When Libra 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.
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