FeaturesJuly 19, 2016

DeLillo Week: A bluffer’s guide to the masterpieces of maybe the world’s greatest living writer


The world is a fucked-up place with terrorists controlling the narrative (and the images), and distracted, anxious, over-fed America  slouching towards a Trump apocalypse. Don DeLillo anticipated the way things have turned out; to mark the publication of his latest book, the Spinoff Review of Books devotes the entire week to the work of maybe the world’s greatest living novelist. Today: Thom Shackleford walks through five of the best of the master’s novels.

Americana (1971)

DeLillo’s first novel tells the picaresque tale of David Bell, a 28-year-old television executive. In the beginning, he’s akin to one of the glib creatives in Mad Men: an unrepentant New Yorker, who pairs Scotch with all occasions, turns secretary seduction into a sport, and makes his living by curating the visual content which flickers before the watchful eyes of the American home. Then his success stops feeling meaningful. David becomes consumed by the realisation that he’s mistaken the limits of corporate vision for the limits of the world – he’s found himself lost inside the delusional sleep of the American Dream – and so he sets out into his nation’s heartland with a video camera in tow, in a mad pilgrimage to find and record something real and true.

This revelation changes the way the story is told, with straightforward narrative giving way to a surrealist mode of expression that lays bear its French New Wave roots. Of particular influence is Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou, a film about a former TV exec who tires of his vapid, bourgeois lifestyle, and embarks on an unhinged, existential crime spree across France.

As with the film, Americana is replete with references to mass culture and pop art, and like New Wave Film in general the plot is simple yet out-of-focus, with continuous digressions from the main story line that tickle the subconscious in all sorts of curious ways. Americana established the blueprint for all that would follow from DeLillo.

White Noise (1985)

This is the book that made him, the seminal work that turned him from a cult hero to a lauded author. The theme is death, and how we come to terms with mortality.

In White Noise the consoling allures of consumerism, entertainment, drugs and love come to be seen as the soundproof walls of a society that desperately wants to quieten death’s ambient whispers. The hero used to explore all of this is Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies who lives in suburbia with his fourth wife, Babette, and their blended family. Jack spends the first part of the novel contentedly brooding and musing over modern life until a chemical spill creates one very large memento mori in the form of noxious black cloud. It hangs over his town like an ominous spectre.

Jack is forced to confront his fear of death, leading him to uncover something truly disconcerting about the person closest to him – and he learns precisely how far people will go to forget they’re future dust. White Noise is about as black as black comedy can get.

The book is actually more relevant now than when it was published; it’s as though DeLillo divined a time when most if us can’t be left alone in a room without some kind of device to protect us from a confrontation with our thoughts. If any book is going to convince you to get into DeLillo, it’s this one, and it should be read by anyone who intends on dying at some point in their life.

Libra (1988)

DeLillo once said “a large part of the material you could find in my novels – the sense of fatality, of widespread suspicion, of mistrust – came from the assassination of JFK.” It’s only fitting, then, that the greatest of his novels returns to that historic moment. In Libra DeLillo seamless synchronizes fact and fiction in order to make sense of an event which continues to consume conspiracy theorists, and traumatise the American conscious.

The story of the assassination is the story of Lee Harvey Oswald, a dyslexic loner, coddled mother’s boy, and all-purpose reject who, despite his ill-starred circumstances, believes himself to be an agent of history. Over the course of the novel, Oswald, a Libra, comes to epitomise the symbolism of his star sign, becoming an unbalanced set of scales, acted upon by the forces of fate, who changes the balance of history.

Throughout this masterpiece, DeLillo displays an uncanny talent for inhabiting the minds of real world figures, turning mercurial characters like Jack Ruby and the Oswald family into narrating ventriloquist dummies, while fabricating extra characters that are indistinguishable from the truth. The effect of this further distorts the divide between the real and the imagined, as multiple voices tell their version of events. The reading experience might be similar to taking Quaaludes and getting stuck in a room with 20 paranoid Americans trying to rant and rave over the top of each other.

mao 2

Mao II (1991)

Protagonist Bill Grey is a Pynchon/Salinger type recluse who has spurned the hollow deceits of the public life, the life of the celebrity author, in order to write in peace, wanting only to comment on the state of man from a place of lofty solitude. The problem is the much anticipated book he has been working on is a solid gold turkey.

There was once a time when a picture of Salinger was a paparazzo’s ultimate prize. In Mao II, a photographer called Brita tracks Grey down and convinces him to let her take his portrait. The author is cagey about it. He holds the view that a photo imprisons some part of the soul. As Brita turns a man of shadows into an undying image, Grey tells her that in the age of images the novelist is fast becoming an anachronism. The individuals who are now able to imprint themselves on the collective mind, he tells her, are terrorists – they combine acts of violence with “raids of consciousness” that alter the cultural psyche. Grey eventually decides to abandon his novel to enter the world of political violence…

Underworld (1997)

This 800-page whopper is not for those with low tolerance thresholds. It’s been described as being one of the Himalayan peaks of his career; for the reader, it takes weeks of effort to mount it, and there are plenty of times when you’re tempted to give up, that you’re only persevering for bragging rights. And yet the view from the peak is something that will doubtlessly leave you feeling elevated and enlightened.

In Underworld, DeLillo amplifies the approach and themes he mastered in Libra: exploring how the spirit and consciousness of era are interconnected to the historical events that delineate time. It’s an encyclopaedia of the modern American zeitgeist from the 1950’s until the close of the 20th Century, as told by a cacophonous chorus of voices that represent seemingly every facet of US life – waste management consultants, gangsters, nuns, public figures as diverse as J Edgar Hoover and Lenny Bruce.

It’s difficult to talk about a book of this scale, immensity and structural complexity in anything other than abstract terms, but the best analogy I could think of is that of a shattered mirror, where each shard, each narrative fragment, reflects back a small portion of the world – and as the story progresses, the pieces slot back together to form a full reflection of the modern age.

The Spinoff Review of Books is brought to you by Unity Books.

The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books, recently named 2020 International Book Store of the Year, London Book Fair, and Creative New Zealand. Visit Unity Books Wellington or Unity Books Auckland online stores today. 

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

Get The Spinoff
in your inbox