(Re)reading Don DeLillo in Dark Times

by Andrea Scrima

Adapted from a talk given on April 28, 2017 at the New School, New York City, as part of The Body Artist: A Conference on Don DeLillo.

For some readers, Don DeLillo is a guy thing: an immensely gifted geek whose male characters are incapable of emotional communication; whose dialogue sounds more like the brilliant inner monologues of a mind challenging its own assumptions than individual expressions of distinct personalities; who has examined, analyzed, and celebrated American culture with a wistful nostalgia for baseball, poker, fistfights, and billiards, the kind of rough-and-tumble male bonding that redeems unremarkable domestic existence. Whatever his weaknesses might be, most would agree that DeLillo is a wary paranoiac with an uncanny ability to predict, well in advance, shifts in culture, technology, and the communication media and their effects on individual and collective psychology and to express these phenomena in evocative and hypnotic prose. DeLillo speaks powerfully to American obsessions: our anxiety at being alive, our fear of death, the way in which our efforts to transcend ourselves in some meaningful way are stymied by a culture that both engenders and entraps us. The question now is whether his work can help us analyze the unprecedented political situation we find ourselves in today.

I’ve been living in Berlin for over thirty years. Live outside your native culture long enough, and you begin to see it as a sort of double exposure in which your sense of family and identity and belonging is overlaid with a strange, shape-shifting disturbance pattern in which everything seems normal until it suddenly doesn’t, and you begin to see the country from a foreigner’s point of view. For as long as I can remember, America has enjoyed its superpower status, exporting the products of its creative industries around the globe, often through aggressive means, and showing little sustained interest in the cultures of other countries. Lawrence Venuti, the translation theorist, has spoken of “a trade imbalance with serious cultural ramifications” resulting in “a complacency in Anglo-American relations with cultural others, a complacency that can be described—without too much exaggeration—as imperialistic abroad and xenophobic at home.” Only a tiny percentage of all publications in the United States are works in translation, meaning that we have comparatively meager resources to examine our society and culture in comparison to other societies and cultures, and that this impedes our ability to reflect objectively on ourselves.

What does this have to do with Don DeLillo?

Clearly, DeLillo is an author unwilling to accept anything at face value. He loves America, he celebrates it, yet he is mistrustful and introspective. His is a highly sensitive apparatus that registers the first stirrings of things: darker psychological forces brewing beneath our compulsive optimism; a creeping sense of the country moving inexorably in a very wrong direction. The last major catastrophe America faced before the catastrophe of Donald Trump’s election were the attacks of September 11, 2001, the trauma of which DeLillo explored in Falling Man. The terrorist Hammad, fictitious member of the cell that would hijack and drive the planes into the Twin Towers, observes the small Florida town around him: “These people jogging in the park, world domination. These old men who sit in beach chairs, veined white bodies and baseball caps, they control our world. He wonders if they think of this, ever. He wonders if they see him standing here, clean-shaven, in tennis sneakers.” DeLillo envisions the banal spectacle of the superpower from the perspective of a person intent on its demise: what it must look like, feel like, seen through eyes that sting with injustice, humiliation, that burn with rage at our excess, our vanity, our indifference to their fate. He describes an America well past the peak of moral authority, an America about to turn rogue, to give in to the immediate satisfaction of revenge. Martin, the elderly European lover of the protagonist’s mother, Nina, sums up this perception of the country as seen from the outside, a perception deeply offensive to Nina’s daughter, Lianne, who is still haunted by the traumatic events: “‘There is a word in German, Gedankenübertragung. This is the broadcasting of thoughts. We are all beginning to have this thought, of American irrelevance. It’s a little like telepathy. Soon the day is coming when nobody has to think about America except for the danger it brings. It is losing the center. It becomes the center of its own shit. This is the only center it occupies.’” When he is challenged, reminded of how much the country has been the object of imitation and envy, Martin remarks: “I don’t know this America anymore. I don’t recognize it . . . there’s an empty space where America used to be.”

When DeLillo wrote these words several years after September 11, 2001, it was with the retrospective knowledge of the illegal wars fought in retribution and the disastrous beginnings of the wider, seemingly irreversible destabilization they set in motion; an understanding of how groupthink generates its own taboos, whereby anyone deviating from the officially sanctioned story in order to examine the complexities of unintended and unacknowledged complicity is deemed a pariah and divested of credibility. Reading them now, after we’ve elected a con man to the country’s highest office, they take on an even more sinister tone, written as they were with an awareness of how easily language breaks down, how an incessant repetition of carefully controlled information and imagery renders critical observation and analysis impossible.

Falling Man gives us another passing comment on America, again from a foreigner: a poker friend of the protagonist Keith who has also survived the attack on the Twin Towers tells Keith that Americans are “shallow people leading giddy lives. . . . You are not serious people, said Terry Chang. He said, Get serious or die.” Uttered in a convivial atmosphere, well before the catastrophe, the statement later feels like a portentous warning. We have brought this on ourselves, DeLillo seems to be saying; we are responsible for our own demise. Or is he? Lianne’s mother Nina, old Manhattan aristocracy, presented as a dying breed, is staunch and defiant in her excoriation of Islam, of its history and mentality, while the daughter’s wounded patriotism produces a xenophobia that verges on the violent. She is threatened by Martin’s Marxist origins, by his involvement in Kommune 1, a German anti-fascist collective from the 1960s, conflating his criticism of America with what she imagines is a terrorist past. Dedicated to free sex and a rejection of the bourgeois nuclear family, Kommune 1, to which my own homeopathic doctor once belonged, was known more for its satirical provocations than for any coherent political ideology. In 1967, caught in a plan to hurl pudding at the visiting American vice-president Hubert H. Humphrey, eight members were arrested and released the following day. They eventually crossed the line in their sympathies, however, and served as inspiration for the terrorist Baader-Meinhof Group, but these distinctions are lost on Lianne; it seems telling that in the writing workshop she conducts with Alzheimer’s patients, painstakingly worded responses to the terrorist event occupy varying points on the spectrum of amnesia and senility, with many of the participants falling back on the will of God to avoid venturing beyond the simpler categories of good and evil—reflecting the wider amnesia of a country unwilling or unable to come to terms with its own ambivalent history.

The Falling Man of the book’s title is a performance artist whose unannounced events echo two things: the desperate human figures falling from the World Trade Center and the magical high-wire act of twenty-four-year-old Phillipe Petit, who completed a tightrope walk between the two towers in 1974, in what now seems like a distant epoch. Petit’s act was a feat of cunning and planning nearly as elaborate as the preparations of the terrorists themselves, requiring numerous transatlantic expeditions to the site to study security measures and weather conditions, renting a helicopter to take aerial photographs, hiding in the upper stories of the unfinished buildings to analyze their construction, creating false identities, first as a journalist from a French architecture magazine to interview workers on the buildings’ roofs with Port Authority’s permission, and later as a construction worker hauling the rigging equipment and steel cable needed to perform the feat. In the figure of the Falling Man, the referential overlap seems significant: the performances are specters that evoke both the recent, still-raw nightmare and a fairytale from another, seemingly more innocent time that has become forgotten in the public imagination.




What do we expect from literature? Fiction offers writers the chance to formulate uncomfortable ideas, to place words in the mouths of characters that are distinct from the author’s point of view. Written six years after September 11, however, Falling Man still did not address much of the madness that occurred in the aftermath of this epochal event: the self-censorship that characterized the time; the mindless patriotism; the trauma that was fixated exclusively on victimhood, as opposed to the devastating effects of United States policy abroad; the conspiracy theories—the latter being a particularly noteworthy omission, given that in his research for Libra, DeLillo immersed himself in the sea of speculation surrounding the JFK assassination, the last era-defining catastrophe before 9/11. Was it a cop-out to give the strongest critical voice to a foreigner, the vaguely dubious Martin with the socialist past? Oddly, his nationality is not precisely specified, as though Europe were some indistinguishable entity patently hostile to American values and virtues, and therefore decadent, discredited. DeLillo seems to be asking how much we actually want to know about ourselves, and it seems significant in this respect that Falling Man was one of his least loved books. A similar fate befell Susan Sontag, who famously issued an apology for the short essay she read out loud at the American Academy in Berlin on September 13, 2001 and published two days later in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Finally appearing in The New Yorker on September 24, nearly two weeks after the event, the piece made the comparatively mild and fairly accurate observation that America was attacked for its arrogance and its disastrous international interventions and heaped scorn on “the unanimity of the sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric spouted by American officials and media commentators.” Sontag stood alone in her audacity to state what should have been obvious to everyone, and she was vilified for it. When does it become the writer’s responsibility to put skin in the game, to come out of hiding and state an unequivocal point of view? Are DeLillo’s deflected statements the only way he saw to voice deeply uncomfortable and unpopular ideas, and is this a legitimate literary strategy?

In an interview with German state television in 2003, David Foster Wallace seemed equally queasy about calling a spade a spade. When he told his interviewer that he was “more scared of us” than he was of anybody else, he grew agitated, as though he regretted what he’d just said. But he decided to go on. “I don’t think American people are evil. I think we’ve had it very easy materially for a long time . . . and I don’t think anyone knows how we’ll react if things get hard here. The fact that we’re strong militarily and economically is a good thing, but it’s also a frightening thing.” And then, once again, his inner censor kicked in, and he added, “Well, luckily not a lot of Americans will see this.”

Why are these things so hard for us to admit to? And if our writers don’t say them, then who will? In What is Literature?, Sartre writes that “although literature is one thing and morality a quite different one, at the heart of the aesthetic imperative we discern the moral imperative.” This was written more than seventy years ago, in the immediate aftermath of World War II; given the current state of affairs, one can only conclude that literature’s role now, in 2017, must once again be reevaluated. If art reflects life, then the issue at stake is how authentic a book feels and in what ways its language reflects this. If, however, life also imitates art, and we wind up believing and ultimately living the stories we tell ourselves, then the writer’s responsibility runs deep; it carries consequences. In other words, writing is not merely a matter of making sense of things, of giving them cohesion and form, but of creating a blueprint for reality, of dissecting the narratives that got us into trouble in the first place.




I don’t think that a writer has to be a social activist; writing is an introverted task, and there’s something inherently contrary about it, something skeptical and self-doubting. Literature should, however, show us the shallowness of our pieties and the depth of our self-deception—and find ways to articulate and ultimately subvert them. Over and over, DeLillo is drawn to America’s blind spots, to areas blacked out on the collective mental map. One of these is the tireless belief that we are, contrary to all historical evidence, the world’s good guys; another is the conflation of economic regulation and socialist democracy with communist dictatorship. Money comes first in this country and always has, and DeLillo explores precisely this in Cosmopolis. A surreal swansong to latter-day capitalism that follows the movements of Eric Packer, a young billionaire currency trader, the book is punctuated by moments of startling vision. It’s as though the surface of reality could suddenly peel away and reveal, like the “swell of blowing horns” Eric hears as he sits in his stretch limousine, stuck in traffic, a primeval force crushing through the present moment: “It was the tone of some fundamental ache, a lament so old it sounded aboriginal. He thought of men in shaggy bands bellowing ceremonially, social units established to kill and eat. Red meat. That was the call, the grievous need.” This is the world: the blood lust of money, and an evidence of power so obvious, so blatantly apparent as to be nearly invisible: “The bank towers loomed just beyond the avenue. They were covert structures for all their size, hard to see, so common and monotonic, tall, sheer, abstract, with standard setbacks, and block-long, and interchangeable, and he had to concentrate to see them.”

DeLillo presents the logic of cyber-capitalism as ubiquitous and exponential, as a force that defines every operative paradigm of thinking, that reduces time to a corporate asset belonging to a free market system ruled by a “future of uncontrolled markets and huge investment potential.” In this dark evocation of a world transforming at such an accelerated rate that the fabric of reality itself begins to tear, he obsesses over the hopeless obsolescence of language, its inability to accurately describe the rapidly evolving social, political, and economic order of the hyper-real. The word “skyscraper,” the word “walkie-talkie,” a “nitwit rhyme out of the age of industrial glut,” embody a clumsy disconnect, a stumbling block on the path to a gleaming, immaterial, cleanly binary future: “He was thinking about automated teller machines. The term was aged and burdened by its own historical memory. It worked at cross-purposes, unable to escape the inference of fuddled human personnel and jerky moving parts . . . so cumbrous and mechanical that even the acronym seemed dated.” Packer is exasperated by the linguistic traces of a not-so-distant time; the original awe these words embodied, their humble amazement are lost on him. His imagination is limited; he is interested not in the evolution of technology and the history of human adaptation to it, but in subjugating technology in order to become mystically one with it, to attain to a more perfect state of being.

There is self-sabotage lying at the heart of this, a subconscious urge to self-destruct that Kinski, Packer’s chief of theory, repeatedly alludes to as Packer engages in erotic fantasies and the anti-globalist crowd outside chants a variation on the opening line of the Communist Manifesto: “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of Communism.” This is as far as DeLillo goes in terms of exploring the idea of a more equitable alternative; the very notion of the socialist democracy is simultaneously equated with and drowned out by the riffraff rocking the limousine from side to side. DeLillo is far more interested in the free-market economic order, in examining its quantum makeup, as it were. Packer’s surveillance systems are paranormal; they run several seconds ahead of actual occurrence and thus anticipate the immediate future. Yet even though he’s studied “the way signals from a pulsar in deepest space follow classic number sequences . . . how market cycles can be interchangeable with the time cycles of grasshopper breeding,” he is unable to crack the code of the yen’s unprecedented rise. Kinski, after coolly informing her boss that his mind “thrives on ill will toward others,” cuts close to the heart of the matter when she asks: “What is the flaw of human rationality? . . . It pretends not to see the horror and death at the end of the schemes it builds.” Doubt creeps in, and Packer, mesmerized by an almost mystical sense that market movements originate in the laws of nature itself, is confronted with the ever-increasing elusiveness of things. In the end, it’s his assassin—a man plagued by masochistic self-loathing and shame, a man who has watched Packer’s every move on screen and has longed to be him—who alerts Packer to the “importance of the lopsided, the thing that’s skewed a little.”




Now that the darker sides of the American psyche have spewed forth their own id, we look to DeLillo to show us the skewed and lopsided thing. If there’s a common denominator in his books, it is the sense that there’s an error intrinsic to the structures of things, something subconscious bleeding through our belief in ourselves, something unknown and unseen. “Technology is crucial to civilization why? Because it helps us make our fate. We don’t need God or miracles or the flight of the bumblebee. But it is also crouched and undecided. It can go either way.” And it’s precisely this factor of unpredictability that scares us, that transforms free will into self-fulfilling prophecy: “Hysteria at high speeds, day to day, minute to minute. People in free societies don’t have to fear the pathology of the state. We create our own frenzy, our own mass convulsions.”

Are we more similar to animals than we care to admit, caught in vast murmurations and blind herds that obey some ancient code humming in our DNA? Or have we merely gotten used to believing our own stories? I mean not only to celebrate the work of one of our most influential, prescient, brooding, analytical minds but to comb it for clues, metaphors, a vocabulary and a language that can somehow explain us to ourselves. What can literary fiction achieve in a culture that has itself surrendered to fiction? That is more comfortable with make-believe than with doing the tedious work of trying to figure out why things are the way they are? Americans are addicted to fun—it’s what makes the U.S. so charismatic, and so good at popular culture, and enviable in so many ways, but it’s at the heart of a breakdown in discourse and a disassociation from reality that has us, literally, making things up as we go along. Americans want to be fired up, engaged emotionally—they want to get teary-eyed, earnestly confess, make solemn avowals. Does our literature help us to dig deeper, does it peel away the lies we tell ourselves, or does it perpetuate the problem through a self-celebration and nostalgia that reinforce the myths we’ve created about ourselves?

The interesting thing about DeLillo’s books is that they don’t seem to get old. Even when he describes situations long since made redundant by the marvels of wireless technology—people not consulting their smart phones but crowding around certain individuals who are “sources of information and rumor,” forming “long lines at the emergency telephone”—DeLillo’s observations show us that while our gadgets change, basic human nature does not. Whether we’re huddling beneath umbrellas or convening on social media, crisis brings us together to seek the warmth of the herd. In White Noise, it’s not by accident that déjà-vu is one of the earliest symptoms of industrial poisoning. There is a nagging unease, a feeling of having already seen something, thought something before the mind shuts down to its own discovery. Then as now, technology brings about a complicated acceleration in perception, and while we try to wrap our imaginations around the various mutations culture continues to undergo in the age of the Internet, spawning phenomena that further undermine our efforts to distinguish between fact and fiction, White Noise, written over thirty years ago, anticipated these disjunctions. When Jack’s wife Babette unexpectedly appears on the TV screen, he gives in to a feeling of “psychic disorientation”: “I’d seen her just an hour ago, eating eggs, but her appearance on the screen made me think of her as some distant figure from the past, some ex-wife and absentee mother, a walker in the mists of the dead.” Her apparition, “the face in black and white, animated but also flat, distanced, sealed off, timeless,” induces in him a feeling of dread and alienation. “We were being shot through with Babette. Her image was projected on our bodies, swam in us and through us. Babette of electrons and photons, of whatever forces produced that gray light we took to be her face.”

She had become larger than life, a media image emanating its own peculiar power, its own peculiar heightening of the real, giving way to a hyperreality that permeates all of DeLillo’s writing. A practice evacuation becomes a “chance to use the real event in order to rehearse the simulation.” Indeed, troubling details of the actual toxic disaster that fail to match the computer model are regarded as aberrations, “probability excess,” something haphazard and disorganized that “just spilled out, three-dimensionally, all over the landscape.” If there is one thing that DeLillo has been telling us, it’s that the simulation, and not the actual event, is what counts in our culture: the gleaming surface, the airbrushed sheen, the Photoshopped or computer-generated image and not the quirks and flaws of the real thing. The political ramifications of this are clear. When there’s nothing on network TV, “no film footage, no live report” on the airborne toxic event, a man carrying a small television set exclaims: “Don’t they know it’s real? Shouldn’t the streets be crawling with cameramen and soundmen and reporters?” Underlying his indignation is the uneasy realization that it’s the media who retain the power to construct collective reality, a fact that remains unchanged to the present day—leaving aside for a moment the troubling phenomenon that when we are fed lies long enough, we eventually give in to believing them.

Is there something peculiarly American about this? White Noise taps into the roots of religious fanaticism as it permeates contemporary social and political consciousness; it shows us how the images we create emanate an eerie, iconic force. The supermarket becomes a modern-day temple, while the noiseless opening and closing of automated doors takes on an eschatological symbolism. We are sleepwalkers, occasionally bolted into a waking state by a collective yearning for the apocalypse: “‘It’s not do they want it. It’s where do I go to sign up. It’s get me out of here right now.’ . . . I did not feel Armageddon in my bones but I worried about all those people who did, who were ready for it, wishing hard, making phone calls and bank withdrawals.” One is reminded of Ronald Reagan, president at the time White Noise was written, musing on the Book of Revelations as it applied in his mind to nuclear armament and foreign policy. Now, of course, we have Steve Bannon, who has delivered his own apocalyptic vision of a “Great Fourth Turning” in American history.

Walter Benjamin once wrote: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” Indeed, Germany has been examining its history and dissecting its transgressions obsessively for over 70 years; its writers generally view patriotism and nationalism with deep suspicion, consider them to be forces incompatible with critical thinking. Emerging from the disaster of the Second World War, modern European literature as a whole has been systematically engaged in dismantling any illusions it once had about human nature; it maintains a reserved distance to the level of fame and celebrity Americans crave. By contrast, Mao II gives us a reclusive novelist disillusioned by the writer’s waning impact: “In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence. Do you ask your writers how they feel about this? Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory.” DeLillo predicted the imminent emergence of an age of terror a full decade before the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon; his anxiety, however, seems to have more to do with the way this new reality was bound to steal the show—leaving mainstream literature, and its bewildered champions, in the dust.

In DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, an old Sioux mystic anticipates where the American political experiment would inevitably take us: “Let the mad leaders of our nation destroy whomever they choose. That’s what Black Knife told me. We want to be totally engulfed by all the so-called worst elements of our national life and character. We want to wallow in the terrible gleaming mudcunt of Mother America.” Now that we’ve gotten to this point, now that we’ve hit rock bottom, maybe it’s time to leave American insularity and exceptionalism behind and to think and write in broader, bolder, more plural ways. While popular culture has appropriated much of the power literature once possessed—the spate of suicides following the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther would be an unlikely response to a novel today—words nonetheless establish the very basis of our thinking and can have devastating—or miraculous—consequences. It’s up to us to make our words cogent enough, provocative enough, and true enough to pose a threat again, particularly to those who would silence us.