White Noise by Don DeLillo

DeLillo’s novel White Noise won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1985. I read it back then and enjoyed it, but also found it somewhat mysterious. I guess I didn’t know what he was trying to say. Having read it again, and enjoyed it even more, I’d now say he’s commenting on the strangeness and artificiality of modern America lives.

It’s the story of a Professor of Hitler Studies at a small liberal arts college, and the professor’s wife and children, and how they all cope or fail to cope with their confusion and fear. The centerpiece of the novel is an “airborne toxic event” that the family has to escape. But the most important aspect of the story isn’t the plot, or even the characters, but DeLillo’s wonderful language. Real people don’t speak like DeLillo’s characters, but it’s still great to see what they have to say. 

Mao II by Don DeLillo

I’ve read almost all of DeLillo’s novels. I didn’t enjoy this one. It’s about a famous novelist who has gone into seclusion, like J. D. Salinger. There are three other principal characters: a young man and woman who live with the novelist and work as his assistants, and a woman who is devoting her career to taking photographs of writers and is given the unexpected opportunity to photograph the famous but mysterious author.

The four characters come and go throughout the novel. There’s a flashback in which the young woman is married at Yankee Stadium under the auspices of the Unification Church. She later ministers to the homeless in New York City. The young man spends most of his time organizing the novelist’s papers. The novelist agrees to travel to London, and then to Greece, in a strange attempt to free a hostage being held by terrorists in Beirut. The novel ends with the photographer visiting one of the same terrorists to take his picture. She has moved on from photographing writers.

DeLillo’s language is poetic, as usual, but there doesn’t seem to be much point to this book. The people all talk the same, in DeLillo’s own style. Observations, often unclear or inaccurate, are made about the modern world. There are long, repetitious scenes in which nothing of interest happens. Mao II won a literary award in 1992. I would have voted for something else.  (1/15/12)

End Zone by Don DeLillo

I took a walk this evening. I could write about the eerie quiet of my suburban neighborhood at twilight, or the odd geometry of the local high school’s main building, or the etiquette that applies to meeting another pedestrian. If I strung together enough such descriptions and observations, putting them in the mouths of several characters, I’d have a novel. If I had enough skill, I’d have a novel by Don DeLillo.

End Zone is about a college football player named Gary Harkness. After an erratic career at some larger schools, he has ended up at an obscure college in a desolate part of Texas. Gary has a special interest in nuclear warfare. His fellow players and students and the college staff have their own distinctive peculiarities and concerns, which they discuss with Gary in unrealistically vivid, intellectual language. No small college in Texas has ever had such universally well-spoken football players. The centerpiece of the novel is an engrossing account of a single game.

I was expecting more of a plot, but still enjoyed the book. There is something going on here, although it’s not clear what it is. As usual, DeLillo’s characters have a lot on their minds. Too much, in fact, like many of us.  (6/3/11)

Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo

DeLillo writes some wonderful paragraphs, not always easily understood or obviously true, but always evocative of contemporary lives that are technological, media-saturated, self-conscious, affluent and/or rootless.  

Cosmopolis tells the story of a billionaire who spends a long day getting in and out of his limousine as he travels along 47th Street in Manhattan. He wants to get a haircut on the other side of town. There are too many conversations, adventures and coincidences along the way. He makes it to the barber shop but mostly dismantles his life.  

If the characters and incidents in the novel were more believable, the whole thing might add up to something. Anyway, the words are often beautiful.  (5/19/11)

Point Omega by Don DeLillo

As usual, DeLillo’s language is often beautiful and its meaning is often obscure. This is a very short novel. It begins and ends with an unnamed man watching a slow-motion presentation of Psycho at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Between these two chapters, an aspiring filmmaker tries to get an intellectual older man to be the subject of a documentary film. The older man is to speak about his work with the Defense Department in support of the younger Bush’s Iraq war, or anything else he wants to talk about. These central chapters are set in the California desert and also feature a visit from the intellectual’s disengaged daughter.

I’ve read most of DeLillo’s novels and have never found it easy to say what their theme is. Maybe I’m wrong about the theme of this novel, but DeLillo draws an obvious contrast between the casual manner in which the defense intellectual participates in a war that costs thousands of lives and his intense reaction to the apparent loss of someone he cares about.  

Interwoven with the novel’s narrative are thoughts on film-making and film-watching, and the passage of time in natural and artificial settings. DeLillo again left me with the feeling that I had experienced something important about modern life, but not sure exactly what that was.  (5/9/11)