Don DeLillo: The Good, The Bad, The Meh

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:

The Good

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.

The Meh

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 Bad

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.

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Tho’ I haven’t read all of them, I’m pretty much down with the list. So glad you put The Names high up in the first three. Not everyone does. It is my favorite even tho’ UW & White Noise are probably his best books. Libra def belongs in the top tier. The Angel Esmerelda (the short story collection) does as well. Will revisit Point Omega. Haven’t read Americana. Other’s I’ve forgotten because I haven’t read them in years (GJS, Ratner) or because they were forgettable (Mao II, Cosmo., Falling Man). Looking forward to your take on Zero K but not as much as I am to the book itself. ;-)

Yup, Underworld, White Noise and The Names have got to be in or around the Top 3. The Names is the only one of those I’ve reread, and I’ll admit I was slightly less enamoured of it second time around, despite the scintillating writing and some scorching scenes – I think it’s just a little wilfully opaque at times, especially around the cult. I live in hope I’ll be able to reread Underworld one day.
What I wanted to add was a few words about Falling Man, Point Omega and especially Body Artist, which I rate much higher than you. I wrote about these three books as part of my PhD, taking them as examples of novelistic ekphrasis – trying to see how far theories of ekphrasis (that most usually treat poetry about painting) can be applied to ekphrasis in novels, and ekphrasis of non-visual art forms. I loved Point Omega, and found a huge amount to appreciate in Falling Man – especially how the towers are evoked through the Morandi paintings and poker chips – although some of the subplots were a little pat.
But The Body Artist I think is really good – he was limbering up to the spare style that would come to fruition in Point Omega. (Imagine if he’d pushed it a little further back then!) There is some powerful writing, and the figure or Tuttle works at an oblique angle in a way that the cult didn’t, for me, in The Names. My copy is replete with underlinings. I read it over and over for three years, and go back to it still.
Final points: Cosmopolis. What the hell is that book doing in this guy’s back catalogue. It’s atrocious! Certainly the worst thing of his I’ve read. And Libra… I just couldn’t get on with Libra. a) because I’m actually not that interested in Kennedy/Oswald, and b) because I went through a pretty big James Ellroy kick long before I read much DeLillo, and so had my fill of that particular style (which, obviously, Ellroy took from DeLillo). I look forward to reading the new novel, and your take on it.

Ratner’s Star is two layers too low, I say. I also have a soft spot for Amazons, so I’d bump it up a notch.

Really, it’s only the last couple of books that I’d put in the bottom category. Which has me worried about this new one.

Whither Valparaiso?

interesting, subjective list. the meh section is where it gets extremely tricky–

my goal is to read more early & late-period Delillo this year and of course I cannot wait until “Zero K” is published.

As you note, some of DeLillo’s work is difficult to sort through, and certainly difficult to rank. I’ve been an avid follower of his work since Mao II came out way back when. I adored that book when I first encountered it, but in subsequent re-reads found it didn’t hold up as well for me. Libra has always held up through multiple re-reads. I’m delighted to see you place Great Jones Street in the top tier–I just adore that novel, and the evocation of 70’s NYC is a trip to read. Ditto White Noise–it’s perhaps the one true “consensus” novel among DeLillo’s work, but it doesn’t make it any less enjoyable and mind-blowing a read.

I find myself often being the minority voice for some of the “weirder” (or what others consider less successful) novels–GSJ, Running Dog, and yes, even Cosmopolis. There are sentences in Cosmopolis that just lift the top of my head off…And I heartily agree with Jonathan Gibbs about The Body Artist. That’s another one where the sentences just seem to keep opening up and opening up for me. Obviously this is all so subjective, and I’m well aware that even among the small few of us who adore The Body Artist, the majority of that minority dislikes Cosmopolis. (Incidentally, or perhaps not, I’ve taught Cosmopolis in a course on New York City history studied through literature about the city, and the three times I used it, the students almost universally loved the novel. We had some amazing discussions about it.)

I am a huge fan of Point Omega, and recall that there were many reviewers in major publications who just seemed baffled by the book. If I remember correctly, they often lumped it in with Cosmopolis, The Body Artist, and Falling Man as “minor” DeLillo. The critical response to DeLillo is always curious to me. Whereas I find that any Pynchon novel released (with the exception of Vineland) seems to be greeted with nearly unanimous amazement and acclaim from the literati, there are often widely divergent readings of DeLillo’s work–particularly since Underworld. I’m not trying to make a value judgment here–about anyone or any work or any thing. I’m just saying it’s curious to me that there’s a lot of discordance in responses to DeLillo’s work–almost always mixed in with directly stated admiration for him; much more so than with Pynchon. The responses to Bleeding Edge were a bit baffling to me, in that what seemed like 95% of them were just a lot of noise about “Pynchon amazes us once again,” whereas I frankly found the book tedious.

Anyway, that was a tangent, and I’m not trying to rouse the Pynchonites to anger or defensiveness. I’m not even sure what I’m getting at here, except perhaps that DeLillo sometimes seems to me to be in some rare and slightly strange place in the American literary firmament. He’s obviously pretty unanimously acclaimed (James Wood and a few others aside), and yet there’s a lot of back and forth about his work that I don’t see being applied to some of the others often mentioned in the same breath. That might be a good thing, but I find it curious.

Back to the work itself: I’m always fascinated by what DeLillo will do next. Where some seem to feel that after Underworld he went off on some strange and not quite successful tangent, I find each of the books really different from the one before…along some kind of continuum, where he seems to become preoccupied with more “existential” themes (I cringe to use that word, but it’s all I can come up with at the moment. After Underworld, he seems to be exploring the nature of time, and space (in a “physics” sense, if you will).

From Underworld to The Body Artist was a tremendous leap to me, not only in form and content (obviously), but in the way he was stretching himself in terms of subject matter. Then to Cosmopolis–another leap across five lanes of traffic, or perhaps to a completely different avenue altogether. I can understand people’s gripes about the book, but what they find flailing and overdetermined (or maybe undercooked), I find gorgeous and surreal and thrilling. Then Falling Man–which, to me, while harking back to some of his recurring themes and obsessions and ways of presenting them, also seemed to be yearning off in some other directions….directions which maybe became a bit clearer when Point Omega arrived.

In fact, and again I think I’m probably in a distinct minority with this opinion–I’m one of the few people I know who follow his work who wasn’t bowled over by/completely enamored with The Angel Esmeralda. Personally, I find DeLillo unsatisfying somehow in the sorter form. I feel like his approach to fiction is best exemplified in at least 120 pages or so…I like the stories, don’t get me wrong, but in pieces like “Baader-Meinhof” and “The Starveling,” I find myself left hanging. I want so much more of those characters and situations and tones and images and moods…Sure, you could argue that this makes these stories successful–that they leave you wanting more. But to me, I find myself so curious where DeLillo would go with those pieces at greater length. And when it comes to pieces like “Pafko at the Wall” (published on its own as a novella) and “The Angel Esmeralda” story itself, I find them much more satisfying in the context of the larger works of which they were a part.

Have I rambled on long enough? This is a bit disjointed, obviously, but DeLillo always excites me, and I’m always fumbling all over myself when someone posts something about to start a conversation. Suffice it to end with this: I can not wait to read Zero K. He’s doing a reading at the 92nd Street Y here in NYC in May with Dana Spiotta (whose Innocents and Others I just picked up), and I’m so looking forward to hearing him. Every time I’ve had the pleasure of seeing him live, it’s been wildly entertaining. One thing people never say enough of in my opinion: DeLillo (to me) has a tremendous sense of humor. There’s a lovely attitude of play about him that only enhances the seriousness of the themes he explores. I truly rue and fear the day when there will be no more new DeLillos to look forward to. Thanks for prompting this discussion, Scott.

P.S. I’m sorry for the typos (with the parentheses, and “GSJ” instead of “GJS” etc.)…I’m still getting used to a new laptop and didn’t take enough time to proofread before posting. DeLillo would not be pleased.

I actually just finished reading Mao II yesterday, and I think it’s really one of his better titles (at least of the 5 I’ve read). Even though its relatively short and written in a very pared down style, I found the characters were much more convincing than in almost anything else of his I’ve read. I thought the scene describing Karen watching the Ayatollah’s funeral on T.V. easily trumped even the best sections of Underworld, which I think is wildly uneven.

Surprised you ranked AMAZONS and RATNER’S STAR so low. The former is easily his funniest book, and RATNER’S is probably his headiest and most rewarding to re-investigate. BODY ARTIST is a miss, but I liked the Laurie Anderson-read audiobook of it.

Also, COSMOPOLIS is brilliant. An incredibly prescient comedy about the horrible world that Reagan and Thatcher spawned, and Bush, Harper and Blair exacerbated. Wonderful film, too.

Wow Running Dog that low?

And student of Delillo will find much to love in every single book.

Such a dangerous thing to rate books by one of the best writers of his generation (maybe the best). I mean, a “Meh” book by DeLillo compared to what?

That said, my favorites all seem to be in your “Good” category. I would put Mao II up there as well. But it’s all so relative. Anything I can read by DeLillo is such a cut above practically every other living writer today. Not fawning. Just saying.

How the hell can anyone write like he does?

Okay, I’ve read all 17, but who gives a fuck; meanwhile, one thing:
Cosmopolis is weirdly (in light of how things have actually gone, i.e. w/in U.S. and globally, since its publication) still misunderstood & frankly stupidly dismissed. Agree with whoever pointed this out above that he’s also actually at the height of his powers here w/r/t to writing sentences that sing. . . . In other words, if you’re in-line w/ the position that White Noise remains a masterpiece because, 1) It’s one of the most ridiculously well-written novels in American English, and, 2) Its author was meanwhile unsettlingly oracular about a great many things . . . then I guess it’s difficult for me to make sense of the seemingly near-consensus dismissal of Cosmopolis — a book you maybe ought to reread? . . . I think it’s brilliant. . . .


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