I’m in the middle of writing a review of Don DeLillo’s 17th novel, Zero K, so I’ve been doing a fair amount of thinking about him lately. I’ve also been doing some light DeLillo corresponding with friends (and have done this activity on and off for the past several years), and it seems that intelligent people can disagree about what’s the best and the worst of the DeLillo novels.
So, for a little fun on a Friday, I thought I’d thrown down some rough rankings and see where you all come down on this question. Instead of actually ranking all the books 1 – 17, I’m just going to break them into thirds, and I’m going to do this for a couple of reasons. First, I haven’t read all 17, so I can’t really be that authoritative (I’m just going to have to reckon based on received wisdom in some cases). And second, for a lot of the books that I have read, it’s pretty damn hard to decide, so these rankings would only ever be subjective and somewhat transient, even if I had read everything.
My thoughts on DeLillo is that there are a few books we can all generally agree on (although certain people will have strong disagreements on a few of those titles), and then a lot of books that are fairly difficult to sort through.
So I must stress that this is a loose list put together with a lot of dead reckoning, but also one that I think is more or less on target. A good starting point for discussion.
(And note: I’m not going to include Zero K here, since I’m still figuring out my thoughts on it.)
So here we are:
Underworld (1997) — I’m seen partisans and detractors of this particular book. Regardless of where you stand, it seems pretty hard to argue that this isn’t a major book for DeLillo, and possibly a great American book of the past 50 years.
The Names (1982) — Ditto as Underworld. Some smart people I know actually don’t like this book. I, however, don’t see how that is.
White Noise (1985) — This is generally known as DeLillo’s “accessible” title, which might indicate a lack of respect in some circles, but I really don’t see it that way. This is just a great book, one which has grown only more so with age.
Great Jones Street (1973) — Not terribly widely read these days, but I consider this early novel a short classic.
Libra (1988) — A major statement from DeLillo, although one that is perhaps overshadowed by the books that came before and after it.
Americana (1971) — an auspicious debut, and still a good book.
Point Omega (2010) — generally seen as a solid late work.
Mao II (1991) — Despite some memorable images and some prophetic words about terrorism, generally thought to be an uneven title.
Falling Man (2007) — Seems to be generally considered a solid—but not great—book from the author who was born to write about 9/11.
Players (1977) — Seems like a warm-up for some of the great books he would write in the ’80s and ’90s.
End Zone (1972) — this novel-length metaphor on how nuclear war is like college football has a lot to recommend it, but may not reach the levels of DeLillo’s best work.
The Body Artist (2001) — the follow-up to Underworld, perhaps DeLillo showing that he was tired out at that point.
Cosmopolis (2003) — It seems that neither DeLillo nor David Cronenberg could do much with this premise.
Running Dog (1978) — a weird book, even for DeLillo (“At its center is a rumored pornographic film of Adolf Hitler, purportedly filmed in his bunker in the climactic days of Berlin’s fall.”) Not widely read these days.
Ratner’s Star (1976) — DeLillo’s “sci fi” novel. Seems like a working out of material that he’d begin to do better with in later books.
Amazons (1980) (under pseudonym “Cleo Birdwell,” with Sue Buck) — hard to find today, and perhaps with good reason.