Don DeLillo is one of the few writers whose books I buy in hardback when they first come out. The rap on him is that he can’t do dialogue, or rather, chooses to have his characters speak in polished packed paragraphs that defy believability, like this exchange between college professors in White Noise:
“How is your car crash seminar progressing?”
“We’ve looked at hundreds of crash sequences. Cars with cars. Cars with trucks. Trucks with buses. Motorcycles with cars. Cars with helicopters. Trucks with trucks. My students think these movies are prophetic. They mark the suicide wish of technology. The drive to suicide, the hurtling rush to suicide.”
“What do you say to them?”
“These are mainly B-movies, TV movies, rural drive-in movies. I tell my students not to look for apocalypse in such places. I see these car crashes as part of a long tradition of American optimism. They are positive events, full of the old ‘can-do’ spirit. Each car crash is meant to be better than the last. There is a constant upgrading of tools and skills, a meeting of challenges. A director says, ‘I need this flatbed truck to do a midair double somersault that produces an orange ball of fire with a thirty-six-foot diameter, which the cinematographer will use to light the scene.’ I tell my students if they want to bring technology into it, they have to take this into account, this tendency toward grandiose deeds, toward pursuing a dream.”
Although there is some truth in the criticism in of the believability of the dialogue, I happen to hang with cats like JT Williams and colleagues like EC who do talk in packed, polished paragraphs that feature words like “metacognition” and “sturm und drang,” so my suspension of disbelief remains airborne when Sister Hermann Marie, a nun in the same novel, responds to the accusation that her belief is a pretense by laying this rap on her accuser: “We surrender our lives to make your nonbelief possible. You are sure that you are right but you don’t want everyone to think as you do. There is no truth without fools. We are your fools, your madwomen, rising at dawn to pray, lighting candles, asking statues for good health, long life.”
No only does my disbelief remain airborne, but I absolutely relish these verbal exchanges.
Edward Hopper: “Morning Sun”
Anyway, although I consider DeLillo a superb stylist, it’s not his prose that has me plopping down thirty bills when his books come out, but his ideas, his subject matter, his detached observational perspective as he turns his binoculars from the lonely woman sitting on a bed in an Edward Hopper painting to the bleak, soulless but sunny American landscape that lies beyond that lonely room. DeLillo’s novels are exercises in cultural anthropology, case studies in the integration and synthesis of cultural components. Here’s Murray Suskind riffing on advertising, again in White Noise:
Look at the wealth of data concealed in the grid, in the bright packaging, the jingles, the slice-of-life commercials, the products hurtling out of the darkness, the coded messages and endless repetitions, like chants, like mantras. “Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it.” The medium practically overflows with sacred formulas if we can remember how to respond innocently and get past our irritation, weariness and disgust.
DeLillo’s latest, Zero K, is set in Central Asia in what the dust jacket calls “a secret compound where death is exquisitely controlled and bodies are preserved until a future time when biomedical advances and new technologies can return them to a life of transcendent promise.” This compound is a mazelike campus that is part hospital and art installation, a sort of conflation of Kafka’s Kastle and The Ministry of Love from 1984. Here is the narrator, Jeff Lockhart, whose billionaire father is an investor in the project and a “patient” in the process, describing what I would call residence halls:
The halls were nearly empty, three people, at intervals, and I nodded to each, receiving only a single grudging glance. The walls were shades of green. Down one broad hall, turn into another. Blank walls, no windows, doors widely spaced, all doors shut. These were doors of related colors, subdued, and I wondered if there was meaning to be found in these slivers of the spectrum.
Sometimes the walls turn into movies, throwing the pedestrian into a sort of unwilled virtual reality of interconnected disaster, and these passages swoop into cinematic writing that brilliantly captures moving images and places the reader into the mix as participant:
Fires were burning onscreen and a fleet of air tankers hung a thick haze of chemicals over the scorched treetops.
Then a single figure walking through a town’s empty streets with homes imploded by heat and flame and lawn ornaments shriveled to a crisp . . .
Elsewhere now people wearing facemasks, hundreds moving at camera level, walking or being carried by others, and was this a disease, a virus, long ranks of slow moving men and women . . .
Then a woman seated on the roof of her car, head in hands, flames – the fire again – moving down the foothills in the near distance.
Then grass fires sweeping across the flatlands and a herd of bison, silhouetted in bright flame, going at a gallop parallel to barbed-wire fencing and out of the frame.
There was a quick cut to enormous ocean waves approaching and then water surging over seawalls and sets of imagery merging, skillfully edited by hard to absorb, towers shaking, a bridge collapsing . . .
You get the picture.
The narrator Jeff is there to bid his debilitated stepmother goodbye as she prepares for the big freeze; however, to complicate matters, his perfectly healthy and supremely wealthy father Ross has decided he too wants to end this phase of his life because he doesn’t want to live without his spouse and he is confident that one day they will be awakened into a brave new world. Jeff, not surprisingly, hates this idea of pie-in-the-sky surrender, given that even if it were possible, reawakening in that world may not be as self-affirming as you might imagine.
Given that he was born in 1936, it’s not surprising that DeLillo has turned to a meditation on death, but death-obsession is also a major theme in White Noise. His world is God-vacated, like the paintings of Edward Hopper, a fascinating world, both beautiful and terrible, an exhilarating world to explore, a world very much alive.