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Don DeLillo has established himself as one of the most important contemporary American novelists. His works probe the postmodern American consciousness in all its neurotic permutations, offering a compelling and disturbing portrait of the contemporary American experience.
Works in Biographical and Historical Context
Catholic Upbringing and Rituals of the Church
DeLillo was born on November 20, 1936, in New York City, the son of Italian immigrants. He grew up in the predominantly Italian American Fordham section of the Bronx, and he apparently led a typical boyhood centered around family and sports. Reared a Catholic, DeLillo was exposed early on to the mysteries and rituals of the church, and these had a major influence on his work. He has attributed the sense of mystery that permeates his fiction to his Catholic upbringing, as well as his fiction’s concern with various forms of discipline, ritual, and spectacle.
An Avid Learner with an Aversion to School
DeLillo attended Cardinal Hayes High School in New York, which he despised, and then Fordham University, which he also found less than inspiring. He has cited his aversion to school as the reason he now refuses to give academic lectures or to teach. This antipathy toward formal schooling, however, should not be equated with an indifference to learning, as the massive research projects he undertook in preparation for Ratner’s Star (1976) and Libra (1988) would indicate.
Writing to Make a Living
After graduating from Fordham, DeLillo began a ”short, uninteresting” career at the advertising agency of Ogilvie and Mather. He wrote fiction in his spare time, publishing his first short story, ”The River Jordan,” in Epoch in 1960. Throughout the decade, he would publish a handful of other stories in Epoch, Kenyon Review, and Carolina Quarterly. DeLillo quit his job at Ogilvie and Mather in 1964 and began working as a freelance writer in nonfiction. He wrote pieces on such diverse topics as furniture and computers, and lived on approximately $2,000 a year.
Techniques Refined in Early Novels
DeLillo began his first novel, Americana (1971), in 1966. Americana is a sprawling, free-form novel. Such a project possesses an affinity with the Beat aesthetic, and in many ways Americana emulates, even satirizes, the ”road” novels of writers such as Jack Kerouac. Along with Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burrough, and others, Kerouac belonged to The Beat Generation, a label referring to a group of writers who published works in the late 1950s and early 1960s. These ”beatniks,” as they are sometimes called, inspired a cultural phenomenon that emphasized spontaneity, emotional engagement with life’s difficulties, and spiritual yearning. Although they were characterized by some as bohemian hedonists, their artistic efforts served to liberalize restrictions on published works in the United States.
After Americana, DeLillo devoted himself full-time to writing fiction, abandoning all freelance work. He began his second novel, End Zone (1972), within weeks of completing Americana and in a burst of creative energy finished it within a year. End Zone is a more tautly structured and cohesive novel than Americana, perhaps an indication that DeLillo learned quite a bit about the craft of novel writing during the four-year ordeal of Americana. DeLillo also shifted his thematic focus with his new novel. Whereas Americana was primarily concerned with the influence of the media image on identity in America, End Zone explores the importance of language in defining reality.
DeLillo continued the sports theme of End Zone shortly after its publication with another contribution to Sports Illustrated (November 27, 1972): ”Total Loss Weekend,” a story about a compulsive gambler who bets on every possible sporting event. But his third novel, Great Jones Street (1973), which also appeared within the year, moved into new territory. Having tackled the American pop phenomena of television, film, and football in his first two novels, DeLillo took on a third in Great Jones Street: rock and roll. The 1950s and 1960s had seen the rise of the rock star as a pop culture phenomenon. Artists like Elvis Presley and bands like the Beatles were hugely popular. The rock stars of the 1970s, however, became famous as much for their music as for their notoriously wild lifestyles. Stories of promiscuous partying and drug use by rock bands such as Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones made headlines in the early 1970s. In Great Jones Street, as in his preceding works, DeLillo chose a protagonist and narrator who is an inside player—in this case Bucky Wunderlick, a rock star—who becomes alienated and attempts to withdraw from society. Critics have speculated that DeLillo based his character in part on Bob Dylan, a prolific and influential musician known for his sometimes erratic behavior.
Searching for a Fresh World View
In contrast to the rapid production of End Zone and Great Jones Street, DeLillo’s fourth novel, Ratner’s Star (1976), took three years to complete. DeLillo conducted an enormous amount of research in the field of mathematics in preparation, a project he undertook because he ”wanted a fresh view of the world.” Ratner’s Star is a long, abstruse novel whose primary subject matter is math and logic. In it, DeLillo abandoned the first-person narration he had used in his first three novels but continued his exploration of human ordering structures, their limitations, and their distortions. He also took on yet another literary genre: science fiction. In addition, in 1975 DeLillo married and moved to a suburb of New York City.
Ratner’s Star was followed by the shorter, more quickly written novel Players (1977). Once again, DeLillo grappled with another phenomenon of the contemporary landscape, terrorism, and appropriated another literary genre as his vehicle, the spy thriller. Yet, despite the different subject matter and form, DeLillo continued to explore his themes of the emptiness and alienation of modern life and the effect of the media upon it. DeLillo’s subsequent novel, Running Dog (1978), is another spy thriller. Like Players, it too examines the dynamics and appeal of conspiracy, as well as exploring DeLillo’s recur rent themes of the power of images, commodification, and human organizing structures.
In the years immediately following, DeLillo wrote a two-act play, The Engineer of Moonlight (1979), which has yet to be performed, and lived in Greece for three years researching and writing his seventh major novel, The Names (1982). Another examination of the American condition, The Names is a postmodern expatriate novel in which DeLillo moves his characters and concerns onto the international scene. It explores American attitudes toward, and interactions with, foreigners and vice versa, focusing on language as the structural underpinning of their diver gent conceptions. The Names was widely regarded as a departure for DeLillo, a movement away from the fantastic of his previous fiction and toward realism—the depiction of life as it occurs without interpretation.
After completing The Names, DeLillo began work on what would become his break through novel, White Noise (1985). In 1983, however, he took time off from its composition to research and write an essay on the assassination of President John Kennedy, ”American Blood: A Journey through the Labyrinth of Dallas and JFK,” which was published in Rolling Stone in December of that year. President John Kennedy was shot dead while riding in an open car in Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, an event that profoundly shocked and saddened the country.
Fictionalizing the Kennedy Assassination
DeLillo’s two-act play, The Day Room, premiered at the American Repertory Theater in April 1986, then was performed at the Manhattan Theater Club in New York City and published in 1987. During this time, DeLillo was working on his ninth novel, Libra, a fictionalized account of the Kennedy assassination that he began in the fall of 1984 before White Noise was even published. The Kennedy assassination was a pivotal event for DeLillo’s generation and for modern America in general, a watershed that he has repeatedly acknowledged as a major literary influence and to which he had alluded in many of his previous novels. Libra would prove to be DeLillo’s most artistically successful work to date.
Defending Artistic Freedom
DeLillo began his tenth novel, Mao II (1991), in March 1989, shortly after the Ayatollah Khomeini—at that time the leader of the Islamic government of Iran—issued a death sentence for British author Salman Rushdie for ”blaspheming” Islam in his novel The Satanic Verses (1989). DeLillo viewed this event as a threat to artistic freedom everywhere, and it strongly affected his new novel. DeLillo, along with several other writers, read from Rushdie’s work at the Columns in New York City in a show of support for Rushdie and freedom of speech that was organized by the Author’s Guild, PEN American Center, and Article 19. DeLillo worked on Mao II for the next two years, during which time (April 1990) his short play The Rapture of the Athlete Assumed into Heaven (1990) was performed by the American Repertory Theater.
Unique Views of History
DeLillo’s most recent works of fiction include Underworld (1997), which traces the journeys of a baseball and remains one of his better-known works, The Body Artist (2001), an unusually philosophical novel for DeLillo, Cosmopolis (2003), set in a billionaire’s limousine moving across Manhattan, and Falling Man (2007), the story of a survivor of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States.
Works in Literary Context
Widely regarded as a preeminent satirist of modern culture, DeLillo depicts American society as rampant with paranoia and malaise and on the brink of chaos. His fiction displays a preoccupation with the overwhelming influence of the American media and the ritualistic qualities of language, the latter of which he considers the only human means capable of imposing order on random events. DeLillo’s work is often compared to that of Thomas Pynchon and Kurt Vonnegut for its black humor and apocalyptic vision. Although he credits writers such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and, later, Pynchon and William Gaddis for awakening him to the possibilities of writing, it was the European films (particularly those of Franco-Swiss film-maker Jean-Luc Godard), jazz, and Abstract Expressionism to which he was exposed in New York that he acknowledges as primary influences. DeLillo has suggested that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy had a bigger impact on his writing than any of his literary predecessors.
The White Noise of the Post-modern Experience
A darkly comic novel, White Noise focuses on a single American family in another attempt to probe the post modern American experience. White noise—the sound of all audible radio frequencies heard simultaneously—is the central metaphor of the novel, linking its major themes. As information without meaning, white noise suggests, on one level, the media bombardment designed not to inform the public but to sell commercial products to it. One con sequence of the mediated existence, of life removed from the direct apprehension of experience, is that life and death become abstractions. The novel’s protagonists, the Gladneys, are fascinated by ”media disaster,” the floods, earth quakes, and accidents that make up the television news, but are nonplussed when they find themselves in the midst of one during the Airborne Toxic Event.
DeLillo’s work has influenced numerous contemporary authors including, but not limited to, Bret Easton Ellis, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Franzen.
Works in Critical Context
DeLillo’s early works were not widely reviewed and critiques of Americana, End Zone, Great Jones Street, Ratner’s Star, Running Dog, and The Names ranged from qualified praise to descriptions of the author’s many limitations. It was with the publication of White Noise, in 1985, that DeLillo achieved wide-spread critical acclaim. Since then, his works have become increasingly popular, establishing him firmly as an important contemporary American author.
White Noise was highly acclaimed and won the 1985 American Book Award for fiction. Richard Eder in the Los Angeles Times Book Review (January 13, 1985) called White Noise a ”stunning book” that adroitly captured the contemporary American mood. The novel, he declared, was ”a moving picture of a disquiet we seem to share more and more.” Eder waxed poetic about DeLillo’s talent: ”The author is Charon as a master mariner; his flame, like Quevedo’s, knows how to swim the icy water. He brings us across the Styx in a lilting maneuver that is so adept that we can’t help laughing as we go.” Jayne Anne Phillips in The New York Times Book Review (January 13, 1985) also praised DeLillo’s insight into the American psyche, calling White Noise ”timely and frightening … because of its totally American concerns, its rendering of a particularly American numbness.” She found Jack Gladney’s narrative voice ”one of the most ironic, intelligent, grimly funny voices yet to comment on life in present-day America.” Diane Johnson in the New York Review of Books (March 14, 1985) agreed, citing Jack’s ”eloquence” as mitigating what might otherwise have been an overly ”exacting and despairing view of civilization.” Like many reviewers, Walter Clemons in Newsweek (January 21, 1985) predicted that White Noise would gain DeLillo ”wide recognition . . . as one of the best American novelists.”
In stark contrast to his earlier works, the novels that followed White Noise were widely reviewed and positively received. Libra became a best-seller and a critical success. It won the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize and was nominated for the American Book Award. Mao II won the PEN/Faulkner Award.
- Duvall, John. Don DeLillo’s Underworld: A Reader’s Guide. New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2002.
- Kavadlo, Jesse. Don DeLillo: Balance at the Edge of Belief. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2004.
- Keesey, Douglas. Don DeLillo. New York: Twayne, 1993.
- Lentricchia, Frank (ed.). New Essays on White Noise. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
- Ruppersburg, Hugh (ed.), Engles, Tim (ed.). Critical Essays on Don DeLillo. New York: G.K. Hall, 2000.
- Bryant, Paula. ”Don DeLillo: An Annotated Biographical and Critical Secondary References, 1977-1986.” Bulletin of References 45 (September 1988): 208-212.
- DeCurtis, Anthony. ”’An Outsider in This Society’: An Interview with Don DeLillo.” South Atlantic Quarterly 89 (Spring 1990): 281-304.
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