We conclude our special week-long look at the work of fiction master Don DeLillo with a piece written exclusively for the Spinoff by Jesse Kavadlo, Professor of English and Humanities at the Maryville University of St Louis in Missouri, and president of the Don DeLillo Society.
Don DeLillo is following me.
I know what you’re thinking—DeLillo is the chief shaman of the paranoid school of America literature, not the conspirator. But for the past two decades, from when I first began my doctoral dissertation on DeLillo’s novels until now, it seemed that everywhere I looked, I saw Don DeLillo’s handiwork. In the mid-2000s, I turned on the TV to watch what I expected to be an update of Gilligan’s Island and instead got Lost, a DeLillo-esque reflection on the nature of belief, that used DeLillo’s techniques from Libra and other novels to fracture narrative and perspective, a reiteration of White Noise’s propensity of plots to move deathward, a Falling Man litany of our post 9-11 anxieties of plane crashes, physical isolation made spiritual, a tropical version of Mao II’s terrorists gaining power from, not despite, their isolation.
I changed the channel to another critical hit to watch Mad Men, and I saw a postmodern recasting of the late 1950s straight out of DeLillo’s Underworld, the time when we first began our precarious slip into the age of media and simularcrum, an impressionist title sequence in echo of DeLillo’s falling man, itself in reference to Tom Junod’s 2003 Esquire magazine analysis “The Falling Man,” itself a reference to the photograph by Richard Drew, himself the photographer who was spattered with the blood of an assassinated Kennedy (Bobby, not John). Everything is connected.
Let me rephrase. Everything is connected—to Don DeLillo.
The “Forward” to 2008’s Best American Essays used DeLillo to exemplify “serious literary works—a Mary Oliver poem, a Don DeLillo story, a Louis Menand essay”. He, or his simulacrum, appeared in The Onion, the satirical newspaper, in a blog by “Don DeLillo, Master of Postmodern Literature” titled “All The Electric Premonition That Rides The Sky Being A Drama Of Human Devising.” The awards, the reviews, the “New York Times Most Important Novels of the Past 25 Years” list, the non-stop scholarly books, articles, and conference presentations about his work and, as Mao II puts it of Bill Gray, “work about his work.”
Now with the publication of Zero K, DeLillo seems omnipresent—I tell my literature students that he’s the most famous writer they’ve never heard of, such is his genius for conspiring—yet his ubiquity may not help those same students, who often become more confused once they begin reading. As a different Onion “Don DeLillo” parody title suggests, “Author Don DeLillo Says A Lot of Complicated Things We Were Too Nervous To Ask Him To Explain.” But while The Onion, and my students, may be nervous, for over 20 years critics have continued to respond to the fertile yet protean nature of DeLillo’s works.
Don DeLillo even followed me to St Louis, where I’ve lived since 2004 after, like DeLillo, growing up in New York City (Brooklyn, not the Bronx) and attending Fordham University (indeed in the Bronx). DeLillo moved to Westchester; I simply moved west. On the day of the announcement, friends from all over the country forwarded me link: Don DeLillo would appear to accept the Saint Louis Literary Society Award. A book signing, talk, interview, and banquet.
Although I heard DeLillo read from Underworld in 1997 in New York, 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 complicated the simple Meet the Author, since, from Americana onward, DeLillo has complicated the concept of authorship itself. In Great Jones Street, Ratner’s Star, Underworld, of course Mao II, and 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) graduate 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 St. Louis Cardinals jersey who told me that he wasn’t an academic but he “really liked Don DeLillo.” In a way, along with me (rock 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.
Everything is connected. To Don DeLillo.
After the room finally filled, when DeLillo was escorted in, 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 13 years, but “decade” sounded cleaner, and rounding down made me seem less like a Mao II Scott Martineau-style stalker or White Noise 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 reading of Barthes’s or Foucault’s notions of “the death of the author,” 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 signed, “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.
Despite occasional critical accusations of coldness, I can’t help but feel as though, since Underworld and through Zero K, DeLillo’s novels have reduced space between character and reader. His frequent uses of direct addresses, interior monologues, and streams of consciousness, for example, create closeness that DeLillo has previously resisted. Through them, perhaps we may find meaning, and even beauty, after the fall and beyond the end of the world. In retrospect, I suppose Don DeLillo wasn’t following me after all. His deceptively intimate novels simply made it seem that way. Of course, I’ve been following him.
We all have, whether we realise it or not.
The Spinoff Review of Books is sponsored by Unity Books