WhenLibra came out in 1988, the American writer Robert Towers said that it had made Don DeLillo the ‘chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction’. ‘Paranoid school’ doesn’t get you very far – Pynchon and Mailer, both broad-brush comparisons, were the other faculty members Towers had in mind – but there’s mileage in the notion of DeLillo as a shaman. ‘Fiction, at least as I write it and think of it,’ he told a reading group in 1995, ‘is a kind of religious meditation in which language is the final enlightenment,’ and sacramental imagery of one kind or another tends to gather round a select few of his characters. In Underworld (1997), a waste management consultant feels ‘a sting of enlightenment’ as he contemplates the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, noting the ‘poetic balance’ between its ziggurats of garbage and the towers of the World Trade Center in the distance:
He … knew for the first time what his job was all about. Not engineering or transportation or source reduction. He dealt in human behaviour, people’s habits and impulses, their uncontrollable needs and innocent wishes, maybe their passions, certainly their excesses and indulgences but their kindness too, their generosity, and the question was how to keep this mass metabolism from overwhelming us …
He saw himself for the first time as a member of an esoteric order, they were adepts and seers, crafting the future, the city planners, the waste managers, the compost technicians, the landscapers who would build hanging gardens here, make a park one day out of every used and lost and eroded object of desire.
DeLillo doesn’t always use such grave cadences, and his early novels have a lot of fun channelling the voices of half-crazed people who are themselves attempting to channel the animating spirits of the culture. (‘Give us this day our daily dread … forever and never, oh man.’) ‘I’m not a great big visionary,’ a reclusive novelist says in Mao II (1991): ‘I’m a sentence-maker, like a donut-maker only slower.’ All the same, it’s understood that sentence-making has more in its sights than doughnuts: ‘Every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it and the writer learns how to know it when he finally gets there.’ There’s even a hope, however forlorn, of ‘extending the pitch and consciousness of human possibility’. Entranced by the discipline of accreting such sentences as ‘Systems planning is the true American artform’ or ‘Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time’ or ‘He took out his hand organiser and poked a note to himself about the anachronistic quality of the word skyscraper,’ DeLillo traverses the axis mundi – located somewhere in New York State – and communes directly with Technology, Anxiety, Death, The Image, The Crowd, Late Capitalism and so on. Then he returns with elliptical reports from which the tribe’s younger storytellers, from David Foster Wallace on, set about extracting a style and a tone attuned to new ways of feeling and not feeling.
One constant throughout these risk-filled spirit voyages has been DeLillo’s superbly take-it-or-leave-it posture towards the laity. ‘The writer leads, he doesn’t follow,’ he wrote in a letter to Jonathan Franzen in 1995. ‘The dynamic lives in the writer’s mind, not in the size of the audience. And if the social novel lives, but only barely, surviving in the cracks and ruts of the culture, maybe it will be taken more seriously … A reduced context but a more intense one.’ These are the words of a writer near the peak of his renown reassuring a fretful colleague, but they’re clearly marked by DeLillo’s time as a cultish, solitary figure in the 1970s, when intensity of context allowed him to thrive. There was a mainstream then and his place was outside it, a ‘child of Godard and Coca-Cola’, as the narrator of Americana (1971) calls himself, working up his vision with the singlemindedness of Ballard or the young Cronenberg. His high ambitions didn’t mean it wasn’t OK to dabble in thrillers and sports and science fiction, and to be funny as well as apprehensive about the image-addled world he saw coming into being. At the same time, he was free to trade in pure vibe, in ‘memory chains and waking dreams and every kind of mindlife’, and to manipulate large themes from a distance by writing about eloquent characters with a propensity to be dazzled by, as one of them puts it, ‘the neon of an idea’.
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