(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? Read more »

When the Author Stands Naked

by Robert Fay

Somerset Maugham in 1957 (photo credit: S. Daveon).

I spent my freshman year at a drab suburban college pining for the cosmopolitan life of Boston. I whined and schemed and eventually engineered a transfer to Suffolk University in the city, where I was certain I’d meet fabulous Bohemian people who chain-smoked unfiltered Camels and read Rimbaud and William Blake by candlelight. Suffolk owned three Queen Anne revival buildings in the Back Bay and operated them as pseudo-rooming houses. I was 19 and had seemingly become an Emersonian self-actualized person overnight. I had propelled myself into the middle of a vibrant city, just two blocks from the upper-end of Newbury Street with Tower Records, the Avenue Victor Hugo book shop, the Trident Bookstore Café, Urban Outfitters (still indescribably outlaw in 1991) and Newbury Comics, the city’s punk rock record store.

I had arrived, or so it seemed, until I took stock of this new person and found he was remarkably unchanged, despite the sparkling offerings of the city.

Old problems persisted. The ground rules of interpersonal relations remained mysterious to me. I overshared with acquaintances and got clingy. Good people quickly fled, leaving me withdrawn and depressed, and vulnerable to centripetal forces within.

I desperately wanted to be loved by everyone—the consequences of a cold, unloving home I suppose—and I discovered people, particularly young women, had no patience for needy college sophomores.

Yet that autumn was not without its pleasure. I still recall one glorious week—crimson and vermillion leaves swirling across Commonwealth Avenue—when I curled up in bed with a Signet Classic paperback of Of Human Bondage (1915) by Somerset Maugham. I read the book with teenage abandon. I identified completely with the club-footed Philip Carey and his masochistic attraction to the cruel and vacuous paramour Mildred Rogers, who cared nothing for him, and got her kicks toying with his lap-dog like attention. Read more »