DeLillo, Don 1936-
DeLILLO, Don 1936-
PERSONAL: Born November 20, 1936, in New York, NY; married. Education: Fordham University, graduated, 1958.
ADDRESSES: Agent—Lois Wallace, Wallace Literary Agency, 177 East 70th St., New York, NY 10021.
CAREER: Writer. Worked as an advertising copywriter in early 1960s.
MEMBER: American Academy of Arts and Letters, PEN.
AWARDS, HONORS: Guggenheim fellowship, 1979; American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, 1984; National Book Award in fiction, and National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, both 1985, both for White Noise; Irish Times International Fiction Prize, National Book Award nomination, and National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, all 1989, all for Libra; PEN/Faulkner Award, 1992, and Pulitzer Prize nomination, both for Mao II; National Book Award nomination, and National Book Critics Circle Award nomination, both 1997, Pulitzer Prize nomination, and William Dean Howells Medal, American Academy of Arts and Letters, 2000, all for Underworld; Jerusalem Prize, 2000.
Americana, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1971.
End Zone, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1972.
Great Jones Street, Houghton (Boston, MA), 1973.
Ratner's Star, Knopf (New York, NY), 1976.
Players, Knopf (New York, NY), 1977.
Running Dog, Knopf (New York, NY), 1978.
The Names, Knopf (New York, NY), 1982.
White Noise, Viking (New York, NY), 1985.
Libra, Viking (New York, NY), 1988.
Mao II, Viking (New York, NY), 1991.
Underworld, Scribner (New York, NY), 1997, prologue published separately as Pafko at the Wall, 2001.
The Body Artist, Scribner (New York, NY), 2001.
Cosmopolis, Scribner (New York, NY), 2003.
The Day Room (play; produced at American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA, 1986), Knopf (New York, NY), 1987.
Valparaiso (play; produced at American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge, MA, 1999), Scribner (New York, NY), 1999.
Also author of play The Engineer of Moonlight, published in Cornell Review, winter, 1979; author of one-minute plays The Rapture of the Athlete Assumed into Heaven, published in Quarterly, 1990, and The Mystery at the Middle of Ordinary Life, published in Zoetrope, winter, 2000. Work included in anthologies Stories from Epoch, edited by Baxter Hathaway, Cornell University Press, 1966; The Secret Life of Our Times, edited by Gordon Lish, Doubleday, 1973; Cutting Edges, edited by Jack Hicks, Holt, 1973; On the Job, edited by William O'Rourke, Random House, 1977; and Great Esquire Fiction, edited by L. Rust Hills, Viking, 1983. Contributor of essay to Novel History: Historians and Novelists Confront America's Past (and Each Other), edited by Mark C. Carnes, Simon & Schuster, 2001; contributor of essays and short stories to periodicals, including Dimensions, New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, Conjunctions, Harper's, Grand Street, Paris Review, Esquire, Granta, Sports Illustrated, Kenyon Review, and Rolling Stone.
ADAPTATIONS: DeLillo's novels have been adapted as audiobooks.
SIDELIGHTS: With each of his novels Don DeLillo has enhanced his literary reputation and gained a wider audience for his carefully crafted prose. He first attracted critical attention in the early 1970s when he published two ambitious and elusive novels about games: End Zone, an existential comedy that parlays football into a metaphor for thermonuclear war, and Ratner's Star, a surrealistic science fiction that is structurally akin to the mathematical formulas it employs. The verbal precision, dazzling intelligence, and sharp wit of these books made DeLillo a critical favorite, "but without bestseller sales figures or a dependable cult following, he has become something of a reviewer's writer," according to R. Z. Sheppard in Time.
DeLillo's 1985 novel White Noise received front-page New York Times Book Review coverage and garnered the National Book Award in fiction that year. His name became even more widely known after Underworld achieved bestsellerdom in several countries, including the United States. "In fact," wrote Chicago Tribune Books contributor John W. Aldridge, on the heels of White Noise, "DeLillo has won the right not only to be ranked with [Thomas] Pynchon and [William] Gaddis but recognized as having surpassed them in brilliance, versatility, and breadth of imagination. DeLillo shares with them, but in a degree greater than theirs, that rarest of creative gifts, the ability to identify and describe, as if from the perspective of another galaxy, the exact look and feel of contemporary reality." DeLillo's novel Libra, is an account of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald, John F. Kennedy's assassin. A stunning success—Libra was nominated for the National Book Award and won the newly inaugurated International Fiction Prize from the Irish Times—Walter Clemons in Newsweek dubbed the work "overwhelming."
DeLillo's obsession with language links him to other members of literature's school. "Like his contemporaries, William Gass, Robert Coover, and John Barth, he may be termed a 'metafictionist,'" wrote Michael Oriard in Critique. "Like these writers, he is strongly aware of the nature of language and makes language itself, and the process of using language, his themes." In his Contemporary Literature interview with Thomas LeClair, DeLillo suggested that after writing End Zone, he realized "that language was a subject as well as an instrument in my work." Later, he elaborated: "What writing means to me is trying to make interesting, clear, beautiful language. Working at sentences and rhythms is probably the most satisfying thing I do as a writer. I think after a while a writer can begin to know himself through his language. He sees someone or something reflected back at him from these constructions. Over the years it's possible for a writer to shape himself as a human being through the language he uses. I think written language, fiction, goes that deep."
While DeLillo's sentiments may have intimidated some readers, they have attracted enthusiastic critics. Rising to his challenge of commitment, reviewers have offered thoughtful interpretations of his complex work, recognizing recurring themes which darken and turn more ominous as the work evolves. "From Americana to End Zone to Great Jones Street to Ratner's Star DeLillo traces a single search for the source of life's meaning," explained Oriard. "By the end of Ratner's Star, the quest has been literally turned inside out, the path from chaos to knowledge becomes a Moebius strip that brings the seeker back to chaos."
The quest in DeLillo's first novel, Americana, involves a disillusioned television executive's search for a national identity. Abandoning his job, producer David Bell embarks on a cross-country odyssey to "nail down the gas-driven, motel-housed American soul," Village Voice contributor Albert Mobilio explained. Even in this early work, DeLillo's obsession with language dominates the narrative: his first-person narrator describes his quest as a "literary venture," using images that compare the western landscape to linguistic patterns on a page. "For years I had been held fast by the great unwinding mystery of this deep sink of land, the thick paragraphs and imposing photos, the gallop of panting adjectives, prairie truth and the clean kills of eagles," says Bell. Americana, like most first novels, was not widely reviewed, but it did attract favorable notice from some established New York critics, who expressed enthusiasm for DeLillo's remarkable verbal gifts. "It is a familiar story by now, flawed in the telling," noted New York Times contributor Christopher Lehmann-Haupt in a representative review. "But the language soars and dips, and it imparts a great deal." New York Times Book Review contributor Thomas R. Edwards deemed it "a savagely funny portrait of middle-class anomie in a bad time," but also noted that the book is "too long and visibly ambitious, and too much like too many other recent novels, to seem as good as it should have."
Edwards found DeLillo's second novel—in which the quest for meaning is transferred from the American roadside to the sports arena—a more successful venture. "In End Zone," wrote Edwards, "DeLillo finds in college football a more original and efficient vehicle for his sense of things now." This episodic, largely plotless novel focuses on the final attempt college athlete Gary Harkness makes to prove himself as a football player in a small west Texas school. Gary, who spends his free time playing war games, is attracted to carefully structured systems of ordered violence that afford opportunities for complete control. Edwards speculates that "Gary's involvement with [football] is a version of his horrified fascination with the vocabulary, theory and technology of modern war." Out on the playing field, Gary wins all but one of his football games, but "it's a season of losses all the same," Edwards concludes, for not only do minor characters suffer setbacks and tragedies but Gary "ends up in the infirmary with a mysterious brain-fever being fed through plastic tubes."
Gary's hunger strike has been interpreted as a final existential attempt to exert control. "He's paring things down. He is struggling, trying to face something he felt had to be faced," DeLillo told LeClair. Thus the "end zone" of this novel becomes a symbolic setting that represents "not only the goal of the running back in a football game, but the human condition at the outer extremity of existence, a place where the world is on the verge of disintegration, and the characters teeter between genius and madness," Oriard believes. "In this region of end zones that DeLillo describes, characters struggle for order and meaning as their world moves inexorably towards chaos. DeLillo's men and women fight the natural law of entropy, while human violence hastens its inevitable consequences."
The next American milieu DeLillo tackles is the world of rock stars and the drug culture in the novel Great Jones Street. Walter Clemons's assessment of the novel as an "in-between book" is representative of critical opinion, and while critics realized DeLillo was extending himself as a writer, they were not completely satisfied with the result. "The rock stars, drug dealers and hangers-on that populate Great Jones Street are so totally freaked out, so slickly devoted to destruction and evil, so obsessed with manipulating and acquiring that they're beyond redemption," wrote New York Times Book Review contributor Sara Blackburn, who deemed the work "more of a sour, admirably written lecture than a novel, a book that is always puffing to keep up with the power and intensity of its subject."
DeLillo turned to the genre of science fiction for his fourth book, Ratner's Star, a pivotal work about a fourteen-year-old mathematical genius and Nobel laureate, Billy Twillig. "There is no easy way to describe Ratner's Star, a cheerfully apocalyptic novel," wrote Amanda Heller in the Atlantic. "Imagine Alice in Wonderland set at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies." A reviewer for the New Yorker found it "a whimsical, surrealistic excursion into the modern scientific mind." New York Times Book Review contributor George Stade described it as "not only interesting, but funny (in a nervous kind of way). From it comes an unambiguous signal that DeLillo has arrived, bearing many gifts. He is smart, observant, fluent, a brilliant mimic and an ingenious architect."
Modeled after Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Ratner's Star is comprised of two sections, "Adventures" and "Reflections," that mimic the structural divisions of Carroll's book. "The comic, episodic discontinuous style of the book's first half is reflected in reverse in its symmetrically opposite second part," explained G. M. Knoll in America. He continued, "All that has been asserted or hypothesized about the signals from Ratner's Star is here denied. Billy's assignment is now to assist in the development of a language to answer the star's message rather than decipher the meaning of the signals." DeLillo's goal in this venture, according to Time's Paul Gray, "is to show how the codification of phenomena as practiced by scientists leads to absurdity and madness." In his interview with LeClair, however, DeLillo says that his primary intention was "to produce a book that would be naked structure. The structure would be the book."
Ratner's Star marked a turning point in DeLillo's fiction, according to critics who noted a shift in the pacing and tone of the novelist's subsequent books. "Since Ratner's Star, the apogee or nadir of his mirrorgame experiments, DeLillo has opened his fiction to the possibilities of more extroverted action," observed New Republic contributor Robert Towers. "The speeded-up pace in both Players and Running Dog seems to me all to the good." Accompanying this accelerated narrative, however, is a noticeable change in the kinds of people DeLillo is writing about. Hardened by exposure to modern society, cynical in their views of life, these characters "are not sustained by the illusion that answers to cosmic questions can be found," Oriard believed. Nor are their self-serving quests particularly admirable, according to Dictionary of Literary Biography contributor Frank Day, who maintained that readers may have a hard time sympathizing with protagonists whose lives are "parables of betrayal and degeneration. The frail, confused youths of the early novels are here displaced by characters influenced by popular espionage fiction."
In Players DeLillo employs a prologue—a sophisticated bit of pure fiction in which the characters are temporarily suspended outside the apparatus of the story—to introduce his themes. Before the narrative starts, DeLillo collects his as-yet-unnamed protagonists on an empty airplane, seating them in the lounge to watch a grisly film. "The Movie," as this prelude is called, depicts an unsuspecting band of Sunday golfers being attacked and murdered by marauding hippies who splatter the scenic green landscape with blood. Without earphones the passengers can not hear the dialogue, so the pianist improvises silent-movie music to accompany the scene. "The passengers laugh, cheer, clap," noted New York Times Book Review contributor Diane Johnson. "It is the terrorists whom they applaud." When the movie ends, the lights come up and the passengers, now identified as protagonists Lyle and Pammy Wynant and friends, step off the plane and into the story—a tale of terrorists, murder, and wasted lives.
A hip New York couple, Pammy and Lyle are bored to distraction by each other and their jobs. Pammy works as a promotional writer at the Grief Management Council, an organization that "served the community in its efforts to understand and assimilate grief," while Lyle is a stockbroker on Wall Street who spends his free time parked in front of the TV set, flipping channels, not in hopes of finding a good program, but because "he simply enjoyed jerking the dial into fresh image burns."
Pammy moves out, heading off to Maine with a pair of homosexual lovers, one of whom will become her lover and commit suicide, but she will ultimately return home. Lyle takes up with a mindless secretary who is linked to a terrorist group responsible for murdering a man on the stock exchange floor. Intrigued by the glamour of revolutionary violence, Lyle joins forces with the terrorists, but also covers himself by informing on their activities to law enforcement agencies. "The end," noted John Updike in the New Yorker, "finds him in a motel in Canada, having double-crossed everybody but on excellent terms, it seems, with himself." Both he and Pammy have become players in the game.
Noting that DeLillo is that rare kind of novelist who looks "grandly at the whole state of things," Johnson postulated that, "since Freud, we've been used to the way novelists normally present a character: looks normal, is secretly strange and individual. In the first of many inversions of appearance and reality that structure the book, Pammy and Lyle look interesting and seem to do interesting things, but do not interest themselves. The richness is only superficial. . . . Pammy and Lyle have no history; they are without pasts, were never children, come from nowhere. They worry that they have become too complex to experience things directly and acutely, but the opposite is true. They are being reduced by contemporary reality to numb simplicity, lassitude."
DeLillo followed Players with two psychological thrillers, Running Dog and The Names, the latter of which was praised for its improved characterization. But it was with White Noise that DeLillo most impressed critics with his rendition of fully realized characters in a minimalist prose style. Noting that with each book DeLillo has become increasingly elliptical, Village Voice contributor Albert Mobilio observed that "the distillation is matched by a more subtle and convincing treatment of his characters' inner lives. This broadened emotional vocabulary charges White Noise with a resonance and credibility that makes it difficult to ignore. Critics who have argued that his work is too clever and overly intellectual should take notice: DeLillo's dark vision is now hard-earned. It strikes at both heart and head."
A novel about technology and death, White Noise unfolds as the first-person narrative of Jack Gladney, chair of the department of Hitler studies at a small liberal arts school, College-on-the-Hill. Gladney lives with his fourth wife Babette—an ample, disheveled woman who teaches an adult education class in posture and reads to the blind—and their four children from previous marriages: Wilder, Steffie, Denise, and Heinrich. Life seems full for the Gladneys, but early on Jack confesses that he and Babette are obsessed with a troubling question: "Who will die first?" Even as they debate it, small signs of trouble begin to surface: the children are evacuated from grade school because of an unidentified toxin in the atmosphere, and Babette's memory is impaired, a side effect of a prescribed medication. One winter day a major chemical spill jeopardizes the whole city. Everyone is forced to evacuate and, on his way to the shelter Jack stops to get gas, inadvertently exposing himself to the "airborne toxic event." Informed that "anything that puts you in contact with actual emissions means we have a situation," Jack becomes convinced he is dying. (As proof, his computerized health profile spews out "bracketed numbers with pulsing stars.") When Jack discovers Babette's medication—which she has committed adultery to obtain—is an experimental substance said to combat fear of death, he vows to find more of the substance for himself. His quest to obtain the illicit drug at any cost forms the closing chapters of the novel.
Newsweek contributor Walter Clemons wrote that White Noise should win DeLillo "wide recognition, till now only flickeringly granted as one of the best American novelists. Comic and touching, ingenious and weird, White Noise looks, at first, reassuringly like an example of a familiar genre, the campus novel." But, Clemons went on to say, the novel "tunes us in on frequencies we haven't heard in other accounts of how we live now. Occult supermarket tabloids are joined with TV disaster footage as household staples providing nourishment and febrile attractions. Fleeting appearances or phone calls from the Gladneys' previous spouses give us the start of surprise we experience when we learn that couples we know have a previous family we haven't heard about." Also commenting on DeLillo's depiction of domestic scenes, Jay McInerney wrote in the New Republic that the novelist's "portrait of this postnuclear family is one of the simpler pleasures of this novel." Bert Testa hypothesized in the Toronto Globe and Mail that "White Noise plays off the familiar and the disturbing without ever tipping into the merely grotesque. When DeLillo constantly returns to Jack's quotidian family life, he means his readers to enter a firmly drawn circle that not even a little toxic apocalypse can break."
"The world of Libra is not the modern or technological world that characters in my other novels try to confront," DeLillo explained to New York Times reviewer Herbert Mitgang of his 1988 novel. In Libra the author mixes fact with fiction in a discussion of the events that led to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, in Dallas, Texas. He dispels the accepted truth that Kennedy was shot by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, by uncovering information supporting a conspiracy theory acknowledged by some historians. DeLillo spent three years researching and writing about Oswald's life, tracing the assassin's career as a Marxist in the U.S. military and his consequent defection to the USSR and return to the United States. DeLillo surmises that a coterie of underworld and U.S. government figures—enemies of Kennedy—recruited Oswald as a scapegoat for an assassination attempt that should have been botched.
"At what point exactly does fact drift over into fiction?" Anne Tyler asked in her New York Times Book Review critique of Libra. "The book is so seamlessly written that perhaps not even those people who own . . . copies of the Warren report could say for certain." Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times Book Review agreed, noting that in the novel "DeLillo disassembles his plots with the finest of jigsaw cuts, scrambles their order and has us reassemble them. As the assorted characters go about their missions, we discern them more by intuition than by perception. The chronology goes back and forth, disorienting us. We do not so much follow what is going on as infiltrate it." Robert Dunn observed in Mother Jones that in his study of the president's assassin DeLillo "has found a story beyond imagination, one whose significance is indisputable and ongoing . . . and he carefully hews to known facts and approaches all events with respect, even awe. By giving Oswald and the forces he represents full body, DeLillo has written his best novel."
Mao II, further solidified DeLillo's place in the leading ranks of contemporary American novelists. The winner of the 1992 PEN/Faulkner Award for fiction, the novel revolves around a reclusive novelist, Bill Gray, whose first two works made him famous but who has labored for more than twenty years to produce his third novel. Completely hidden from public view on his rural New York estate, Gray has human contact only with his secretary and helper, Scott, and a young woman, Karen, who is coping with the dissolution of her marriage. In typical DeLillo fashion, Karen's was not a standard marriage: the novel's opening scene shows her wedding her husband along with six thousand other couples in a ceremony staged by the Reverend Sun Myung Moon at Yankee Stadium. Convinced that Gray's long-awaited novel will be a failure, Scott urges him not to publish it, arguing that his cult-like celebrity will increase if the novel never appears in print. Gray, however, tiring of his isolation, does something more momentous than publishing his novel: he allows himself to be photographed by Brita, a Swedish photographer.
In Underworld DeLillo paints an encyclopedic portrait of late-twentieth-century American life through the story of accused murderer Nick Shay, as Shay's path collides with great moments of history, including the 1951 ball game in which the Giants won the pennant. Michiko Kakutani reviewed Underworld admiringly in the New York Times, calling it a "remarkable" tale of "the effluvia of modern life, all the detritus of our daily and political lives" that has been "turned into a dazzling, phosphorescent work of art." Like most of DeLillo's novels, time is not a straight trajectory in Underworld, and a current of conspiracy, paranoia, and terrorism weaves through the story. This technique brings the alienated protagonist in close contact with events that define his century, including the political suspense of the cold war. In a review for the New York Times, Martin Amis claimed that Underworld "may or may not be a great novel," but added: "there is no doubt that . . . DeLillo is a great novelist." Noting that nuclear war is the central theme of the book, Amis added that Underworld's "main actors are psychological 'downwinders,' victims of the fallout from all the blasts—blasts actual and imagined."
Coming on the heels of the impressive Underworld, The Body Artist reinforced the belief held by many critics that DeLillo is not a writer to traverse the same path more than once. The Body Artists opens to the breakfast-table rambling of married couple Lauren and Rey; only later in the book do readers learn that Rey has committed suicide that same day. The rest of the novel focuses on Lauren, a performance artist who creates different characters by transforming her physical self. Grieving over Rey, she withdraws and becomes housebound, then begins to hear noises. Finally she discovers a strange, diminutive man, Mr. Tucker, who has the strange ability to repeat back to her the last rambling conversations between Lauren and her husband. Who Mr. Tucker is—a real, perhaps mentally disturbed person or a figment of Lauren's overwrought imaginings—is purposefully never made clear, DeLillo's central purpose to cause readers to reflect on "the fragility of identity, the nature of time, the way the words we employ in the face of death have become . . . worn to the point of transparency," according to Newsweek contributor Malcolm Jones. "Like all DeLillo's fiction," added a Publishers Weekly contributor, The Body Artist "offers a vision of contemporary life that expresses itself most clearly in how the story is told." While an Economist critic found the novel as "slight as a blade of grass," Donna Seaman praised the challenging work in Booklist, noting that "Each sentence is like a formula that must be solved, and each paragraph adds up to unexpected disclosures regarding our sense of time, existence, identity, and connection."
More compressed in time than The Body Artist, Cosmopolis takes place for the most part inside a stretch limousine belonging to wealthy, twenty-something, and less-than-likeable financier Eric Packer. Packer's trip across town to the barber is thwarted by traffic snarls into an all-day excursion, forcing the mildly paranoid Packer to turn to his in-car computer to track his financial wheelings and dealings, teleconference with clients and lackeys, and make brief excursions from the limo to eat, shop, take in the sights of mid-town Manhattan, and even commit murder. While the movement of Packer's limo is "glacial," according to an Economist reviewer, Cosmopolis, "with Mr. DeLillo at the wheel, zooms along, blowing up great billowing clouds of rhetorical dust. . . . full of wordy ruminations on the relationship between technology and capitalism."
Critics responded with characteristic vigor to Cosmopolis, although the novel, DeLillo's thirteenth, was not treated with overwhelming kindness. "There is no real plot," bemoaned Spectator contributor Peter Dempsey, "there are no fully rounded characters nor any character development, and though the novel ends dramatically, there is no sense of a conventionally satisfying conclusion." Noting that such expectations on the part of many critics are intentionally unmet by DeLillo, Dempsey described Cosmopolis as "a meditation on various kinds of speculation, most importantly financial and philosophical," that, as a work of fiction, "is redeemed by its beguiling structure and the cool intensity of its compelling descriptions of New York City." "Where did DeLillo lose me exactly?," Richard Lacayo queried in Time. "It may have been the scene in which Packer gets a digital rectal exam in his parked limousine while he chats with . . . his chief of finance. I like surrealism too, but sometimes I wish they would keep it in France." In contrast, Review of Contemporary Fiction critic Robert L. McLaughlin stayed the course, writing that the author "has captured the essence of a particular American moment," and ranked the novel as "a beautiful and brilliant book." "One senses that DeLillo continues to challenge himself," added Kyle Minor in Antioch Review, ". . . and the result is a mature work of fiction, greatly satisfying."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
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Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 6: American Novelists since World War II, Second Series, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1980.
Hantke, Steffen, Conspiracy and Paranoia in Contemporary American Fiction: The Works of Don DeLillo and Joseph McElroy, P. Lang (New York, NY), 1994.
LeClair, Tom, In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel, University of Illinois Press, 1988.
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Osteen, Mark, American Magic and Dread: Don DeLillo's Dialogue with Culture, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
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Antioch Review, spring, 1972; winter, 1983; summer, 2003, Kyle Minor, review of Cosmopolis, p. 581.
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