November 20, 1936, New York, NY, USA

Happiness is taking part of the struggle, where there is no borderline between one's own personal world and the world in general.

Lee Harvey Oswald's "Historic Diary" from the epigram to Don Delillo's Libra

Delillo is an American novelist, playwright, and fiction writer who is typically classified by literature scholars as a postmodernist. It is certainly the case that his work was created during the height of postmodernism, and deals with many of the issues of postmodernism (paranoia, pop culture, power structures, representation and reality). For me however, the thing that separates Delillo from other pomo leviathans like Thomas Pynchon, John Barth, and William Gaddis is the very real human warmth and sincerity with which he handles his characters.

In Libra (1988), what I would argue to be his masterwork, the lead character of (purported) presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald is, by the end of the novel, a sympathetic (if not pathetic) lost soul we are saddened to see die beneath the gun of Jack Ruby. For a person of his generation, a baby boomer, taking a pariah figure like Oswald, an American bete noir so hated that he makes our own Timothy McVeigh look like a piker, is an act of courage and creative sang froid. It's drumming up sympathy for the devil, and like Milton, Delillo succeeds. Talking head and self-appointed moral compass George Will called Libra, "...a violence against history." From Will, I would consider that a compliment, and cast-iron proof of his unassailable status as a self-aggrandizing asshole. But I digress...

The drive to humanize within the Postmodern Condition, what J.G. Ballard called, "the most dangerous casualty of the 20th century, the death of affect," is also evident is Delillo's more humorous works, like Ratner's Star (1976) or his "crossover hit," White Noise (1985). J.A.K. Gladney, the main character and narrator of WN, is a buffoon. He's a sophist, a scaredy-cat, the slouch-shouldered overweight embodiment of everything wrong with "the academy" in America. He's also, in Delillo's hands, likeable, funny, and humane. You find yourself rooting for the guy. You root for his son, Heindrich. He is dealing with many of the same issues as Pynchon, structures of control and our fear of the great beyond, now that we've killed off the Almighty. But where Pynchon is an unregenerate hermeticist, lost in a maze of invisible gnostic forces and guiding hands, Delillo trys to find the human trapped in the media-generated hall of mirrors.

Delillo is college educated, having graduated from Fordham University in New York City in 1958. He worked for several years as a copyrwriter for a major Madison Avenue advertising agency (I've never been able to find out which). He shares this in common with another pomo-wordslinger, Mark Leyner. However, the effect of this advertising legacy is less radioactively apparent with Mr. Delillo's work. It's still there though - we hear it in Marguerite Oswald's elliptical descriptions of home life, the "White Noise" hype surrounding "Dylar" a pharmaceutical that removes the fear of death. We hear it in Running Dog's bland euphemisms for desperate covert action.

Delillo lives in the suburbs of New York now, in Westchester. His wife is an investment banker, which he admits has granted him the financial freedom to write. He calls writing a "race against death." Since he only releases a new book every 5 years or so, it's easy to see how he feels this way. He is wiry and thin, a serious runner. He says that he gets a great deal of his thinking done during his runs. As far as his work habits are concerned, he writes about 4 hours in the morning, breaks for lunch, and then does research and makes notes during the afternoon.

Quotes

On the Kennedy Assassination and the Power of Television:

It's strange that the power of television was utilized to its fullest, perhaps for the first time, as it pertained to a violent event. Not only a violent, but of course, an extraordinarily significant event. This has become part of our consciousness. We've developed almost a sense of performance as it applies to televised events. And I think some of the people who are essential to such events...like John Hinkley are simply carrying their performing selves out of the wings and into the theater. Such young men have a sense of the way in which their acts will be perceived by the rest of us, even as they commit the acts. So there is a deeply self-referential element in out lives that wasn't there before.

On the pattern and violence in contemporary American life:

Certainly there are themes that recur. Perhaps a sense of secret patterns in our lives. A sense of ambiguity. Certainly the violence of contemporary life is a motif. I see contemporary violence as a kind of sardonic response to the promise of consumer fulfillment in America. Again we come back to these men in small rooms who can't get out and who have to organize their desperation and loneliness, who have to give it a destiny and who often end up doing this through violent means. I see the desperation against the backdrop of brightly colored packages and consumer happiness and every promise that American life makes day by day and minute by minute everywhere we go.

On systems culture in his work:

It is just my sense that we live in a kind of circular or near-circular system and that there are an increasing number of rings which keep intersecting at some point, whether you're using a plastic card to draw money out of an automatic teller machine or thinking about the movement of planetary bodies. I mean, these systems all seem to interact to me. But I view all of this in the most general of terms, and I have no idea what kind of scientific studies are taking place. The secrets within systems, I suppose, are the things that have informed my work. But they are almost secrets of consciousness, or ways in which consciousness is replicated in the natural world.

On euphemism, jargon, and the death of affect:

It's a language that almost holds off reality while at the same time trying to fit it into a formal pattern. The interesting thing about jargon is that if it lives long enough, it stops being jargon and becomes part of natural speech, and we all find ourselves using it. I think we might all be disposed to use phrases like "timeframe", which, when it was first used during the Watergate investigation, had an almost evil aura to it, because it was uttered by men we had learned to distrust so deeply.

Bibliography

Americana (1971)

End Zone (1972)

Great Jones Street (1973)

Ratner's Star (1976)

Players (1977)

Running Dog (1978)

The Names (1982)

White Noise (1985)

"The Day Room", a play (1987)

Libra (1988)

Mao II (1991)

Underworld (1997)

The Body Artist (2001)

Sources

  • "DeLillo, Don" Encyclop√¶dia Britannica Online.
  • "Introducing Don Delillo" edited by Frank Lentricchia, Duke University Press, 1994

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