person by complicated and complex male narrators/characters, and with no obvious indicators of where the plot is heading or how it is going to be resolved. No one could ever accuse DeLillo of being an easy read, but the rewards are manifest and many for doing so.

And I can safely say White Noise is my favourite thus far in my journey through DeLillo’s back catalogue, although I freely acknowledge I’m only just under a third of the way there. And – oddly for a DeLillo – the first third of the book was a surprisingly easy read, with the pages just flying by (I note he redeemed himself in the latter stages of the book).

As White Noise opens, Professor Jack (J.A.K.) Gladney, North America’s pre-eminent Hitler scholar, is teaching his (somewhat controversial, I would have thought!) subject of choice and happily raising his blended brood of four with his fourth wife (his fifth marriage overall), Babette, in a small American Midwestern college town.

The smart and snappy first section, Waves and Radiation, introduces this eminently likeable, idiosyncratic, modern-day Brady Bunch. Heinrich and Steffie (Jack’s kids) and Denise and Wilder (Babette’s) have settled into reasonable domestic harmony; Jack and Babette also have other children who don’t live with them (Jack’s daughter Bee makes a brief, hardly noticeable appearance in the first section). It is heavily dialogue-driven, sizzling with a satirical sass that quickly pulls in the reader and almost lulls him/her into a false sense of security.

Life is hectic, but good. Scratch the surface and look again. Jack suffers from insomnia, while Babette fights a constant battle against middle-age bulge; both are terrified at the thought of their respective deaths and each other’s, with poignant nocturnal conversations and musings that stretch into the wee hours. Denise, a wary, watchful tween, obsessively monitors her mother’s health and ingestions (with good reason, as it turns out), while her whip-smart, brooding stepbrother Heinrich turns his gaze outwards from the domestic arena.

It is Heinrich, decked out in camouflage, armed with binoculars and perched on a second-story ledge at the family home, who first notices the “airbourne toxic event” that heralds the novel’s second section. It forces the township to evacuate their homes, during which Jack is inadvertently exposed to the noxious cloud of gas while filling the family car’s petrol tank. Tests carried out at the emergency centre lead Jack to believe the exposure will hasten his death, adding another layer to his deep-set paranoia, while it turns out that Babette has drastically and irrevocably taken matters into her own hands when it comes to facing down her fears, as revealed in the third and final section, Dylarama.

While the Gladney clan are front and centre throughout the novel, mention must be made of Jack’s academic colleagues, particularly recent lecturer recruit Murray Jay Siskind, with whom Jack shares friendship and deep philosophical conversations. Siskind is a frequent and often funny presence throughout these pages, popping up in some unlikely situations and circumstances – and a pivotal discussion between the pair late in the book becomes a call-to-arms spur for Jack that threatens to bring about a seemingly unavoidable culmination of events to that point. Nope, no spoilers from me!

This is a canny and astute meditation on modern life and death in late twentieth-century America, from where it had come and where it was going. During one heated family conversation, after the airborne toxic event (there is a US band, still going today, who took the phrase as its name), an exasperated Heinrich warns: “The real issue is the kind of radiation that surrounds us every day … forget spills, fallouts, leakages. It’s the things right around you in your own house that’ll get you sooner or later.” While Jack and Babette are going to extreme measures to outrun their fear of their eventual demise, Murray muses on the real reason behind Jack’s professional focus on Hitler: “(He is) larger than death. You thought he would protect you … the overwhelming horror would leave no room for your own death … ‘Submerge me … absorb my fear’.” Another of Jack’s colleagues, scientist Winnie Richards, crucially reminds him: “It’s a mistake to lose one’s sense of death, even one’s fear of death. Isn’t death the boundary we need?” DeLillo was closing in on the big five-oh! when the novel was first published, so it’s easy to see from where these preoccupations might have been coming.

Overall White Noise is a brilliant read – pretty much flawless in plot, characterisation and especially dialogue. At only one point towards the end did the potential “wrapping up” of the plot seem a little too obvious to me (something of which one could rarely accuse DeLillo!), but that is a minor quibble. This is a book that stays with you and makes you go on wondering long after you finished the final page.

So. I would have to say if you’re only going to read one DeLillo, make it this one. Of course, I may well a different view in another one, two, three books’ time. Stay tuned!

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In which Netty goes searching for the Omega Point, but will settle for the Mojave Desert any day …

May 26, 2014

ImageThe omega point is a theory, postulated by early 20th century French priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that the universe is evolving towards a maximum level of complexity and consciousness. It’s a weighty concept far beyond my meagre scientific understanding of the cosmos, but possibly not that of Don DeLillo, whose most recent novel – Point Omega, published in 2010 – bears its moniker.

DeLillo turns 78 later this year, and while he is yet to do a Roth (fellow American author Philip Roth announced, just shy of his 80th birthday, that he had “retired” from writing books), he has not published any new novels in four years (a short story collection came out in 2011). After the opuses released in the decade from 1988 to 1998, his noughties output became increasingly less prolific and more sparse – amounting to just four novellas (including Point Omega) during that time. Of these, I have also read Cosmopolis (2003) and The Falling Man (2007); the so-called “late-phase DeLillo”.

It was not my original intention to read Point Omega this early into my DeLillo min-challenge – and I certainly hope that there are more novels to come before he shuffles off to that great library in the sky. But it inadvertently turned out to be a serendipitous move, as there are certain unmistakeable parallels between this and DeLillo’s debut Americana (you can read what I had to say about that here). Superficially, both concern film, with major characters who are attempting to either frame their lives, or make a statement, via the medium.

In Americana, it was 28-year-old TV executive-cum-wannabe filmmaker David Bell. In Point Omega, it is 35-year-old Jim Finley, also a New Yorker. Following a lecture in NYC, Finley approaches septuagenarian scholar Richard Elster, who was co-opted by the US Government to advise on and contribute to the intellectual strategy behind its war efforts, after he published a provocative essay called Renditions.

Finley wants to make a one-take film (“just a man and a wall”) about Elster’s time in government and, ipso facto, his involvement in the military complex (“the blat and stammer of Iraq”). Elster point-blank refuses, but nonetheless invites Finley to join him at his holiday retreat (“somewhere south of nowhere in the Sonoran Desert or maybe it was the Mojave Desert”). It is Elster’s “spiritual retreat”; “Time slows down when I’m here. Time becomes blind … I never know what day it is. I never know if a minute has passed or an hour. I don’t get old here,” he asserts.

Finley joins Elster for a visit he envisages will last two or three days at the most, but the days soon become weeks as the younger man settles into life in the desert – omelettes for breakfast; scotch on the porch in the evenings; talk, reverie, remembrance, philosophising. At one point (no pun intended!), Elster mentions he studied the work of Teilhard de Chardin as a student, and poses the question to his young charge: “Do we have to be human forever? Consciousness is exhausted. Back now to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field”.

Twentysomething Jessie arrives at the house, despatched from NYC by her mother, Elster’s estranged wife Galina, who is worried about their daughter’s involvement with a man. As her stay lengthens, Finley finds himself increasingly, but quietly, attracted to Jessie, culiminating in a night where he stands at her bedroom door, watching her as she ostensibly sleeps. The following day, Finley and Elster return from a supplies expedition into town to discover that Jessie has disappeared without a trace. The two men, the younger frantic and frenetic, the older quietly despairing and slowly withdrawing, call in the authorities; in a conversation with Finley, the local sheriff notes that people come to the desert to commit suicide. With the ongoing searches proving fruitless, and Elster increasingly retreating into himself, Finley decides they have to return to NYC, even though he knows deep down the answers are as unlikely to be found there as in the Californian desert.

I know what you’re thinking: sounds like a reasonably straightforward mystery. But this is DeLillo, so you can throw that out the window. Point Omega is bookended by two sections wherein a lone, unnamed man spends two days in early September standing in NYC gallery MOMA, watching an installation entitled 24 Hour Psycho – the famous Alfred Hitchcock film slowed down to two frames per second, meaning the 109-minute movie takes a full 24 hours to screen (DeLillo has said in interviews that he inadvertently saw this 1993 work, by British artist Douglas Gordon, at MOMA in 2006). In the opening section, the unnamed man observes two men, one older, one younger – whom he assumes are filmographers – enter the gallery space and watch the installation; he experiences something akin to annoyance when they leave after about 10 minutes. In the closing section, as the lone, unnamed man again watches the installation, a solitary, unnoticed woman approaches him and asks, “What am I looking at?” They converse for a while, she leaves, he follows her and asks for her number, before he returns to the gallery to continue watching the installation.

Again, seemingly straightforward. But things are never really as they seem in DeLillo’s world. And perhaps, like the character who returns to MOMA day after day to watch Psycho, the key to the riddle is in repetitious viewing in slow-motion until we reach our own omega point. As The X Files’ Fox Mulder would say, the truth is out there. As Teilhard de Chardin might have it, it is beyond human consciousness.

Point Omega is a stunning, multi-faceted work that rewards re-reading – easy enough to do in the context of its brevity. But, as always, one man’s meat is another man’s poisson. I easily can see how someone else would find the book a frustrating, ponderous, pompous literary wank. You probably already know which category you fall into. If you’re in the former, then jump right in; if not, well, maybe you’d prefer something in the ilk of a Dan Brown. Horses for courses, as they say. Count me on board for this ride, long may it last.

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In which Netty goes on a trip through Americana with author-of-choice deLillo …

March 19, 2014

ImageI could have chosen Phillip Roth. Or Kurt Vonnegut. Or William Faulkner. Or Ernest Hemingway. Those are the authors who have made the biggest impression on me during the past six years of ANRC. Along with, I should hasten to add – and in order to retilt the gender balance somewhat – Nadine Gordimer and Joan Didion. Neither of those women was on the short list simply because I have already made good on the promise to myself to make further inroads into their back catalogues.

But no, I picked Don deLillo, an author with whom I have been intrigued since Andy and I read Falling Man for ANRC several years ago now.  (You can check in with what I had to say about it here.) Indeed, when I did my end-of-year round-up that year, deLillo came in second behind only … Didion. I have since only read one more of his books – 2003’s Cosmopolis, a mere slip of a thing at just over 200 pages. Because that’s the other thing about deLillo. He has written some seriously fuck-off-mammoth books. Several of which I have committed myself to reading this year. God help me …

Like Andy’s Adventures in Iris Murdoch (that should be a book title in itself!), I chose to go back to the very beginning with deLillo. His first novel, published in 1971, was Americana – and that’s where my deLillo mini-challenge starts. My 2011 Penguin edition features an endorsement from none other than Martin Amis on its cover. “A writer who, once you read him, makes you want to read everything he has done,” Amis has penned. Three books in, I can but concur.

DeLillo, a native New Yorker, worked as an advertising copywriter before quitting the industry and devoting himself to fiction writing. Write what you know is a common mantra for first-time novelists, and it’s no surprise that deLillo’s first effort is set in his hometown and features characters involved in the advertising and television industries.

Americana is the first-person narrative of 28-year-old New York City television executive David Bell. Bell, who hails from a comfortable east coast family – both his grandfather and his father were scions of advertising – has rather effortlessly scaled the heights of his cut-throat industry. But he constantly needs to stay on top of and negotiate the poisonous, dog-eat-dog politics of his office. On a personal level, he maintains a friendly relationship with his ex-wife Meredith, who lives in the same apartment building and with whom he still occasionally sleeps; otherwise he does not want for female company.

Bell is planning a new project for the TV network, a documentary series on the Navaho Indians, about which his colleagues remain unsure. Undeterred, he sets out with a cache of film equipment into the heart of the Midwest, en route to Arizona, in a campervan with three travelling companions – Sullivan, a thirtysomething sculptor in whom Bell has a wary interest; Pike, a 60-plus ex-military man; and Brand, an ex-junkie, would-be novelist (“The whole country’s going to puke blood when they read it,” he declares).

Bell, meanwhile, wants to make his own movie (“A long messy autobiographical-type film … a long unmanageable movie full of fragments of everything that’s part of my life”). As the trio inadvertently set up shop in Fort Curtis – with Bell reckoning he has a couple of weeks before he needs to be on-set in Arizona  – the project takes on a life of its own. It becomes Bell’s singleminded, obsessive focus, as he ropes in local townsfolk, and a couple of actors he meets en route, to take on roles in it – eventually jettisoning the planned Navaho doco and, thus, his big-time TV exec job.

With filming of his project finally complete and his travelling companions ready to return back east, Bell decides to push onwards and hits the road solo. He meets a wealthy Texan businessman called Clevenger and joins him on a road trip that culminates in a depraved orgy. From there, Bell’s journey quickly peters out until there is only one thing left for him to do – go home.

Americana is divided into four parts – the first introduces Bell and outlines his current-day situation; the second delves into his youth and family background; the third involves the road trip and making of his film; and the fourth is its immediate aftermath. DeLillo reportedly worked on the novel for several years, before his prolific 1970s period (in which he published six books, including this debut). Even for a first novel, there is a certain cool, considered assurance behind the prose, foreshadowing what is to come. But while I really enjoyed the first three parts, I felt the book ran out of steam and veered off course in the over-the-top final section, which jars against the tone of its predecessors and is a somewhat unsuccessful attempt to wrap it all up.  

Bell is not a particularly likeable character – he is smug, arrogant and overly self-assured, sort of a Don Draper meets Patrick Bateman (without the serial killing, obviously). But he is also teetering on the edge of a certain type of madness, and as the book progresses and the more tenuous his grip on reality becomes, the more he elicits a certain sympathy from the reader – especially played against the poignant backdrop of his family background, particularly the relationship with his late mother, in part two.

Americana is a book very much of its time and place – the disintegration of the idealism of the 1960s and the heralding of a new, hard-edged decade, viewed through the lens of the quintessential road trip and the death of the American dream, full of slick, slyly dark humour. As such, it has much in common with Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, or even Kerouac’s On The Road, thematically speaking. Which is why I can forgive it a few flaws in its latter pages. It is also interesting to note that deLillo revised Americana for later editions – as my copy was published in 2011, I presume that that is the version I have read, although I am also curious enough about the original to want to track it down.

Overall, Americana is a promising first step on my year-long deLillo journey. Like they say in Bell’s TV business, stay tuned.

 

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In which Netty falls for DeLillo’s Man. No pun intended.

March 13, 2011



I imagine that everyone remembers where they were on September 11, 2001. Without doubt it’s a touchstone for our generation, much the same as previous generations who remember where they were for the declaration of V-day, the advent of television, the assassination of JFK, man landing on the moon, the death of Elvis Presley, the murder of John Lennon, the Challenger space shuttle crash, the collapse of the Berlin wall, the beginning of the (first) Iraq war, the death of Princess Diana …

Here’s my 9-11 tale (well, part of it, anyways). 10.40pm Tuesday night, September 11, 2001. AEST. I’m a journo, right? And it’s a pretty slow news night, really, as you’d expect for a Tuesday night in early September. Biggest story in town is Matthew Lloyd – the Bombers are on their way to the Grand Final, but Lloyd, their spearhead, is up at the tribunal; I can’t remember the charge, but the gist of the yarn is, is he going to be wiped out for the Big One? I worked in sport back in those days – we’d finished edition, we’re watching Talking Footy on Seven; they’re talking about Lloyd, and he’s our poster for the next day; we’re wrapped up for the night and looks like we’ll get a (slightly) early cut; one of our guys goes round the corner to the news desk to ask about our cabs home. He fair-dinkum sprints back to our section. “Turn over the channel,” he says – but Channel 7 is already going straight to a report out of the United States; a plane has crashed into one of the twin towers in New York City …

Well, you know the rest … And as for me, I got home around 6.30am, just before the fourth updated edition for the night hit the streets …

Don DeLillo has been on my – and Andy’s – radar for a while now. And yeah, maybe we should have tackled Underworld, but you know what? It’s a mother-fucker of a book (1000-ish pages), and yeah, we both like to read, but we’ve also got lives – you know, we’ve got to work, and sleep, and other stuff … So, instead, we chose Falling Man. I mean, yeah, it’s only a couple of hundred pages and it’s one of DeLillo’s more recent books – you’ve gotta start somewhere …

Falling Man was published in 2007 – six years after the towers came down. If you’re that way inclined, there’s a fair raft of fiction around that deals with that particular September morning in 2001. I’ve read Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which I would recommend in a heartbeat, and Nick McDonnell’s The Third Brother, which I probably wouldn’t. It’s the 10-year anniversary of that event this year, but it’s still – to me, anyway – like a wound that never really heals; you pick off the scab, and it starts to bleed all over again. And I’m saying this as someone who lives on the other side of the world; who didn’t know anyone involved in those attacks; who has no reason whatsoever to have any emotional attachment to those events; and yet … it’s still pretty raw to me, so I can only imagine what it must be like to people who lived through it.

Falling Man opens with Keith Neudecker, covered in soot, grime and blood, injured, but not seriously, carrying a briefcase, making his way through the city centre. A lawyer, he has escaped the destruction and collapse of the twin towers, and winds up on the doorstep of his ex-wife Lianne. The couple’s seven-year-old son Justin, whom they have sheltered from the news of the attacks, is nonetheless partially aware of what has happened  – he and two of his young friends isolate themselves from their parents to scour the skies with a pair of binoculars, looking for a man they know as Bill Lawton (whom they have misheard from Obama Bin Laden), fearing he will bring more destruction to their lives. Keith tracks down the owner of the briefcase he carried out of the towers; it belongs to a fellow survivor, Florence, and their connection results in a brief affair, even as Keith tries to rebuild his life with Lianne. She juggles the self-imposed demands of a group of Alzheimer’s sufferers with the ailing health of her mother Nina, and is increasingly annoyed by a neighbour in her apartment block who plays loud and – to her mind – “inappropriate” Arabic music.

Interspersed with the main narrative are several chapters relating the story of Hammad, an Arab who has undergone religious-based training in Germany and is now in the United States, undertaking flight instruction and quietly preparing for his destiny – which is to be part of the crew that pilots two commercial planes into the twin towers. That DeLillo gives these characters the names of the real-life terrorists makes these passages especially disquieting.

Several years pass after that fateful day, and Keith and Lianne have established some sort of quiet, desperate rapport on which to rebuild their marriage. Keith has abandoned law in favour of a career as a professional poker player and is often away from home, memorably crossing paths in Las Vegas with Terry Cheng, a member of his old group of poker pals, most of whom perished in the towers. Lianne’s beloved mother Nina has since died; her mother’s long-time lover Martin – who may or may not have been involved in some sort of terrorist activity himself in his youth – returns to Europe, and her Alzheimer’s group has splintered. A man whose post-9-11 performance art appals locals – and, in one elongated passage, Lianne – also passes away, from natural causes.

The book ends with Hammad aboard the plane that flies into the tower, which segues into Keith’s experience in, and subsequent escape from, the tower. There are not words that can do justice to this final chapter, a mere 10 pages long, which contains some of the most sparse, perfectly constructed and elegant prose I have ever read, and which also packs one helluva emotional punch without ever resorting to histrionics – much like the rest of this slim volume. God, this man can write. And presumably DeLillo – a New York born and bred native – has ties to this event above and beyond what someone such as myself can comprehend.  Which just makes this novel all the more astounding.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the NYC attacks. I hope I never again see anything like it in my lifetime, but then again the natural disasters that have abounded in its wake are horrific enough. When you think about it, it’s a pretty fucked-up world all around. So thank god (figuratively speaking, that is) that there are writers such as Don DeLillo around to try and make sense of it all. So, if you haven’t already done so, read Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud, and read Falling Man, and then read more DeLillo. We all owe it to ourselves. Andy and I don’t have a rating system per se on this blog, but I’m putting this one out there – right here, right now.

Five stars.