With the publication of Point Omega this winter, the latest in a series of unsatisfying late novels, it has come time for Don DeLillo’s work as a novelist to be assessed by a standard less flimsy than the fashionable pieties and anti-pieties of the day. It is precisely such pieties we find guiding the assessments made by his contemporaries to date, critical or adulatory. DeLillo is either praised as another valiant contributor to the death of meaning, or the death sentence is proclaimed in absentia for a writer accused of employing techniques thieved from the tradition to topple its pillars with a carefully aimed landslide of trash. Both become laughable when manifest in specific judgments of form, meaning or pathos in the texts themselves. The “traditionalists” tell us that Americana has “no plot,” while Libra—which uses the fictionalized life of Lee Harvey Oswald as a Dickensian prism through which to reflect the history of mid-twentieth-century America, with a delicate omniscience which ducks and swoops through bird’s-eye landscapes down to the finest representations of smells, tastes, the physicality of an attempted suicide—is denounced for “glorifying conspiracy theories.”
The deacons of difference or indifference, on the other hand, reduce the humor and pathos of DeLillo’s writing to a series of demonstrations of their central thesis: “the death of the subject,” “meaning’s last stand,” or some such chatter. Thus the funniest and most moving moments alike become little more than examples to be ticked off. David Bell, the protagonist of Americana, reflects upon his physical attractiveness:
I was an extremely handsome young man. The objectivity which time slowly fashions, and the self-restraint it demolishes, enable me to make this statement without recourse to the usual modest disclaimers which give credit to one’s parents or grandparents in the manner of a sires-and-dams book … I had almost the same kind of relationship with my mirror that many of my contemporaries had with their analysts. When I began to wonder who I was, I took the simple step of lathering my face and shaving. It all became so clear, so wonderful. I was blue-eyed David Bell. Obviously my life depended on this fact.
A recent critic rather ridiculously interprets this passage as an indication of the protagonist’s belief in the metaphysical self-identity of the individual, a belief he will shed along with the reader as we follow his journey into the absent heart of postmodern America, where all truth evaporates. A less sophisticated reader might be amused by the suggestion that attractive people are automatically immune to spiritual turbulence or moral uncertainty, while finding a certain poignancy in the understated juxtaposition between the implied cynicism of Bell’s attitude and the almost endearing naïveté with which he holds it.
Missing from critical evaluations so far has been attention to pathos—a gauge of the writing’s surface power and the hidden patterns and connections sustaining it—and form—the literary art by means of which the pathos is achieved and the patterns take their effect. These are the standards I believe ought to be applied to DeLillo’s work, and those by which it will stand or fall. It is true that DeLillo’s career has seen highs and lows—after the publication of Underworld in 1997 it has sunk into a disquietingly lengthy trough—and if we had only his two or three worst novels, his critics might almost be right. At first, Point Omega has the disheartening feel of having been written by a technically proficient and uninspired imitator of DeLillo’s work. Some critics have tried to see the novel’s defects as experimental virtues, misguided perhaps by deference in the face of DeLillo’s advanced age and assumed historical wisdom. Yet it is probably more accurate to see Point Omega not as “an object lesson in the methods of late-phase literature in general,” as Guardian book reviewer James Lasdun has written, but rather as an object lesson in its characteristic pitfalls.
For Lasdun, Point Omega has substituted an introspective formalism for the epic scope and grandeur that characterized much of DeLillo’s earlier material. Point Omega, he contends, relies for its success not on the powerful impact and attraction with which the novelist compels the reader to take notice, but rather on gently drawing his participation into a train of thought whose profounder conclusions are suggested only obliquely. This contention is not persuasive. One need not take issue with the questionable supposition that novelists become more introspective as they approach old age and death—a claim which, even if there were more evidence for it than Lasdun proffers, ought to incline suspicious minds to be wary lest what they take for thoughtful introspection be not mere senility. Most reviewers have remarked upon the novel’s formal minimalism, a focus on momentary thoughts or sensations so close-up as to render their background distant and indeterminate. Sam Anderson even describes Point Omega as having achieved a formal “breakthrough”: “It brings us, in just over 100 pages, as close to pure stasis as we’re ever likely to get.” Yet DeLillo relies on precisely the opposite to keep the reader interested: the cheap thrill of current events, of the transient qua transient. Loosely based on Errol Morris’s portrayal of Vietnam-era Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in The Fog of War, the protagonist is Richard Elster, a neoconservative intellectual who achieved notoriety by providing erudite and sophistic justifications for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, in close consultation with the Pentagon.
The resultant tension, between narrative stasis and the giddy, instantly accessible flash of current events, is heavy-handedly symbolized in the novel’s opening scene, which depicts Elster watching a 24-hour slow-motion edit of Alfred Hitchcock’s pop-horror masterpiece Psycho at the MOMA in New York. David Ignatius is surely right in saying that “DeLillo has achieved a precision and economy of language here that any writer would envy,” and throughout the novel we recognize the sure hand of a master in the elegance of the prose, keeping the reader engaged even when little else does. What is more remarkable about Point Omega is the contrast of the ease and assurance of its execution, quite different from the instant belatedness one senses in the skilled but derivative imitator of an established style, with the banality of many of its observations and the incoherence of the whole. One often recognizes this phenomenon in the later work of novelists whose past achievements have been spectacular but who have long since descended from the peak of their powers, for example Gabriel García Márquez or Salman Rushdie. Such novels tend to display real formal virtues, which in a debut would be encouraging signs of future success but are here tainted by a manifest complacency in the overall scope that resembles, in a tired and flaccid way, the cocksure arrogance of the young novelist who writes with the authority he has almost earned. Exhausted potential begins to resemble vigorous and spasmodic immaturity.
Given these considerations, a plea for the enduring importance of DeLillo’s work can profitably focus on Americana, his first novel. Although DeLillo considers himself to have reached maturity only with White Noise, Americana shows a writer having already perfected his voice at its inception. The author’s departure in Americana from traditional tropes of plot, character development and so on bears witness that the essence of traditional formal conventions was not the extrinsic form itself but the underlying pathetic dynamic they successfully sustained. Critique of this departure is therefore as irrelevant as would be a critique of modern theater on account of its virtually ubiquitous disregard for the Aristotelian unities of place, time and action. Holding the novel together is DeLillo’s forging of a unified effect of language from the formal contradictions of his situation as a writer; those prominent in their partial resolution include the problem of the alternate banality and poetry of both vernacular and self- consciously literary styles.
A legacy of the nineteenth century was an increasing difficulty in achieving the balance demanded by this tension. Oscar Wilde’s technique pointed to one manner of resolution: the use of wit and its cynicism to intensify the poetry of the banal while unsentimentally sharpening the pathos of the social relationships it mediated. Wilde’s success was limited by the range of exploration it allowed itself and the confined sphere it drew upon; precisely the same technique, carried to brutal extremes, made Joe Orton’s drama of the 1960s a more powerful achievement, vitiated only by a lack of sentiment so complete as to leave no room for compassion. DeLillo’s style resembles just such a brutal intensification of Wilde’s technique, though tempered by a willingness (in this respect closer to Wilde himself) to indulge in the pleasures of taking conventions, clichés and mass-produced images at face value with a wry background awareness that such pleasure is indeed indulgent. Of course, Wilde and Orton, for all their differences, were both extremely British (a fact viscerally present to anyone who has undergone the misfortune of seeing their plays produced by Americans), while DeLillo brings a similar technique to bear on the fruitful possibilities of his own milieu—”Americana.”
The novel is an account of David Bell’s abandonment of his comfortably salaried advertising job in New York for a directionless road trip through America, sustained in part by his plan to film an experimental documentary about nothing in particular and in part by the seeming omnipotence of his American Express credit card—which contributes almost as decisively to his sense of invincibility as do his good looks. Americana is richly patterned, a sort of compromise between Dickens’s living archetypes and Joyce’s mythologization of everyday life: “When we reached the sidewalk, a lovely teen-age girl wearing pink eyelashes asked me for my autograph. ‘I don’t know who you are,’ she said, ‘but I’m sure you must be somebody.’ Her smile was rather winning, and blithely I signed her fold-out map of the subway system.”
The novel develops as a series of similar images and incidents, spliced with dry reminiscences of scenes from Bell’s earlier marriage, countless casual affairs and an equally casual divorce. They are interwoven with a clarity and a seamlessness which disquiets as one becomes aware of the emptiness it refracts, a society reducing its content to the amoral sweep of a camera gaze. Every page is replete with deft, suggestive touches, wryly funny or hinting at violence: “A deaf-mute couple took me the next forty miles. They looked enough alike to be twins. I sat in the back seat next to a guitar. Then I rode a short stretch with a man who sold rat poison and had once been a delegate to a political convention.”
But Americana leaves us wondering what produces the dazzling surface effect. The sublime indestructibility of its narrative technique contradicts its superficiality, yet superficiality is all we can find. Confused by the emptiness, every answer to its mystery remains unsatisfying. The differences between word and image, image and reality dissolve, but this dissolution only produces such an effect because it is a dissolution, because there are differences. This is both the pathos of the novel and the limitation of its scope, a limitation that DeLillo would strive to overcome. In his later works, the senselessness and contingency of the intimate perspectives he assembles are offered a certain redemption as they accumulate into a grand historical and global panorama and somehow become more than themselves—for instance, in his description of a boy rushing to a baseball game in New York:
Longing on a large scale is what makes history. This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trains, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day—men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts, going to a game.
Underworld is DeLillo’s grandest experiment in this panoramic direction, interweaving character portraits and life-stories of the notorious (such as J. Edgar Hoover and Lenny Bruce) and the obscure into a magnificent and fatalistic tapestry of Cold War history. It is only a limited success, however, because the essence of the problem is not so much the historical or local partiality of his vision as the irreconcilable tension between cynicism and longing within the perspective he creates. This tension remains whether it focuses on a sardonic TV executive and serial adulterer trying to discern a pattern to his desires or a conversation between statesmen or pundits during the dismantling of the Soviet Bloc. The clash of faiths, ambitions and ideologies across half a century of American history presented in Underworld are in essence indistinguishable from the treasures amassed in station wagons lined up on an obscure university campus at the beginning of fall semester as described in his most famous novel, White Noise. DeLillo’s art suggests that each is potentially as banal or beautiful, as disordered or meaningful, as the other, although in the novel as a whole the reader feels the struggle of the author’s intent to suggest otherwise: “The cartons of phonograph records and cassettes; the hairdryers and styling irons; the tennis rackets, soccer balls, hockey and lacrosse sticks, bows and arrows; the controlled substances, the birth control pills and devices; the junk food still in shopping bags—onion-and-garlic chips, nacho thins, peanut creme patties, Waffelos and Kabooms, fruit chews and toffee popcorn; the Dum-Dum pops, the Mystic mints.”
Underworld was also DeLillo’s last important novel, exposing the limitations of his art while crystallizing its lasting achievements. Although Americana has been singled out for special criticism by his detractors, and even the author himself has expressed embarrassment about its lack of high seriousness, I believe it is one of his two or three best novels, perhaps his best, because it captures the paradox at the center of his art without disguising it with ultimately unsuccessful attempts to rise a rank or two higher to what would be the level of the greatest English and Russian novelists of the nineteenth century. Nevertheless, an artistic corpus effectively premised on this tragicomic perspective is able to approximate such an achievement because it is a profoundly human perspective and to this extent profoundly “true,” even if ultimately wanting in coherence and wisdom. On the other hand, DeLillo’s treatment of recent history and current affairs, such as the 9/11 attacks in Falling Man or the invasion of Iraq in Point Omega, has gradually moved in the direction of contrived topical commentary—always a sign of creative exhaustion or artistically deleterious vanity in a serious novelist. But in his best novels, DeLillo’s America, like Dickens’s England or Tolstoy’s Russia, becomes ultimately a concrete symbol of human nature as he was able to conceive of it—rather than the object of dilettantish political science in the guise of fiction.
America would neutralize itself completely in illusion, Americana suggests, only the illusion is produced by a real world; so we are treated to the forms the world takes as it bends back upon itself, three dimensions trying to twist themselves into two or one as if they would then harmonize perfectly:
We all try to dress the same way here. Simple and beautiful. But it’s not like uniforms. It’s just part of the single consciousness of the community. It’s like everybody is you and you are everybody. Sex is mostly auto. You can watch someone doing something with himself or herself and then they can watch you do it. It’s better that way because it’s really purer and it’s all one thing.