Reading Between the Lines: Happy Birthday Don

On November 20, Don DeLillo, one of America's most renowned and controversial novelists, celebrated his 70th birthday.

don delillo 88 (photo credit: )
don delillo 88
(photo credit: )
On November 20, Don DeLillo, one of America's most renowned and controversial novelists, celebrated his 70th birthday. But whether he seems older or younger than that is hard to say. DeLillo's work subverts any run-of-the-mill sense of time. Some of his books are eerily prophetic, others explore the past through a fun-house mirror and still others depict the present with such precision that it takes years of distance to see ourselves in it. DeLillo may be one of the most polarizing writers of our era. The great British critic James Wood blames him for many of the problems with contemporary fiction, famously labeling DeLillo's work - and that of his colleagues and imitators - "hysterical realism" for its largess and ironic distortions of reality. Others, however, consider DeLillo one of the most important living novelists. Underworld (1997), a sprawling 800-page novel that explores half a century of American life, is often considered DeLillo's magnum opus. When, last summer, the New York Times asked 125 writers to name the best work of fiction of the past 25 years, Underworld came in second to Toni Morrison's Beloved. But DeLillo's White Noise (1985) also garnered votes, and many - including this writer - are partial to it. Indeed, if you read only one DeLillo novel in your life, it should be White Noise, which is more accessible than Underworld in its structure and style. White Noise tells the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of "Hitler Studies," who is forced to confront his fear of death when a mysterious environmental accident afflicts his town. But a plot summary can't do justice to White Noise, which is both hilarious and serious, cerebral and humane. In 1996, Michiko Kakutani, the ruthlessly unforgiving book reviewer for the New York Times, cited White Noise as the novel most likely to be "discussed, viewed, read and cherished" 100 years from now. In explaining her reasons, Kakutani spoke about DeLillo's talent and his ability to transcend history: "When White Noise was published, it read like an apocalyptic satire. Sure, it was a dazzling virtuosic meditation on death and the terrors of ordinary life, but it was also a darkly comic send-up of a futuristic America, tottering on the brink of extinction. Today the novel's characters - scholars who specialize in Elvis and cereal boxes, ashram dwellers in Montana, doctors who dispense drugs that promise to alleviate the fear of death - have grown decidedly more recognizable. Who knows, by 2096 the novel may be read as a grimly naturalistic portrait of millennial America." Mao II (1991), which centers around a reclusive novelist who gets wrapped up in terrorist intrigue, is, in my view, second only to White Noise. In Mao II, DeLillo illuminates the distinction between an old form of entertainment - literature - and today's less-seemly entertainment of choice - televised terrorism. Here DeLillo does what real prophets do. He depicts the present with such acuity that looking back, it seems as if he was predicting the future. September 11 catapulted terrorism into the world's cultural consciousness. But as Israel knows best, the genesis of terrorism did not occur in 2001. DeLillo knows this too. In Mao II, published a decade before 9/11, he already recognized that while bombs are powerful, there are even more potent weapons of terrorism: cameras and pictures and the medium that disseminates the resulting images - television. Of course, some of the criticism DeLillo has received is fair. James Wood faults DeLillo for privileging style and ideas over plot and characterization, and while one might not consider this a fault, as Wood does, the assessment is correct. DeLillo's characters have a tendency to blend into each other. The football players in End Zone (1972), for example, charm me, but they speak with a uniform sophistication that isn't representative of their real-life counterparts. For all the hubbub around DeLillo, there's one place where his genius has certainly been affirmed: Jerusalem. In 1999, DeLillo became the first American to be awarded the Jerusalem Prize, which is given biannually to a writer who has addressed themes of human freedom, society and politics. So we didn't want to be the ones to forget your 70th, Don. Happy Birthday! Thanks for the books, and we're looking forward to reading the next one, Falling Man, in 2007.