Category Archives: don delillo

Ranking the DeLillo

Apropos of last week’s post on the worst DeLillo, I was pointed to this somewhat tongue-in-cheek ranking of DeLillo’s books.

So here’s my take on their take:

1) Kinda ballsy to put The Names in the “classics” category. White Noise and Libra are kind of easy picks for the “classics,” and I’m not sure that Libra qualifies (though it did drive George Will into a fit of pissy rage, and that deserves credit). (Also check out that new Penguin Classics White Noise package w/the Powers intro. Didn’t notice that one when it came out last year.) Lastly, I get why they made Pafko a classic, but at this point I don’t really consider it a DeLillo book.

2) Sorry, but if Underworld isn’t a classic, then nothing from DeLillo is. Players feels about right here, as does Great Jones Street, if only because DeLillo was still getting his motor running at that point. (I do love that book, though.) The positioning of Mao II here seems fair, though you could argue its classic status.

3) I get why Ratner’s Star is a “For Fans Only,” but I also don’t. A lot of people who know Jack about DeLillo could have a lot of fun with this one. Maybe Running Dog is a little blah for fans. Americana is about right here. End Zone is a lot deeper than the NY Mag people understood. Should at least be a 2. Amazons should be a 5. Game 6 should be an “Avoid,” or at best a “Watch While Drunk With Friends.”

4) Haven’t read The Body Artist or Cosmopolis or DeLillo’s theater.

Falling Man should be a 2. Point Omega sounds like a 2 as well.

Against the Short Novel, Even When Don DeLillo Is the Author

Lately I’ve been pushing Cesar Aira on people, which means I’m having a lot of conversations these days about how Americans don’t respect short novels. They’re insubstantial. They offend our sense of value, always measured by the gross poundage we get per dollar. Let’s just go ahead and say it: they feel European, like one of those pathetic little smart cars.

Cesar Aira seems almost designed to refute these culturally wired reactions against the short novel. Yes, his novels can be read quickly, but they’re so intricately crafted and clever in their ambiguity that any good reader will be pulled back to look back through them again and again. Their value is in the fact that they resist interpretation: they will challenge you far more, keep you thinking longer, and ultimately entertain you better than many a long work. I think of them as the literary equivalent of a beautifully built box that sits on your desk. Yes, it’s a box, that’s all it is. It doesn’t really “do” anything. But it’s so finely crafted and cared over that you’ll find yourself staring at that box for ages, noticing detail after detail, and you’ll love putting stuff in it and watching how smartly the lid slips out just so as you open it, revealing a beautiful inlay. And then one day you will discover the world in it.

Which all brings me to Don DeLillo, who seems to have once again offended many critics by writing another wee, dense novel. Forget that Falling Man is the best post-9/11 novel that I’ve read, dwarfing in stature many swollen collections of pages devoid of the lasting thought and value that you will find therein. Falling Man can’t be that serious because it’s “only” 256 pages, and anyone knows you need at least 400 to do justice to 9/11. (And when did 256 pages become so short? Good thing we weren’t judging DeLillo by pagecount back in the Great Jones Street days.) So with the precedent of Falling Man behind us (to say nothing of Cosmopolis, 224 pages (!)) you can imaging how ripped-off critics felt with the 120-page Point Omega.Only 120 pages? How could DeLillo have possibly said anything of importance with just 120 pages?

John G. Rodwan, Jr has a good reply:

Writing in the Los Angeles Times, Mathew Sharpe notices that critics of The Body Artist, Cosmopolis and Falling Man “seem to want DeLillo to be the Babe Ruth of novelist, to keep writing Underworld and Libra, those long, magisterial books about big events.” He correctly anticipated that such readers would not see Point Omega as “a literary home run.” Even though Sharpe is one of those people who reads novels as being only and ever “about” things, he discerns that Point Omega, even without Libra’s political assassination, White Noise’s airborne toxic event or Underworld’s cold war-era atomic anxiety, could still be “a splendid, fierce novel by a deep practitioner of the form.”

Readers who look to DeLillo as “a kind of secular prophet” (as Esquire’s Alsup describes him) seem to expect answers from him, but he prefers to ask questions. What causes people to surrender their individuality, to lose themselves in crowds or causes – or works of art? What convinces terrorists and dictators to disregard and destroy individuals in pursuit of their aims? How do artists retain and develop their individual identities, explore other people’s identities and persuade people that doing such things matters? Practitioners of both creative activity and political violence aim to make people looks at things in a certain way; what are the implications of this?

Indeed, DeLillo poses the kinds of questions that are worth asking, the ones that take a novel-worth of writing (even a short novel’s worth) to pose properly and that can’t be summed up with a nice little moral at the end. For some great responses to these questions, read Rodwan’s piece. For a lot of not-so-great responses to these questions, read most (though not all, it must be said) of the reviews he quotes.

The T & G Backfield

Was reminded of this today, from DeLillo’s 1972 novel End Zone. People forget how hilarious DeLillo used to be:

“Gary, I like flair. I like freak appeal .I like any kind of charisma. When I was an access coordinator for the phone company, I got together a specialty act in my spare time. Two sword-swallowers on a trampoline. You got to daze people. You got to climb inside their mouth. Gary, I’ll stick up for you all the way. Next season we make it big. The T and G backfield. I sure do like the sound of that. Slick as a turd.”

I still can’t read “Two sword-swallowers on a trampoline” without laughing, to say nothing of “You got to climb inside their mouth.”

Literary Concentrate

One thing I’ve been noticing about the reviews of Point Omega is that just about everyone is calling the book extremely dense. To wit, from the latest review I’ve read:

I’m not a slow reader, not usually, especially not with regard to fiction, but it took me ages to finish Don DeLillo’s slim new novel Point Omega. It is a short, intense burst of literary fireworks by a living master,

This does seem very in keeping with DeLillo’s writing after Underworld. It’s almost as though he wanted to get this last burst of profusion out of his system before settling into his late style. (Though at times Underworld seems to me just as concentrated as any DeLillo, only blown up to huge proportions). Falling Man in particular was a very elliptical, dense work for me, but it looks like Point Omega is even more rarefied.

Greil Marcus on Point Omega

Looks like we’re starting to see the deluge of Point Omega reviews. Here’s Marcus’s at the Barnes & Noble Review:

This is the territory that Don DeLillo has been working in since the terrorist attacks on New York City in 2001 — in Cosmopolis in 2003, Falling Man in 2007, and in the new Point Omega. What state of mind, DeLillo has been asking, might a cataclysmic, shared event — the sort of event that immediately produces its own, where-were-you language, a language that then turns into a dynamic new form of speech or is forgotten — produce? What state of mind — what thoughts and dreams, fears and desires — should it produce? In DeLillo’s hands, this isn’t reporting. It isn’t sociology. It isn’t a study of morals. It’s an imaginative act of empathy — not a matter of a writer working out his or her particular neurotic responses to a public event, but attempting to step into the lives of other people as they might live out that event, or do whatever they can to deny it.

Cosmopolis is about — in words DeLillo used at a work-in-progress reading from the book at Princeton in 2002 . . .

DeLillo Character Reviews David Foster Wallace

White-noise A character from multiple DeLillo novels, has written a critique of Wallace’s work. The author is Jay Murray Siskind, probably best-known as the professor in White Noise:

Anyone familiar with White Noise should recognize the clues that the supposed reviewer is DeLillo’s character and not some real live scholar with the same name: there’s the fictional Blacksmith College (which, while not the college portrayed in White Noise, is a name of one of the neighboring towns); there are the fake footnotes in the review referring to other characters and details from White Noise, including narrator Jack Gladney and thuggish Alfonse Stompanato); and finally, there are the decidedly non-reviewish interjections by Siskind in the middle of the seemingly serious review

Related from the Archives

Friday Column: Real Connections

James Wood interviewed in the Kenyon Review.

I then began to think of Smith’s novel in relation to a number of other large books: Underworld by Don DeLillo, Pynchon’s recent book Mason and Dixon, David Foster Wallace’s large book Infinite Jest, and so on. Was there some kind of genre here in which the cartoonish was displacing the real? In which the machinery of plot was also blocking out in some way a greater simplicity? I also thought perhaps there was an interesting borrowing from Dickens: It seems to me that if you look at a book like Underworld, it is in fact a sort of quite old-fashioned social novel like Bleak House–it tries to account for the connectedness of society at various levels. But, and here was the thing that struck me, strongly in relation to DeLillo, perhaps less acutely in relation to Smith, was that the connectedness was entirely conceptual. It was asserted by DeLillo and it exists on the level of paranoia and ideology and so on. “This is how we will account for the last fifty years of American life.” There was no human connectedness at all. There were lots of different characters; none of them had any real life with each other. The really striking difference from Dickens, say.

I can’t possibly even begin to agree with Wood’s take on DeLillo. To say none of DeLillo’s characters had any real life with each other . . . my God. What book did he read?

I’m not quite sure what Wood means by "the connectedness was entirely conceptual." I’ve never actually seen a physical connection between two individuals (except, perhaps, in cases of conjoined twins), so I’d have to assume that all connections between individuals are "conceptual." Sure, some you can feel, like when you see a movie and the two leads are said to have chemistry, but I think that if that’s what Wood is looking for in DeLillo, he’s misreading him.

DeLillo doesn’t strive to make you feel the connections between individuals, because that’s not the way he thinks individuals connect. His novels see the world in terms of meshing systems, paranoia and ideology being two of them. This may not be satisfying to what Wood wants to see in a novel, but–sorry–it’s true to reality.

I think this puts Wood in a bind. He professes to want realism above all–well, DeLillo writes very realistic novels, if we’re judging realism as accurately representing the fabric of reality. Wood may not like the fact that ideology and paranoia often stand in for the kind of warmth and emotion that he thinks should bind people to one another (and I agree that this is an unfortunate part of our world), but he can’t just wish it away by labeling that writing inaccurate or inartistic. So which is it? Does Wood want to festishize chemistry on the page to the point that it pushes out cold reality, or does he want verisimilitude, even if it means that novels will feel cold as compared to those of another era?

But more. More. Watch how Wood crows over Zadie Smith, like a prodigal daughter returned home. Better yet, he didn’t even have to browbeat her into changing her style. No, no, she was good enough to be self-flagellating:

You ask about Zadie Smith; she’s an unusually masochistic writer. And she actually didn’t need me to prod her, she was already disowning her first book, saying that it was something written by a juvenile, a sort of crazy tap-dancing–I’m sorry, I can’t remember the exact phrase. But she did indeed reply to me, saying that she felt that “hysterical realism” was an uncomfortably precise term for the kind of thing that she was doing. She then followed her first novel with a book that seemed to me to owe a great deal to the sort of Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s crowd. It was full of typographical games, numbered jokes, little boxed read-outs and so on. The third novel, just out, seems to me to really make good on her substantial talent. It’s actually a sort of old-fashioned, what you might call a sort of postmodern old-fashioned book. Postmodern because it has an explicit indebtedness to Howard’s End, but essentially old-fashioned in that it concentrates quite fiercely on the domestic of two families and so on. It’s a good book, I think.

Oh Zadie! I had thought you were lost to us! All that typographical gimmickry, all that hystericism! But you’ve recognized the error of your ways and you’ve written a nice novel fashioned on Howard’s End! And yes, you’ve remembered to include just a bit of the good old Po Mo, because it simply won’t do to write like we’re living in the 1920s, but never again so much Po Mo that you sound hysterical. Zadie, so good to have you home again. Now, off to your room, it’s just as you’d left it.

And remember, novelists, don’t go trying to figure out what the novel can’t do. Stick to what it can. Above all, avoid theory.

What the novel can do, you might define it in circular terms: it justifies itself by making an inquiry which only it can do. It doesn’t need to, I think, be infused with, and this is one of the things I don’t like about Franzen, for instance. I don’t think it needs to borrow the language, the languages of theory or cultural studies. It will make its own formal justification.

So then, I suppose novelists should stick to their pasture, theorists stick to their pasture, filmmakers stick to theirs and so on. I’m sorry, but this is a prescription for, well, for wandering around in circles. Very small ones. Especially when theory has, until recently, been outdoing the novel at noveling. From n+1 Issue 2:

Many of the [theory] classics of the era [i.e. 1970s, 80s] opened with feats of prose that American novels of the 1970s and 1980s rarely even attempted. Levi-Strauss could describe a sunset in Tristes Tropiques for longer than a sun takes to set. Foucault did fourteen pages on a single painting, Velazquez’s "Las Meninas." [For my money, the opening of Discipline and Punish, in which Foucault describes an execution in 1757, is riveting stuff.] . . .

Where, frankly, were you going to get your diagnosis of society–from Bret Easton Elliss’s American Psycho? Lyotard did it better in Libidinal Economy, and was much scarier–without pornographic bloodshed. A civilization that may have punished less, but punished better, administering its surveillance from inside one’s own mind (Discipline and Punish), or replaced the real with a mediatized world of simulations (Simulacra and Simulation), or had an economic incentive to reconfigure disparate knowledge as commensurable "information" (The Postmodern Condition)–well, that was very clearly the world we lived in. Whereas the itsy-bitsy stories of sad revelations in Best American Short Stories 1989–that was some trivial bullshit.

The best and most exciting novels of the same period, the ones that made you think the notion of a "Great American Novel" hadn’t been misconceived all along, were openly responding to theorists.

I’d add that many of the most successful books/movies of the 1990s packaged the above material into easily digestible frameworks; obviously The Matrix is the best example here. But imagine if artists, as Wood instructs, had kept to their own pasture. Never mind the Foucault and Baudrillard, just write more about human emotions. What kind of literature would we have had in the ’90s to say nothing of the ’00s?

I just can’t see how Wood expects novelists to accurately depict the world without adopting the language and ideas of that same world. What he wants, I think, is for novelists to write about 2006 using the style and tools of 1920. But why?

I was recently told a story wherein a visitor to southern Mexico described it as "just like a magical realist novel." Each morning his hotel was packed with flowers from a local peasant salesperson and he was assaulted with odor when he opened his door. On the street a man walked a leashed lion cub. In the train station a bag started moving on its own, and when its owner later arrived he pulled out a parrot and asked the man if he wanted to buy it.

Yes, life in Latin America can be as strange as Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, and life in America and Western Europe can be as strange as the minds of Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, and Don DeLillo. Even George Saunders, who writes incredibly surreal stories, has trouble outpacing postmodern capitalism. If these writers are hysterical, it’s because the society they seek to depict is certifiably insane.

Wood can go as long as he wants pretending that that’s not the case, that we all should read nice button-down novels that keep their tempers steady. He can do that, but he’ll be left behind. I’m sure he’ll read many pleasant books and find much to marvel at in their beautiful aesthetics, but as for the rest of us, we’ll be reading good books too. They just won’t be held captive to certain ideas about what a novel needs to be.

Friday Column: Best List? No Way.

When Sam Tanenhaus came on board as editor the New York Times Book Review, word was that nonfiction would take the lion’s share of the coverage. Two years later, if anyone doubts that Tanenhaus is giving short shrift to fiction, the recently published list of the best works of American fiction in the last 25 years should change their mind. This is a list that–with the resources and influence of The New York Times–could have been awesome. Instead what we have is a list that shows signs of poor planning, and that ultimately is uninteresting.

Thus far, the five "winners"–Morrison’s Beloved, DeLillo’s Underworld, Roth’s American Pastoral, McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, and Updike’s Rabbit series–have drawn most of the criticism. No one seems to doubt that Beloved is a great book, but many doubt that nothing better has been written in a quarter-decade. At best, the consensus seems to be that it was the obivous choice. Similarly, no one is stepping up to say that DeLillo, Roth, McCarthy, and Updike aren’t great writers, but a lot of people are saying that they are pretty obvious choices.

Poet Ron Silliman drives home the list’s lack of variety when he writes

Do we really think that more than one fourth of all the important novels over the past quarter century were written by one man? If so, do we honestly think they were written by Philip Roth? I’d poke my eyes out before I’d live on that planet.

Silliman goes on to suggest a number of authors left off Tanenhaus’s list: Kathy Acker, Lydia Davis, Samuel R. Delany, Joseph Torra, Bruce Sterling, Pamela Lu, Mary Burger, Bob Glück, Carla Harryman, Nathaniel Mackey, Sarah Schulman, Lucius Shepard, Thomas Pynchon, Neal Stephanson, Paul Auster, Harry Matthews, Dennis Cooper, Gilbert Sorrentino, David Markson, Douglas Woolf, Walter Mosley. Of course, we’ll never know if these authors were simply never even nominated, or if they failed to garner the two votes necessary for inclusion as a special mention.

DeLillo et al. are obvious choices and I doubt that many will find a list headed by them very interesting. Even film and literature critic A.O. Scott, asked to write an essay on the list, seems to wonder where the more interesting authors of the past decade are.

In sifting through the responses, I was surprised at how few of the highly praised, boldly ambitious books by younger writers – by which I mean writers under 50 – were mentioned. One vote each for "The Corrections" and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," none for "Infinite Jest" or "The Fortress of Solitude," a single vote for Richard Powers, none for William T. Vollmann, and so on.

Scott ends his essay with a suggestion that perhaps a list composed in 2030 will include these authors. Little consolation to us, who will have to wait another quarter decade.

Instead of exonerating the Tanenhaus list with a sweet homily, I’d like to ask it to account for itself. Yes, it’s likely true that Wallace, Vollmann, and others will get their due in time, but shouldn’t our nation’s leading paper do better? Shouldn’t it point toward exciting new authors instead of looking back at ones so obvious that most of us could have guessed this list beforehand? (According to Scott, many of the respondents in fact predicted Beloved would win, and not wanting to waste their vote changed their nomination accordingly.)

A first problem is with the judges. If you look at the list of judges, you’ll find precious few authentic literary critics (Gass and Wood didn’t even get an invite). Most of the judges, in the words of GalleyCat, are "writers who have written reviews." Authors certainly do many valuable things with their time, but I’d wager that they read far less books than dedicated critics. (When I saw Rick Moody and David Foster Wallace in conversation, both admitted as much.) They are certainly good to have on the list, but an undertaking like this practically begs for more critics than authors.

You’ll also find very few women; much less than half the judges are female, and this certainly is part of why the final list features only two female novelists. In an era when people routinely criticize The New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review for the decidedly lopsided male-to-female ratio of writers, I can’t imagine why Tanenhaus would not have taken the time to include more women.

And, of course, there’s clear elitism at work here: the judges consist mostly of the same old list of names that you routinely see feted throughout the literary world. Again, there’s nothing wrong with including the obvious choices in your pool of judges, but where are the lesser-known names? Where are the editors of literary journals? Were are the writers published by small and/or independent presses? Where are the "genre" authors? Where are the–God forbid–bloggers?

(As a lengthy aside, let me just say that I mean that last question in all seriousness. M.A. Orthofer of the complete review has read thousands of works of literature from all around the world, writes tons of reviews, and operates one of the best book review archives on the Internet. Dan Green is a former academic who possesses great erudition and has published his work in top literary journals. Sarah Weinman has written for tons of newspapers (including the Times) and writes professionally for GalleyCat (as does Ron Hogan, who also writes for Publishers Weekly, among others, and is the author of a forthcoming book on film). Laila Lalami is the author of a successful novel, has been published in numerous journals, is the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship. These people are more than qualified to participate in on Tanenhaus’s list.

But even most basic than these qualifications is that the literary blogosphere is full of people writing cogently on books. Not only that, but many of them write better than (or at least as well as) people published in mainstream newspapers–and they’re often covering interesting books and angles that newspapers rarely touch. Now that the literary blogosphere is an established medium for discussing books there’s no reason to shut it out, just as there’s no reason for the almost complete shutout of indie authors and literary journal editors.)

Tanenhaus’s selection of judges is just more evidence of an editor of a book review that’s not all that interested in fiction. In recent months, the Literary Saloon has been diligent in watching Tanenhaus’s coverage of fiction. They report that in each of the past nine issues of the NYTBR, titles of non-fiction have outnumbered fiction; cumulatively, it’s 105 to 46. Should we be surprised that with a track record like this, Tanenhaus appears to not have put much thought into his list of judges?

Beyond this, the list’s methodology seems funny. Judges were asked to name only one novel. You try doing that–it’s impossible. According to Scott, many judges sent lists of nominees to Tanenhaus, or simply declined to participate, stating the futility (or stupidity) of such an undertaking. Why not give the judges more votes? At the very least, the final list would have been much larger, meaning that it would be more diverse and undoubtedly more interesting.

In the end, however, I must question–as Scott did–the very idea of picking the best book of the past 25 years. How do you define best? For that matter, how do you define book? How do you define 25 years? (For instance, as Scott notes, what to do with a short story collection written over the course of many decades?) Perhaps more to the point, why would you want to say Beloved is the best book of the past quarter century? There’s no way to choose a best without ignoring scores of worthy competitors, and the diversity of literature produced in this country means that often you’d be making an apples-to-oranges (or, rather, apples-to-VW Wagon) comparison anyway.

Why not just say "here are a number of books that are among the best works published by American authors since 1980" and leave it at that?

Critic Laura Miller, writing at the National Book Critics Circle blog, seems to agree. She was asked to judge, but sat out because

Ultimately, novels are so diverse that once they attain a certain level of quality, they really can’t be meaningfully ranked against each other. Some people I discussed this with had a hard time understanding that not wanting to exert an excess of judgment isn’t the same thing as refusing to make any judgment at all. . . .

But beyond that, the idea of a single best novel seemed not only a confining choice but one that completely missed the point of what’s happened in American culture in general and American literature in particular over the past 30 years. Once, maybe, people could convince themselves that there was a monoculture and guys like Mailer and Roth could compete for the alpha-dog position as the novelist who best defined the "American experience." That’s not the world we live in anymore, no one gets to speak for "everybody" . . .

I can think of only one good reason to crown any book number one, and that is to stir up debate: saying Beloved is better than Underworld is bound to spur lovers of Underworld, who will then force lovers of Beloved to defend their book. The problem, however, is that if this list was meant to stir up a delightfully erudite debate about literature, so far it appears to have failed. Many more people have come out against the list itself than have argued the merits of the positioning of the books therein. Perhaps that’s because when they saw the list, the most they could muster was a yawn.

It bears saying that this list represents–in many ways–a missed opportunity. In many places novels are on the defensive, viewed as part of a dying art. Part of that view is due to a belief that books aren’t as interesting as other entertainments out there, that they’re not attuned to our new century. A list that repeats the big names familiar to most who follow books will do little to change that, but a list that was representative of the best of the exciting books that have been produced in the past 25 years might surprise many.

Not only that, but with this list Tanenhaus had a genuine opportunity to jump-start a much-needed discussion about contemporary literature. Among our national newspapers and magazines, very few try to talk passionately about literary matters in a way that begs responses from their peers. (Ben Marcus writing about experimental fiction versus non-experimental fiction in Harper’s was a notable exception.) This list could have done that, or at least tried to, but I doubt that it will generate much discussion beyond criticism and talk of missed opportunities.

Getting back to the point on which I started this column, with this list Tanenhaus has made clear his disregard for fiction relative to nonfiction. Considering that he has the full force of the NYTBR behind him, the list could have been a thorough, delightful undertaking. He could have reached out to many, many more voices, could have worked to find ways to create a truly interesting list. Instead, it seems that Tanenhaus has gone about this list with the same energy that he devotes to the weekly collection of fiction review. And it shows. Maybe next time Tanenhaus wants to make a list of books, he should do it with those of the nonfiction variety.


From a good feature on Don DeLillo’s White Noise at PopMatters.

One of the funniest scenes occurs in the beginning of the book when Jack and Babette are in the grocery store (a location a lot of the book takes place in). Out of the blue, DeLillo alerts us to a woman who falls into a rack of paperbacks at the front of the store. It’s just something that happens in the background while Jack and Babette are shopping, but the weird depiction is dropped into the narrative so suddenly, you can’t help but bust up. You soon learn this is a trick of his. When you least expect it, DeLillo drops the sudden odd and humorous image into the storyline.

He also uses this out-of-the-blue trick to underline the gravity of the book’s theme. The first time I noticed this is when Jack is describing Baba, how she "shovels snow…caulks the tub and sink…reads erotic classics aloud in bed at night…talks to dogs and cats" and then, in a new line and paragraph all by itself, he wonders, "Who will die first?"

I haven’t read White Noise, but I definitely caught a sense of this in Underworld. There are pages and pages of dialog in Underworld that simply feel disconnected. One character will speak for several sentences, and then when the next one replies, the reply will be strangely skewed. It’s as though you can see some sort of connection between the things the people are ostensibly saying to each other, but it’s not the sort of normal direct connection you would expect in a conversation. It’s almost as though there are two things proceeding in serial, like two waves that keep intersecting in points.

In a sense, this is the organizing logic (if I can label something so fundamentally disconnected as "organizing") behind the entire book. The book consists of compelling vignettes that are told in fragments, and DeLillo switches among them you don’t really get much of a clue as to why they’re ordered as they are and how they’re linked. Certainly ideas, themes, and characters do begin to assert themselves in your mind as you read the book, but there’s very little by way of authorial direction to explain why things coincide as they do.

Top 10 Books of 2004: #2

#2 — Underworld — Don DeLillo

Underworld is a book that sifts through 50 years of Cold War America and ends up proving that a Cold War-less America is  a rudderless America. However, if Underworld were simply a polemic with no greater point than teaching this lesson, it would have been made obsolete by 9/11 and no one, other than professional historians, would care much about reading it.

This is not the case for many reasons, but I’d like to focus on just three.

First off, in its structure and feel, Underworld captures something essential about the world we inhabited in 1997 (when it was published) and inhabit still more today. The book consists of several disconnected, parallel narratives. Like a bunch of jumbo jet aircraft leaving parallel sets of contrails, the narratives that make up Underworld are laid out in parallel, but not explicitly made to touch. Then, like a light wind, the reader’s mind begins to make the narratives expand and intermingle and connections are discovered.

This strikes me as an apt portrayal of the idea of our world, with many contemporaneous narratives that are united by an unseen web of connections, just below surface level. Thus, in the way DeLillo has structured his book, he mimics something very important about our world, and in a much more compelling way than several other postmodern writers who have attempted the same thing. Also, as the name "Underworld" implies, DeLillo explores some of these "below surface level" elements that unite our world.

Second, Underworld successfully delves into the question of what unites us as Americans. With the amounts and kinds of diversity encompassed by America, it’s a far question to ask "what’s American?" In mulling over the Cold War, DeLillo comes up with some answers–he establishes a national Zeitgeist that didn’t die with the Cold War, but continued on past the fall of the Berlin Wall and is still present to this day.

Third and most important, Underworld is simply a pleasure to read. The book treads the fine line between being sufficiently coy to engage a reader’s mind and being so coy as to be incomprehensible. It’s a book that keeps a reader constantly thinking, which is another way to say it’s continually entertaining. It’s also a book that, at times, exhibits spectacular storytelling. The first 50 pages is worthy of a novella, and is among the best openings of the 20th century. Also, the book’s final section spectacularly exhibits DeLillo’s fine ear for English as it is spoken, and gives us another novella-esque narrative that is, if not quite as good as Underworld’s opening, still spectacular.

Top Ten:
#3 — Speak, Memory — Vladimir Nabokov
#4 — The Octopus — Frank Norris
#5 — The King of California — Mark Arax, Rick Wartzman
#6 — The Corrections — Jonathan Franzen
#7 — City of Glass — Paul Auster
#8 — Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years — Brian Boyd
#9 — Rise of the Creative Class — Richard Florida
#10 — Madeline is Sleeping — Sarah Shun-lien Bynum


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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