death no more

Joshua Ferris in The New York Times:

BookSomething feels not quite right about subjecting Don DeLillo to the ordinary critical apparatus. I don’t read a DeLillo novel for its plot, character, setting; for who betrayed whom and how hard life with Mother was; for Phoenix days and Bombay nights; or for how to tune a fiddle. I read a DeLillo novel for its sentences. And sentence by sentence, DeLillo magically slips the knot of criticism and gives his readers what Nabokov maintained was all that mattered in life and art: individual genius. Sentence by sentence, DeLillo seduces. And I don’t just mean on the question of thumbs up or down; I mean that his sentences juke and weave around the best defenses, so that not only is the playing field of the past 50 years strewn with conservative critics of all stripes, but text, subtext, ultimate meanings remain elusive and the game, at least in part, now seems original to him.

For instance. Charles Maitland, a British security consultant in DeLillo’s 1982 novel “The Names,” compares Western expatriates — diplomats, businessmen, risk analysts — to members of the British Empire whose insouciant lives were full of “opportunity, adventure, sunsets, dusty death.” Even with so dour a conclusion, it all sounds winsome and romantic in Maitland’s formulation, which fails to take into account at whose expense opportunity and adventure are made. Later, Maitland complains: “They keep changing the names . . . Persia for one. We grew up with Persia. What a vast picture that name evoked. A vast carpet of sand. . . . I find I take these changes quite personally. . . . Every time another people’s republic emerges from the dust, I have the feeling someone has tampered with my childhood.” Clueless but effervescent, this is wit and world-weariness as two sides of the Western coin, the sort of thing one might smile at when spoken at a cocktail party. But it masks a deeper intent. DeLillo artfully reveals Maitland’s Western view of things while guiding the reader to ask: Who’s changing the names, and why? Smile, and the history of colonialism and the civil wars it ignited will be scrubbed out with a quip.

More here.