Authors: Don DeLillo

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist


The author of challenging novels about contemporary mass culture, Don DeLillo (duh-LIHL-oh) is among the most important American fiction writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Born and raised in the Bronx in New York City, he received a B.A. from Fordham University in 1958. Details of his life from then until the publication of Americana in 1971 are sketchy at best, as DeLillo guarded his privacy and granted few interviews. His first published story appeared in 1960, and during the subsequent decade six additional short stories appeared in such major literary journals as Epoch and The Kenyon Review and in such magazines as Esquire. During the 1980’s DeLillo won several major awards, including a 1984 Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; a 1985 American Book Award for White Noise, and a 1988 American Book Award nomination for Libra, and a PEN/Faulkner Award for Mao II.{$I[AN]9810001296}{$I[A]DeLillo, Don}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;DeLillo, Don}{$I[tim]1936;DeLillo, Don}

DeLillo, who was reared in a Catholic environment and educated at a Jesuit university, writes fiction concerned with the secularization of myth and ritual in a mass culture. He works in a tradition of American novel writing that extends from Nathanael West to Robert Coover and Thomas Pynchon, with whom he is often compared. Each of his novels decodes a particular system by which contemporary human beings seek the comfort of a totalizing order, but always amid the onslaught of entropic, catastrophic forces. DeLillo focuses on complex structures of thought colliding with life’s ultimacies: randomness, the arbitrariness of language, violence, and death. These clashes are typically staged in tableaux of a sacrificial violence that eerily mimes the entropies of nature, an ironic reminder that human rage for order contains the seeds of that very disorder that is intended to be surmounted.

DeLillo’s career has unfolded in phases. The first, in which he published three novels in as many years, concerns the ordering technologies of American mass culture: cinematography in Americana, sports in End Zone, and popular music in Great Jones Street. All three novels are notable for their satire on the absurdities and paranoias of life in Middle America. In each the first-person narration and episodic plotting brings into play a large cast of secondary characters; also in each, the protagonists seek more authentic versions of themselves in exile from mass culture, only to reenter it out of resignation and with an idea of subverting its discourses.

When Ratner’s Star appeared after a three-year hiatus, nothing in DeLillo’s previous novels had prepared readers for the depth and breadth of its scientific allusions. His longest and most ambitious work before Libra, Ratner’s Star focuses on a fourteen-year-old Nobel Prize recipient in mathematics who is assigned to decode an extraterrestrial signal apparently sent from a planet circling Ratner’s star. Working at the Center for the Refinement of Ideational Structures, Billy Twillig is surrounded by a huge cast of eccentrics who can well be read as part of a vast, Menippean satire on contemporary theoretical science. The critic Tom LeClair has also shown that the novel is elaborately plotted around both a history of mathematics and a dyadic structure of chapters. Indeed, DeLillo’s next two novels can also be read as paired opposites: In Players adults engage in degenerative, childish games of espionage and sexual liberation; in Running Dog this play is displaced by the strictest technologies of patriarchal power.

In his third phase DeLillo turns more explicitly to the rites of power and sacrifice embedded in contemporary society. The Names focuses on a mystical cult of exiled Americans operating in a Mediterranean theater backlit by fears of international terrorism, whereas White Noise returns to the United States and the oblique satire of the novelist’s earlier work: His narrator, the chairman of a university’s “Department of Hitler Studies,” veers into a personal nightmare of mass cultural life that miniaturizes the horrors of Nazism he has studied. It was DeLillo’s breakthrough novel, and with Libra it shares an ironic view of the complexities, responsibilities, and finally the limits of historiography. Libra’s framing character is a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative trying impossibly to compose the story, twenty-five years after the fact, of Lee Harvey Oswald’s apparent assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Mao II represents the culmination of DeLillo’s third phase. Bill Gray, a reclusive novelist who serves as DeLillo’s alter ego, compares the function of the author and the terrorist in mass culture and wonders about the possibility of reclaiming individual identity from a civilization of crowds. In his short story “Pafko at the Wall,” published in Harper’s Magazine (October, 1992), DeLillo reminisces about the historic 1951 baseball game between the Giants and the Dodgers at New York City’s Polo Grounds. These works focus on the human desire for order, or plot. As he writes in Libra, “The tighter the plot of a story, the more likely it will come to death.”

That baseball game also surfaces as the opening scene in Underworld, which documents the effects of the Cold War on American culture, sweeping from 1951 to the 1990’s. The novel was nominated for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award in 1997, as well as garnering the Jerusalem Prize in 1999 and the William Dean Howells Medal from the National Academy of Arts and Letters in 2000. In The Body Artist DeLillo forsakes his usual panoramic viewpoint to focus on a single life (and death). The protagonist is Lauren Hartke, whose husband Rey commits suicide in the opening pages of the novel. Lauren soon finds a strange young man living in her house who may, or may not, be Rey’s reincarnation, his ghost, or simply an idiot savant mimic. Cosmopolis focuses on the life of Eric Packer, a twenty-eight-year-old business tycoon whose slow transit across Manhattan in a limousine on a single day in April, 2000, encapsulates the Zeitgeist of the early twenty-first century.

For DeLillo’s protagonists, deconstructing this “deathward logic” of systematic thought typically ends in ambiguous attempts to reconstruct experience through childish modes of action. The Names concludes with the prelogical narrative of a gifted boy; White Noise concludes with the death-defying excursion of a preverbal toddler who rides his tricycle onto the freeway. In fact, children (or childish adults) loom large throughout DeLillo’s work. Oriented to seemingly rational, adult systems by way of games, whether local or global, a simple sport or a complex of international espionage, they discover codifications of rules and possibilities for simulating order and dominance–and language is the primal game. Always in DeLillo, therefore, when language fails, a kind of elemental violence follows. Out of this represented chaos or sacrificial terror, human history emerges.

Recognition of DeLillo’s importance was slow to come. For years his novels were widely praised by reviewers and a small group of academicians, but they were not commercial successes; the plays–The Engineer of Moonlight, The Day Room, and The Rapture of the Athlete Assumed into Heaven–were ignored even by most critics. The turning point in his career came with White Noise, Libra, and Mao II, after which he became widely known as a major novelist in the generation that includes Donald Barthelme, Robert Coover, Joan Didion, Joseph McElroy, and Thomas Pynchon. DeLillo is particularly acclaimed for his inventiveness and his acute renderings of American speech and American consumer society.

BibliographyBizzini, Silvia Caporale. “Can the Intellectual Still Speak? The Example of Don DeLillo’s Mao II.” Critical Quarterly 37, no. 2 (Summer, 1995): 104-117. Bizzini discusses the “transformation” of the writer in Mao II using the theories of Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault. An interesting examination of the writer in postmodern society and a helpful introduction to the uses of both critics’ ideas within textual criticism.Bloom, Harold, ed. Don DeLillo’s “White Noise.” New York: Chelsea House, 2002. Part of the Modern Critical Interpretations series edited by Bloom. A wide range of essays are presented to give an overview of critical reactions to DeLillo’s novel.Bryant, Paula. “Discussing the Untellable: Don DeLillo’s The Names.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 29 (Fall, 1987): 16-29. Discusses DeLillo’s avocation of language in his novel The Names. Bryant cites DeLillo as a writer who uses “idiosyncratic expression within the existing language system.” Well worth reading; Bryant writes with knowledge and confidence.Carmichael, Thomas. “Lee Harvey Oswald and the Postmodern Subject: History and Intertextuality in Don DeLillo’s Libra, The Names, and Mao II.” Contemporary Literature 34, no. 2 (Summer, 1993): 204-218. An intertextual reading of three of DeLillo’s novels within the context of critical debates over the “subject.” Using the theories of Jean Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson, Carmichael argues the importance of Oswald’s presence in DeLillo’s novels and the “inescapable subversion” of history that results. For those familiar with critical theory.Civello, Paul. American Literary Naturalism and Its Twentieth-Century Transformations: Frank Norris, Ernest Hemingway, Don DeLillo. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1994. Devoting three chapters to DeLillo’s work, Civello first constructs a lineage for the naturalistic novel and then shows how DeLillo’s texts create a “postmodern transformation” of the “scientific assumptions” that undergird literary naturalism.Dewey, Joseph, Steven G. Kellman, and Irving Mallen, eds. Underwords: Perspectives on Don DeLillo’s “Underworld.” Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2002. Collection of essays focused on DeLillo’s award-winning novel.LeClair, Tom. In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. LeClair argues for placing DeLillo in the genre of what he calls the “systems novel.” LeClair’s lively study contains a bibliographical checklist, including a useful list of titles on systems theory.Mullen, Bill. “No There There: Cultural Criticism as Lost Object in Don DeLillo’s Players and Running Dog.” In Powerless Fictions? Ethics, Cultural Critique, and American Fiction in the Age of Postmodernism, edited by Ricardo Miguel Alfonso. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1996. An intense, close reading of connections between two of DeLillo’s novels. A thought-provoking discussion of DeLillo’s uses and abuses of official history.Nadeau, Robert L. “Don DeLillo.” In Readings from the New Book on Nature: Physics and Metaphysics in the Modern Novel. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1981. Nadeau’s study closely examines DeLillo’s novels up to Running Dog in the context of the new physics. Discusses how DeLillo’s work, in turning away from closed systems to a more “primal awareness,” approaches the immediate function of the word.Oriard, Michael. “Don DeLillo’s Search for Walden Pond.” Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction 20, no. 1 (1978): 5-24. According to Oriard, DeLillo is recording the “modern American’s futile search for the mystery of existence,” a vision of life that upholds chaos rather than order. Discusses DeLillo’s fifth novel, Players, and its acceptance of ambiguity rather than embracing of the simplistic harmony of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.Osteen, Mark. American Magic and Dread: Don DeLillo’s Dialogue with Culture. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. Eight essay-like chapters dissect DeLillo’s engagement with American culture and institutions, both respecting their power and integrity and denouncing the dangerous repercussions of their acts.Ruppersburg, Hugh, and Tim Engles, eds. Critical Essays on Don DeLillo. New York: G. K. Hall, 2000. Part of the Critical Essays on American Literature series, this volume collects a number of fine essays on the novelists.
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