Volume 4, No.
2 - May 2010
The Don DeLillo Society
The Don DeLillo Society exists for the benefit of readers and scholars of Don DeLillo throughout the world. The Society welcomes new members. If you are interested in joining, please log onto http://www.k-state.edu/english/nelp/delillo/about.html#join for more information.
Recent DeLillo News
In March 2010, the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Austin, Texas acquired the late David Foster Wallace’s archive. The collection includes Wallace’s heavily annotated copies of novels by DeLillo. To see a selection of Wallace’s annotations visit http://www.hrc.utexas.edu/press/releases/2010/dfw/books/.
DeLillo published his fifteenth novel, Point Omega, on February 2, 2010. Interviews with DeLillo in The Wall Street Journal, The Sunday Times (UK), and BBC Radio 4 accompanied its publication.
DeLillo appeared at a PEN event in NYC on December 31, 2010 in support of Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, who was sentenced to eleven years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power.”
DeLillo published a new short story, “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” in The New Yorker in November 2009.
On October 13, 2009, DeLillo attended “Reckoning with Torture: Memos and Testimonies from the “War on Terror,’” a PEN event in New York City. Other attendees included Matthew Alexander, Paul Auster, Eve Ensler, Jenny Holzer, Jack Rice, Amrit Singh, and Art Spiegelman.
On October 20, 2009, DeLillo attended a benefit for the Norman Mailer Writers Colony held at the restaurant Cipriani in midtown Manhattan, New York City
— Anne Longmuir
Upcoming Conference Panels
The Don DeLillo Society has organized two panels at the upcoming American Literature Association Conference in San Francisco, CA. Both panels will be held on May 28, 2010:
Don DeLillo: The Shape of a Career
Chair: Mark Eaton, Azusa Pacific University
- “DeLillo Becomes ‘DeLillo’: Rereading White Noise, Libra, and Mao II,” Jesse Kavaldo, Maryville University of St. Louis
- “Late DeLillo: The Novelist and Performance Art,” John Duvall, Purdue University
- “DeLillo after the Millennium: Limning the Contours of Loss,” Mark Osteen, Loyola University
Renditions: A Roundtable on Point Omega
Moderator: Mark Osteen, Loyola University
- Peter Boxall, University of Sussex
- David Cowart, University of South Carolina
- Catherine Morley, University of Leicester
- Mark Eaton, Azusa Pacific University
- Mark Osteen, Loyola University
Call for Panel Presentations
The Don DeLillo Society would like to encourage its members to consider proposing panel presentations on DeLillo for next year’s American Literature Association Conference and the Louisville Conference on Literature Since 1900. The submission deadline for panel proposals to the Louisville Conference is September 15, 2010. Further information is available here: http://thelouisvilleconference.com/call_for_papers.php. Information on next year’s ALA conference will be available shortly on their website.
Recent Books on DeLillo
Catherine Morley, The Quest for Epic in Contemporary American Literature: John Updike, Philip Roth, Don DeLillo. New York: Routledge, 2009. Print.
Randy Laist, Technology and Postmodern Subjectivity in Don DeLillo’s Novels. New York: Peter Laing, 2010. Print.
A Defense of Point Omega
In light of the recent extreme divergence of reactions as to the quality and value of Don DeLillo's latest novel, Point Omega, here a defense of the novel is offered in terms of “liberal irony” an idea which finds its origin in the field of philosophy. Richard Rorty defines the liberal ironist in his book Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity as the writer for whom a “sense of human solidarity” is “ a matter of imaginative identification with the details of others’ lives” (Rorty 190). In terms of what we’ve called “the divided opinion” on DeLillo’s Point Omega, the book has been criticized for disabling the reader’s imaginative and compassionate identification with said details because it does not resolve its ambiguous plotlines and seems deliberately to avoid making concrete anti-Iraq war statements – for instance as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin did against slavery in the mid-19th century through the use of traditional realist modes of plot and character which condemned the cruelty of slavery through clear portrayals of the same. But it is precisely the ironic strategy of Point Omega to subvert traditional identification with the novel’s details via omission. This strategy forces readers to look for imaginative identification between the sparse details he or she is afforded and significant conditions of the war itself. What we are given is the tragic and forever unexplainable disappearance of Jessie Elster, daughter of Bush-era Iraq mastermind Richard Elster, whose visit to her father provides a temporary respite from his visit with James “Jim” Finley, a documentary filmmaker who wishes to make an Americana-style soliloquy film of Elster as “a flawed character in a chamber drama, justifying his war and condemning the men who made it” (99). The narrative is abruptly truncated when the two return to find nothing left of the gentle Jessica. The inexplicability of her disappearance is complicated by the fact (amongst other causes) that the local sheriff is reluctant to suspect the house caretaker, the only other man to hold a key to Elster’s home where Jessie and the men were staying, because he has known this caretaker for 30 years (82). Accountability and criminal investigation are obstructed, finally impassibly. As the novel ends with Jessie’s disappearance, the truth of her situation remains an unsolved mystery.
Therefore, it would seem DeLillo has failed us in the traditional realist sense by refusing to provide an allegorical resolution to illustrate more fully the evil of the Iraq conflict. Yet this insolvability is the perfect motif with which to represent the phenomenon of embedded journalism. On April 8, 2003, a U.S. tank attacked the Palestine hotel in Baghdad, a well-known haven for international journalists who were not embedded with the American military and therefore not committed to give a pro-American bias to their reporting of the conflict. Just as this outrageous attack pre-empted true reporting of the many injustices involved in the war in Iraq, the truncated narrative of Point Omega pre-empts the true resolution of Jessie’s disappearance. Ironically, Jessie’s perspective on what might have happened is as lost as is the camera work of Ukrainian cameraman Taras Protysuk, an accomplished video journalist for Reuters killed in the attack (“Three Journalists Killed in Iraq”). Jim Finley’s inane comment that “the story was here, not in Iraq or in Washington” (99) becomes ironic as well, because in both the fictional and historical cases the real story cannot be anywhere as the reader’s sole means of getting to the truth has been obstructed, with DeLillo’s termination of the story artistically representing the effect of the Palestine hotel attack. In contrast to the age of Stowe, the contemporary American fiction writer presents social evil with a stunned silence, like the silence of the anti-nuclear protester Matt Costanza Shay tries to engage in Underworld (412). Inquiring readers interested in the real story in Baghdad must be inspired to find the truth on their own. If they do, then they’ll find Rorty’s ironic “imaginative identification with details of others’ lives” or as DeLillo puts it more eloquently: “the omega point has narrowed, here and now, … funneled down to local grief, one body, out there somewhere, or not” (99).
DeLillo, Don. Point Omega. New York: Scribner, 2010. Print.
DeLillo, Don. Underworld. New York: Scribner, 1997. Print.
Rorty, Richard. Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989. Print.
“Three Journalists Killed In Baghdad.” Online Newshour Update. PBS. 8 April 2003. Web. 15 April 2010.
Lost in DeLillo
When I finished the manuscript of my recent book on Don DeLillo, Technology and Postmodern Subjectivity in Don DeLillo’s Novels, I knew that I wanted my next project to be a kind of vacation from the hypnotic seriousness and esoteric hyper-literacy that I had come to associate with DeLillo’s writing. When an opportunity presented itself to edit a collection of essays about the television show Lost, my first thought was that this excursion into a madcap expression of popular culture would be a perfect change of pace. Imagine my surprise when one of the first writers to contact me with an abstract was Jesse Kavadlo, whose book about DeLillo, Balance at the Edge of Belief, had been published by the same press that issued my DeLillo book. As the abstracts continued to come in, it became a recurring pattern that many of the same scholars who had something to say about Lost had published on or taught DeLillo at some point in the recent past. You might scoff and say that DeLillo is a popular enough author that there is no coincidence here, but when you add to this quasi-anecdotal evidence the startling fact that DeLillo’s most recent book, Point Omega, and the sixth (and final) season of Lost both debuted on the same day (February 2, 2010), you have a clue that neither DeLillo fans nor Lost fans – both practiced in teasing out the semantic nuances of manifestly meaningless coincidences – could possibly ignore.
This paranoid mood of radical connectivity is certainly the most obvious relationship between DeLillo’s oeuvre and Lost. The theme that “everything is connected” is explicitly invoked in Underworld, but it runs throughout all of DeLillo’s novels, which all weave patterns of suggestive coincidences between entities that share no obvious relationship. Think of the parallels between football and nuclear war in End Zone, Elvis and Hitler in White Noise, or between Kennedy and Oswald in Libra. Even when such a parallel is not explicitly drawn, DeLillo’s enigmatic juxtapositions – for example, the framing of the main story in Point Omega with the narrative about 24-hour Psycho – provoke us into attempting to discover the buried logic at work. DeLillo’s attentive prose encourages us to assume that such a logic does in fact exist, however obscure it may be. Consequently, the reader of DeLillo is always penetrating deeper and deeper into an atmosphere of mystery that becomes more complex with every step. This same atmosphere of vaguely sacred mysteries is the primary hook of Lost. Of course, “mystery shows” are not foreign to television, but Lost is unique because the “mystery” the show deals with is DeLillian in nature, rather than, say, Agatha Christie-an. The question of Lost has no specific form; it is atmospheric and generalized. Lost’s central question, as one character expresses it in the pilot episode, is an existential one: “Where are we?” There is a vast catalogue of particular mysteries throughout the plot, but the real subject of the program is “mystery” itself as a human condition. In the same way that DeLillo frequently uses juxtaposition as a way of insinuating a hidden relationship, Lost’s formula of relating two parallel narratives in each episode prompts the viewer’s disposition to scan both narratives for points of contact. As a result, the diegetic mysteries that arise on the island (who kidnapped Claire? Who built the hatch?) are subtended by a larger extradiegetic mystery concerning the relationship between the various narrative strands. Of course, Lost being a television show, subject to all the generic conventions pertaining to that medium, the viewers would reject the show if it were to end – Players-style – abruptly, with the supreme revelation eternally deferred, or if it ended, White Noise-style, with the characters gazing off into some haze of unanswerability, stranded with the impossible responsibility of living in an atmospheric smog of strangeness. The more Lost plugs in agents to explain the various mysteries of the show, the less it reads like DeLillo, Kafka, and Conrad and the more it reads like Stephen King. But the appeal of the show has always been the promise of mystery, rather than the (inevitably disappointing) moment of revelation. In the early seasons, before the producers announced that they were going to write the story toward a definitive resolution, it was possible to read Lost as a DeLillian interrogation of answerless questions and our mechanisms for coping with them.
One of the most compelling mysteries thematized by both DeLillo and Lost is the relationship between agency and environment. Both texts address the question of whether human choices are free expressions of the unique will of the actor or whether they are the mechanistic outcomes of inhuman forces. Lee Harvey Oswald and Jack Gladney join Lost’s John Locke and Jack Shepherd in their sense of having their free will usurped by forces that are associated with both international finance and with cosmic ontology. In the same way that DeLillo’s characters often seem to be dimly aware that there is something artificial in the plots that they find themselves participating in, so do the characters of Lost frequently approach the realization that they are trapped in a television script that keeps relentlessly making outrageous demands on them. DeLillo’s characters, from David Bell to Richard Elster, often respond to this intuition by dropping out, going to the desert, and starving themselves to the brink of death. Lost characters are also typically prone to recalcitrance in the face of existential coercion. They smash mirrors, blow up submarines, and perform various acts of narrative sabotage for the purpose of resisting the pull that the ambient plot seems to be exerting on them. The Losties’ free will frequently seems to have been co-opted by the island itself in a manner reminiscent of that in which DeLillo’s characters tend to fall into the modes of behavior assigned to them by their American mass-culture. The Lost island appears to be a natural, untouched wilderness, but it turns out actually to be a thoroughly colonized space that has been designed and controlled by various human (and superhuman) activities to such an extent that it hardly qualifies as a “natural” landscape. It is impossible not to think of Jack Gladney’s sunsets, which undermine any attempt to dichotomize nature and artifice, or of the West into which David Bell drives toward the end of Americana of which he writes, “Literature is what we left behind, more than men and cactus” (349). DeLillo’s USA and the Losties’ island are both landscapes that have a kind of conscious presence embedded within them, an uncanny consciousness that has the capacity to subsume the will of the landscape’s human inhabitants.
Arguably the most prominent mystery in both DeLillo’s novels and Lost is the mystery of time. Indeed, all of the other mysteries in these texts can be understood as metonymic stand-ins for the ultimate imponderability of time. As DeLillo writes in The Body Artist, time is “the thing you know nothing about” (101). All of DeLillo’s novels are meditations on temporality. DeLillo’s famously stagnant plots are expressions of a desire to reduce time to its barest elements and hold it under a microscope. While Lost differs from DeLillo markedly in its preference for plot-heavy narration, Lost shares DeLillo’s obsessive preoccupation with the phenomenology of time. DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, is built around a “flashback” chapter and a “flashforward” frame story in a way that is remarkably reminiscent of Lost. In both cases, the experimentations with narrative temporality provoke questions about how the past, present, and future are connected to one another through the lived experience of an individual human being. As a kind of post-apocalyptic narrative, Lost interrogates the temporality of trauma in a manner that is reminiscent of The Body Artist and Falling Man. Indeed, The Body Artist’s Mr. Tuttle would be right at home on the Lost island, which is populated by characters whose consciousnesses bounce around unpredictably through time. But in addition to the traumatic intrusion of the past into the present, Lost and DeLillo both consider the mysterious intrusion of the future into the present. Underworld’s backwards narrative weaves a kind of reverse-suspense. Rather than the conventional narrative question – What happens next? – the reader of Underworld asks, How did what I know already to have happened come about? The reversal redirects the reader’s attention from the passage of time itself to the content of time, to the consideration of the choices and happenstances that caused reality to take the shape that it took. DeLillo also plays with this convergent temporality in Cosmopolis, in which he narrates Eric Packer’s story and Benno Levin’s story in opposite directions, as if the two characters were moving in opposite directions through time, personifying the intersecting lines of temporality that combine to articulate lived experience. Lost’s season four transition from flashbacks to flashforwards has a similar effect on the way we follow the characters’ stories and encourages an understanding of time not as a dot moving forward on a single line, but as an Einsteinian field in which past, present, and future are all concurrently active.
Of course, there are many important differences to be acknowledged between DeLillo’s novels and Lost. Lost’s characters are drawn broadly out of stereotypes and caricatures that DeLillo would touch only with the ten-foot pole of irony. DeLillo is as independent as it is possible for a mass-marketed artist to be, while Lost is a corporate commodity stamped with the Disney logo. And Lost is consumed with the kind of meticulous plotting that both Jack Gladney and Don DeLillo hold in fearful suspicion. At its best, however, Lost achieves the feat of communicating some of DeLillo’s complex intuitions about mystery, agency, and temporality to an audience that has been shaped by the same contemporary influences of which DeLillo is such an astute observer. When we consider DeLillo and Lost as companion texts, the correspondences between DeLillo’s literary artistry and the television writers’ bid for commercial appeal suggest a wider set of cultural concerns about the texture of lived experience in the twenty-first century.
DeLillo, Don. Americana. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971. Print.
---. The Body Artist. NY: Scribner, 2001. Print.
A Note from the Editor
I’d like to thank all those who submitted contributions to this edition of the newsletter, and take this opportunity to solicit letters to the editor, comments, reviews, or questions for the next issue. Contributions for the next edition of the newsletter reach me no later that October 15th, 2010. All submissions should be sent to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
— Anne Longmuir
Paul Giaimo is Instructor of Philosophy and English at Highland Community College, a position he has held since 1996. Paul shares with Don DeLillo a Jesuit Education via his B.A. at the College of the Holy Cross. He has a forthcoming book with Praeger Press titled Appreciating Don DeLillo: The Moral Force of A Writer's Work, due out by the end of this year.
Randy Laist is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Connecticut where he is finishing up his dissertation on technology and subjectivity in Don DeLillo's novels. His articles have appeared in Critique, Modern Language Studies, and CEAMagazine. He currently teaches at the University of Connecticut and the College of the Holy Cross.
Anne Longmuir (DDS Newsletter Editor) is Assistant Professor of English at Kansas State University. She completed a Ph.D. on the fiction of Don DeLillo at the University of Edinburgh in 2003 and has published articles on DeLillo’s work in Critique, Modern Fiction Studies, and Journal of Narrative Theory.