Don DeLillo by C.D. Rose
Don DeLillo is a writer. Don DeLillo is a great writer. Don DeLillo is a great American writer. Don DeLillo writes about time, apocalypse, mortality, art and corruption. He writes about America, mass media, mass hysteria, conspiracy, the nuclear threat, terror. Don DeLillo does Big Themes.
Don DeLillo has published sixteen novels, one collection of short stories, five plays, one screenplay and six essays. Don DeLillo has won a Pulitzer Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Book Award, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. Don DeLillo is not only a great American writer but perhaps the greatest living writer in America today. Don DeLillo is the only writer we both like.
“Salinger,” you say. “What about Salinger?”
“You know you like Salinger more than me,” I reply.
“I lent you that book. I thought you liked it.”
“I did,” I say. “But you liked it more than me.”
You and your ex-boyfriend had cats called Salinger and Fitzgerald. When you split up, he got Fitz and you got Sal. Then you moved to England and left Sal with your friend Joanna and now he’s got fat and doesn’t remember you anymore.
According to the New York Times, Don DeLillo is ‘the chief shaman of the paranoid school of American fiction.’ Harold Bloom says Don DeLillo has an ‘uncanny, proleptic sense of the triumph of the Age of Terror.’ Frank Lentricchia says ‘the books are hard: expressions of someone who has ideas, not opinions.’ Frank Kermode called him a ‘virtuoso.’ David Foster Wallace said Don DeLillo was ‘a true prophet.’
Don DeLillo. Don DeLillo has a name only a writer could have.
“No way,” you say and practice turning the name round in your mouth. “He sounds like a teamster boss to me.”
“Or the proprietor of a chain of Italian restaurants throughout the Manhattan area,” I suggest, not to be outdone. “Top end ones. Thirty dollar entrees.”
“Chief political correspondent for the Washington Post.”
“A mobster. Don the Don.”
“A butcher. DeLillo’s quality Italian sausage.”
“I wouldn’t eat them.”
“He could have been anything with a name like that.”
“If my parents had called me Don DeLillo, I’d probably have been a great writer too.”
“You’d need more than that, honey.”
Don DeLillo says his major influences are abstract expressionism, foreign films and jazz. Don DeLillo has a style that has been described as ‘lapidary’ and ‘gnomic.’ DeLillo’s style, it has been said, has a ‘freeform, muscular musicality.’ Michael Wood says Don DeLillo is the master of ‘the precisely evoked image or moment.’ Of himself, Don DeLillo says ‘every sentence has a truth waiting at the end.’
“If somebody writes like Don DeLillo,” I ask, “are they DeLillean?”
“I dunno. DeLillesque?”
Don DeLillo writes about history, belief, love and death. Their impossibility, their importance in this already-mangled century.
“Listen to this,” I say, reading out loud from Wikipedia. “When awarded the National Book Award in 1985, DeLillo stood up and said ‘I'm sorry I couldn't be here tonight, but I thank you all for coming.’ That’s funny.”
“Yeah. Clever funny.”
“’Clever’ is such an annoying word. I hate ‘clever.’”
“I’m clever, aren’t I?”
“I didn’t mean it like that.”
“You think I’m dumb, don’t you?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“Let’s get a cat,” you say.
“Sure. We could call it...”
“I am not calling a cat ‘Don DeLillo’!”
Don DeLillo. Don DeLillo. Don. De. Li. Lo.
Dondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillodondelillo. Don DeLillo’s greatest book is called Underworld.
“Everyone knows that. White Noise comes in a close second.”
“I liked The Body Artist,” I say. “Its brevity was impressive. Its compactness lent it more force.”
“He works better on the large canvas,” you say. “Anyhow ’compactness’ isn’t even a word.”
I never finished Underworld, and am not sure if you know this.
Cosmopolis lies face down on our bedroom floor, its spine pushed against the skirting board behind your bedside table. It’s got dustballs on it.
“We could go see the film,” I say.
“What, with R-Patz and his hair?”
We don’t go and see the film. We stay in. We read books. You’re reading Salinger again. Franny and Zooey.
“How many times have you read that?” I ask.
“Are you on my case?” you reply. “I tried that Spanish one you lent me. I don’t like new things.”
A friend of mine went to see DeLillo’s play The Word for Snowin London and at the start of the play everyone was handed a slip of paper with a single word on it. They were asked to watch the play and meditate on their word.
“We should go and catch it before it ends.”
“I hate London,” you say, heading up to bed on your own. “It’s either a cat or a baby,” you shout from the top of the stairs. “Your call.”
My friend cannot remember the word written on his piece of paper.
Delillodelillodelillo. It’s beginning to sound like a verb to me.
“If ‘delillo’ was a verb,” I ask, “What would it mean?” You don’t answer. You’re already asleep.
I never finished Underworld because I started reading it then you stole it from me and I got distracted, lost my page and never took it up again. I’m kind of jealous that you readUnderworld and I didn’t, even though I did read The Savage Detectives and 2666 and all of Your Face Tomorrow. I have no fear, I want to say, of the big canvas.
Don DeLillo regularly lunches with Paul Auster. They go to an old school diner in Brooklyn or a Jewish deli on the Upper West side. They smoke. No: Auster smokes, DeLillo gave up a while back. Mortality. They order salt beef on rye and chopped herring salad or maybe the blue plate special, and coffee, lots of coffee. DeLillo thinks Auster’s recent output derivative and lacklustre, but he doesn’t say this. Auster is jealous of DeLillo’s success, but he doesn’t say this. They’re great friends, two regular guys who happen to be two of the greatest living American novelists, doing regular guy
things, hanging out, drinking coffee and eating Philly-style cheesesteaks. They talk about baseball.
We go to the cafe on Vauxhall Street and order two full English breakfasts, one veggie.
“How’s work?” I say, stuffing toast into my mouth.
“Work schmerk,” you say. “Boring. Stupid.”
“You know what I love about DeLillo?” I ask.
“Dialogue,” you say, ‘That’s what DeLillo does so well. I fucking love his dialogue.”
Geoff Dyer, who writes essays, says Don DeLillo is the greatest writer ever, and that The Names is his greatest book.
“Was that the one set in Greece?” you ask. “I couldn’t get through it.” I haven’t read The Names, but Geoff Dyer also says it is one of the sexiest books he knows.
That night I find our copy of The Names and bring it to bed with me.
"Say belly. I want to watch your lips...Say breasts. Say tongue." I flick through the pages and find the place where the conversation continues. "’I don't do this,’ insists Janet. ‘Say heat,’ says James. ‘Say wet between my legs. Say legs. Seriously, I want you to. Stockings. Whisper it. The word is meant to be whispered.’"
“I never got that far,” you say, turning over and switching out the light.
In Don DeLillo’s books, nobody talks about their feelings.
Don DeLillo spends time in downtown New York galleries and gets invites to private views at the Moma and the Met where he meets Douglas Gordon, Marina Abramovic and Anselm Kiefer. He goes to afterhours bars in Chelsea with his artist friends and has conversations filled with great dialogue. InThe Body Artist and Falling Man and Point Omega Don DeLillo writes about contemporary art and its oblique power to fathom the depths of the world we exist in.
On Saturday we’re in town doing our usual nothing much and I see there’s a video installation in the basement of the art school. You make a face, but don’t object. We go down a few steps into a pitch dark room, one huge screen covering the far wall. The blackness envelops us; I think we’re alone in here, but cannot be sure. We stand, quietly watching, as if in the presence of strangers. At first, the picture seems to be a still but as time passes we observe its gentle unfurling, the gesture of one of its subjects slowed to its essence. There is no dialogue, great or otherwise, only us, the darkness, the picture, our quiet concentration. Everything slows. Then you move to leave.
“It’s about time,” I say as we walk out into the light, giving a polite nod to the girl behind the desk at the entrance. “Time and memory. The slow shift. The gradual reveal.”
“No craft,” you say. “No skill. A super-slowed down video. It’s all form. No content. No substance.” I think you’re smart, but I don’t say this. You think I’m condescending, and you say this.
“That moment,” I say. “In there, it was....”
Later, when I get back alone, I find a suitcase open on the bedroom floor. It isn’t mine. It is half full.
I wonder how Don DeLillo would describe this moment.
A week later, I’m doing the washing up, scraping the remnants of some baked fish from the sides of the ovenproof dish. I put them in a saucer next to the back door.
She laps them up, tiny bones and all.
I go up to bed and you’re already there, deep in a book you haven’t read before, one I lent you. I’m tired and move to turn out the light.
“Not yet,” you say, “It’s early.” So I close my eyes and lie there thinking about the large canvas, the big themes and the truth at the end of every sentence.
“Great dialogue,” you say. “It’s just great dialogue.”
© C.D. Rose 2012
C.D. Rose has lived several different countries, but now resides in the east of England. His work has appeared in New Writing 14, Parenthesis, Unthology 3 and at Pulp.net and Untitledbooks.com. He currently edits The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure.
Don DeLillo was read by Matthew Alford, with music by Caitlin Mahoney, for the Brooklyn Book Festival on Wednesday, 13th September.