Ratner’s Star by Don DeLillo

A book editor named Gerald Howard believes Don DeLillo deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature:

By every metric that we use to measure literary greatness—including overall achievement, scope and variety of subject matter, striking and fully realized style, duration of career, originality and formal innovation, widespread influence here and abroad, production of masterpieces, consistency of excellence, pertinence of themes, density of critical commentary, and dignity in the conduct of a literary career—Don DeLillo, now eighty-three, scores in the highest possible percentile. 

He says DeLillo’s case for the Nobel rests on four propositions:

1. “No American novelist has examined more broadly and with greater insight and originality our postwar history and experience”.

2. “The astonishing and unmatched string of four midcareer masterpieces: White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Mao II (1991), and Underworld (1997). [All] permanently lodged in the record of American literary greatness.

3. DeLillo’s influence:  [His] work is currently available in forty-three languages and/or countries. He is a true global phenomenon. . . . In the anglophone and domestic spheres, there is no writer more revered than DeLillo.

4.  “The dignity and nobility that he has brought to his vocation as a novelist. . . . He eschews almost all the encumbrances and strategies of a postmodern literary career”.

I’ve read the four novels mentioned above and several of his others. DeLillo is clearly worthy of the Nobel Prize. It’s too bad the Swedish Academy marches to its own peculiar set of drums.

Since DeLillo has a new novel coming out (The Silence), The New York Times interviewed him this month. They gave the interview this title: “We All Live in Don DeLillo’s World. He’s Confused By It Too”:

A permeating paranoia. Profound absurdity. Conspiracy and terrorism. Technological alienation. Violence bubbling, ready to boil. This has long been the stuff of Don DeLillo’s masterly fiction. It’s now the air we breathe. For nearly 50 years and across 17 novels, [he] has summoned the darker currents of the American experience with maximum precision and uncanny imagination.

The interviewer asked a question about DeLillo’s 1976 novel, Ratner’s Star. It’s not a well-known book, possibly because it’s been called “his weirdest novel” and “famously impenetrable” (which must mean “famously” among a small group of readers and critics). A footnote to the Times interview says it’s an “intricately structured semi-sci-fi romp”. That was enough for me to get a copy and start reading (I had a copy years ago but it’s long gone).


For the first 275 pages, Ratner’s Star didn’t seem impenetrable at all. It’s about a 14-year old math genius who (coincidentally) has won the Nobel Prize. He is invited to a secretive, well-funded installation where lots of brilliant, generally strange people are trying to decipher what appears to be a message from an alien civilization. DeLillo writes beautifully and the plot is interesting. Will young Billy Twillig (formerly “Terwilliger”) from The Bronx (where DeLillo is from) figure out what the message means? Does it mean anything at all? I liked this part of the book and its amusing conversations and technical explanations and foresaw no problem reading the rest.

Then the plot takes a detour. Billy descends into a cavern far beneath the installation with a small group whose purpose is to create a purely logical, universal language. They hope to use this new language to communicate with the alien civilization (assuming there are aliens out there). Since the little group’s purpose makes no sense, the novel’s suspense disappears. There is frequent stream of consciousness. The point of view suddenly changes from one character to another. There are tangents and long passages that feel pointless, as if DeLillo is treading water. Billy becomes a secondary character.

Something eventually happens in a section called “A Lot Happens”. Something else happens in the next section, “I Sit A While Longer”. But between those two developments, a peripheral character spends several pages exploring a cave because he’s fascinated by bats and a journalist decides her manuscript’s many blank pages are fine because she knows what words belong there. The plot resumes in the final pages; before that there’s rough going. Anybody interested in DeLillo’s work should start elsewhere, maybe with one of the four novels that would justify giving him the Nobel Prize.

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)