Nothing becomes, or distorts, the Eighties so much as their end. The fall of the Soviet system would famously herald a new mode of globalized living, familiar by now, which went on to disable historical vision itself. Retrospective knowledge of the Eighties’ finish drains the period’s occurrences of much suspense: close perception is deferred by apprehension of an overwhelming fate, even as the will to recollect—for those not on the right—is sickened by it. Hindsight and immediacy can sometimes be the enemies of insight; the end of history has spoiled us in more ways than one. That decade’s essence is as mute to us by now as we are deaf to it.
Of course, the Eighties have some bearing on the present world. The demise of organized labor, the decline of real wages, and the diminution of consumer industries faced with third world outsourcing; the primacy of finance and the shift toward mass incarceration justified by draconian drug laws; the negative trade balances, federal deficits, and tax cuts evened out by massive foreign purchases of Treasury bonds—these interlinked phenomena form the basis of contemporary governance, and even casual political historians today know how they were first ramped up during the Eighties, and by whom. But our good materialist perspective of the Eighties may be too exact, too sure. The uniform, relentless quality of neoliberal policies as applied once the Nineties began is projected back onto their pivotal decade; the shaky and experimental elements of the eventual consensus in its fledgling years have been effaced by the foreknowledge of its universal triumph.
Much like developments in the contemporary USSR, China, and Iran, the neoliberal turn in the US was a seismic-grade reform of the economy whose final level of success was anything but foreordained. Concluding as a certainty, it was conceived in trial and error. If it paid off greatly, it started as a wager just as great, and was perceived as such. What we largely miss about the live experience of the Eighties is its sense of global and systemic risk—precisely the same modes of risk that the decade’s own outcome would end up eclipsing. Today’s would-be historian of the Eighties can be likened to a painter tasked to paint the sun that blinded them; the memory of the Eighties, to a sports car—cherry red, of course—whose keys are locked inside. Just as the barrier between the West and East went down, another one thrust up between the old and new. Though not concrete, it’s no less difficult to scale. What, on the other side, deserves the effort?
The answer can only be beauty. Presided over and—somehow or other—stimulated by the neoconservative tandem of Reagan and Bush, nonconservative America artistically retorted with the force and brilliance of a supernova. Pop songs, fine arts, bright screens, belles lettres: on every frequency the Eighties overflowed with star power. No single sector of the population was responsible. Virtually every demographic poured energies into a conflagration of such magnitude that the listing of its products indexed to a single letter—Basquiat and Blue Velvet; Beloved and Blade Runner; Raging Bull and Reign in Blood; Bad Behavior and Tar Baby; Blood Meridian and Hill Street Blues; Eric B. & Rakim—arguably matches any prior national decade’s total output. An authentic renaissance, a golden age to end all golden ages, sealed up by an oblivion just as absolute: what better way to sum up the US Eighties in all their paradoxical recursion, in their fusion of stark resplendence and deep mystery.
What’s offered by the recent Library of America compilation Don DeLillo: Three Novels of the 1980s, then, is a rare potential avenue into the heart of multiple enigmas. How did the Eighties feel and taste, and how did one novelist, whose gifts during the Seventies were as obvious as his limits, tap into those strange sensibilities to author works now firmly in the canon? How could the decade’s various American artists produce, as if in unison, so much collective radiance? And given that our sensibilities and theirs have had to grow so radically distinct from one another, how relevant can all these peaks in culture be for artists operating now?
Lacunae abound: many of the most pivotal Eighties events would occur well outside American borders, well beyond the classic 20th-century American context for overseas mass memory—that is, conscription into war. Nothing anchors cultural memory of the Eighties in the way that the world wars, Korea, or Vietnam did before. Though the decade did end, momentously and famously, with the devastation of America’s superpower nemesis, this triumph was owed not to American citizens in combat, but to an unlikely tag team of liberal demonstrators in the Soviet bloc and Islamic zealots in the greater Middle East. While the liberals were reliable worshipers of Western values, the jihadis were harder to surely predict: despising the impiety of both cold war camps, their violence was equally likely to endanger the interests of one as of the other.
Though the mujahideen in Afghanistan gained more attention in more recent years, no man summed up the volatility of Eighties jihad as much as the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Iranian theocrat whose revolutionary state sponsored the American embassy hostage crisis and the bombing of hundreds of American marines in Beirut while also massacring Iranian communists and indirectly funding cocaine-toting contra death squads near pro-Soviet Nicaragua. Inflaming a nation and army with militant faith, the cleric was no client but a genuine sovereign; his strategic decisions would largely determine the global economy’s vital supply of fresh Persian Gulf oil, and with it in large part the current account of the Soviet Union, a huge oil exporter. Few men were more central to the decade or more incomprehensible to the American imagination. Yet monitoring the moods and choices of the holy man, and those of people like him, was imperative for any group with deep investments in the region, American or otherwise.
A few months after Don DeLillo and his wife Barbara Bennett, backed by a Guggenheim grant, reached Greece in October 1978, Khomeini, backed by the street protests of millions of believers, forced the monarch of Iran to quit his throne. As stated in DeLillo’s new preface to The Names, the 1982 novel written during and about his years in Athens, the capital soon became a refuge for Iranians fleeing revolutionary chaos. Narrated by James Axton, an innocent abroad tasked by an American conglomerate with assessing the security of Middle Eastern governments in the revolution’s wake, the novel inducts its reader into a world still saturated with risks global and systemic—the coups d’état, the flows of oil and cash, the alternating menaces of left and right. Much like its period companions Ishtar, The Counterlife, and Mating, The Names is spurred by foreign turmoil to conduct prolonged reflections on romantic commitment and expatriate selfhood, its plot a weave of ties to lovers, links to homelands. There’s an unfaithful husband in transit between different ports, allured by alien communes while divided from his wife and son—a sort of late modern Odyssey, then, with jets and geopolitics replacing rafts and gods.
Like Jehovah in the Sinai with the Hebrews, White Noise has lit the way for forty years of readers while remaining firmly out of reach.Tweet
The distance between James and Kathryn, his estranged Canadian wife, is not unbridgeable. Yet Kathryn’s conviction that “there ought to be something higher than the corporation” pushes her to cast a cold eye on James’s new line of work, while his reply—“There’s the orgasm”—signals the loose, cool mentality that may part them for good. Having met and married while participating in the antiwar movement, James and Kathryn seem to represent two separate paths out of Sixties-style rebellion. She retains the ethics and matures into historical research; he keeps the thrill seeking and plunges eagerly into “the world of corporate transients,” its affairs. “Everything here is serious,” he exults to a friend. But he himself is not.
How James ceases being unserious—how he becomes the author of this well-wrought, morally grounded text detailing his unseriousness—is the mystery of The Names’s plot. Owen Brademas, the aging American supervisor of Kathryn’s archaeological dig in the Cyclades, discovers traces of a cult perhaps responsible for a recent area murder. Obsessed for reasons yet unclear, Owen transmits his discovery and obsession to James as well as Frank Volterra, an Axton family friend and independent film director hungry for radical subject matter. (Frank’s awareness that he might become one of “the once promising beginners who overextended, who burned out, who miscalculated, who didn’t deliver, who ran out of luck” could double as DeLillo’s take on his own situation as a noteworthy but not yet major artist.) Ranging over Greece, the Middle East, and India, they discover that the cult, dwindling and itinerant, worships language—their leading question for potential acolytes is “How many languages do you speak?” They select their sacrifices based on names: once they find a person whose initials match those of a nearby village, they kill them there.
The flaws of The Names are not many, but they are central. Since the emotional life of James and Kathryn’s genius son Tap remains opaque to the reader—his progenitors’ strife, itself depicted sharply, seems to have left no discernible scar on his psyche—he floats through the book at a saintly remove that is truly incredible. His father evinces some symptoms of psychic unrealness as well. By his own account, James is a baby boomer in his mid-thirties with no known experience of creative nonfiction outside of institutional copywriting, a man-child morally flexible enough to cheat on his family, ghostwrite for an Air Force general, and cheerfully rationalize his work in risk insurance as “the world’s biggest, richest companies protecting their investments.” Would such a person’s self-discovery—spoilers—as a dupe of the intelligence community actually suffice to help him change his ways, let alone start to transform his prose into the stern cascade of apt, momentous sentences that constitute the text at hand? Finally there’s the cult, Ta Onómata (in Greek, The Names), which gestures toward premodern legacies that were excluded from DeLillo’s prior novels even as its logically driven but ultimately senseless killing is presented as a distillation of the carnage of modernity wherein “the means to contend with death has become death.” Yet the cult lacks both the ancient imperative of divinity and the imperative of modernity’s substitute for divinity: politics. What could be more unreal than a 20th-century cult whose killings aren’t political? If it functions reasonably as a private cipher for the author’s death drive, the purity of its abstraction prevents it from taking on public significance. Properly speaking, the language cult as central metaphor is flat, inert. The fascination it exerts over the protagonist is as unearned as his subsequent repulsion from it is unfelt.
Unstable at the base, The Names is nonetheless precisely what DeLillo’s introduction claims it is: “a major departure.” An array of brilliant tangents steadies its unwieldy core conception. Secondary characters are crisply outlined, differentiated to a new degree. The native language of DeLillo’s Seventies novels—a metallic, private, quasi-mystical patois laced with penetrating quips—is pared back to make room for something like a genuine conversation, an engagement with diverging voices. The space overseas is here crucial. Bruised by adulteries on both sides, grappling with imperial decline, the obligatory pair of Brits respond in tones of gentle embitterment, maintaining their formation in retreat. A Greek, the British wife’s seducer, works for American firms but may also have ties to the radical left: his measured rants against the influence of NATO and the CIA in Greece are informed by the mentality of nations doomed to “being small and exposed, being strategic.” James’s American colleagues, his colony of business operatives and second wives, can be disarmingly personable, candidly seductive within reason. (No other novel captures so well the spontaneous camaraderie of professional Americans in foreign settings, the simultaneous easing of the ego-corset under common pressures.) In Athens an atmosphere surges, in equal parts luminous, mellow, and paranoid: very convincing.
The excision of bleak humor from DeLillo’s new style in The Names—nothing absurdly funny here—permits him to devote more energies to renovating physical reality.
The sun is obscured in dense ascending cloud. Soon the island is a silhouette, a conjecture or mood of light, scant and pale on the iron sea.
If Greek or Latin characters are paving stones, Arabic is rain. I saw writing everywhere, the cursive beaded slant in tile, tapestry, brass and wood, in faience mosaics and on the white veils of women crowded in a horse-drawn cart. I looked up to see words turning corners, arranged geometrically on mud-brick walls, knotted and mazed, stuccoed, painted, inlaid, climbing gateways and minarets.
We went to dinner in an old mansion near the U.S. embassy. Hardeman was inhaling short Scotches. The perfect part in his hair, the geometric glasses and three-piece suit seemed the achievements of a systematic self-knowledge. This was the finished thing. He was physically compact, worked neatly into well-cut clothes, and nothing attached to him that had not been the subject of meticulous inner testing.
Meeting light figures, foreign dimensions, and viceroys at striking, precisely honed angles—this is an outgoing style, a speech that does not know in advance what it will find. Its continual presence in the novel represents a fundamental shift in DeLillo’s narratives from zugzwang—the dilemma, however grim, of renouncing or participating in the social—to what might be called agoraphilia. Greece, after all, was where art first started differentiating itself from religion. It’s somehow fitting—harmonious, even—that the outstanding physicality and civic bonds that set the ancient Greek writers apart should play a role in reacquainting the estranged American author with his secular nature, his empire.
What is White Noise? This simple question, since the novel’s 1985 release, is the great unsolved problem of our fiction criticism. The experience of this book continues to evade even the most basic of analyses. Still, its force is dealt with not by facing up to it, but by ignoring it. Like Jehovah in the Sinai with the Hebrews, it has lit the way for forty years of readers while remaining firmly out of reach. No wonder the existing language equal to its impact has not been found in book reviews, but in eyewitness testimony to another, more contemporary desert cloud.
The lighting effects beggared description. The whole country was lighted by a searing light with the intensity many times that of the midday sun. It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue. It lighted every peak, crevasse and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described but must be seen to be imagined.
What the Trinity nuclear test once achieved for American political thought, White Noise does on the plane of American post-Sixties fiction: it practically splits time apart, conjoining inferno and paradise with such intense craft that the world starts anew. The three major currents of cold war white fiction—realist, Jewish, and systems—are woven together as never before in White Noise. And the novel would rapidly birth its own school, a DeLillo lineage of many long-lived branches. On the basis, essentially, of one book, in under a decade, he became to a new wave of writers what Faulkner had been for DeLillo’s own cohort: not merely a great author, but something like the sum of literary possibility itself.
Before examining White Noise (DeLillo’s eighth novel) directly, it’s worth the time to first relate it to its predecessors. Since his 1971 debut, Americana, he had been engaged in a prolonged attempt to fuse the outbound scope and force of the American social novel with the ascetic focus and abstraction of European existential fiction. Having come of age during the dreadful Fifties, having been trained by Jesuits “to be a failed ascetic” before transitioning into Madison Avenue copywriting, DeLillo was from the beginning most keenly aware that the stasis and numbness presented as displaced conundrums in The Stranger or Molloy were real, emergent properties of postwar screen culture and social life whose importance had yet to be artfully gauged.
His protagonists were white Americans; his drama, their attempts to leave their own society. Their sectors of activity (TV development, football, rock music, big science, Wall Street, covert ops) and their motives for withdrawal (art, disobedience, boredom, exhaustion) could vary. What held true was the streak of modernity, a self-conscious detachment from all modes of nostalgia and unguarded feeling. “I don’t want to hear a word about the value of one’s heritage,” an offensive lineman says in End Zone (1972). “I am a twentieth-century individual. I am working myself up to a point where I can exist beyond guilt, beyond blood, beyond the ridiculous past. Thank goodness for America. In this country there’s a chance to accomplish such a thing.” As ever, the tone of the stoic was clearly sincere, even while it doubled as a pretext for dark humor. In its topical fixation on the DEATH quintet (drugs, espionage, adultery, television, Hitler), in its deft curation of the age’s verbal flak and fallout, and especially in its blank-faced incitements to laughter, White Noise is without a doubt the culmination of DeLillo’s novels of the Seventies.
But these relatively superficial parallels belie a more profound reversal. The innovative aspects of The Names—the shift in the protagonist’s relation to society from renunciant to joiner, the presence of children, the plot geared toward action rather than paralysis, the tenderness, the candor—these are all preserved and developed still further.
Heinrich’s hairline is beginning to recede. I wonder about this. Did his mother consume some kind of genepiercing substance when she was pregnant? Am I at fault somehow?
Waves of relief and gratitude flowed over me. The system had blessed my life. I felt its support and approval.
The truth is I don’t want to die first. Given a choice between loneliness and death, it would take me a fraction of a second to decide. But I don’t want to be alone either. Everything I say to Babette about holes and gaps is true. Her death would leave me scattered, talking to chairs and pillows.
Beneath the carapace of institutional bona fides lies a harried, baffled figure narrating his fantasies and crises in a semiconscious tone where poise and panic overlap. The absence of the stoic in Jack Gladney’s temperament, his enmeshment in and liability to social pressures, imbues him with the palpable presence required to keep the narration from folding too cleanly into Don DeLillo’s abstracted concerns. The famous chair in Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill is something of a fragile mess, but we all are at some level, and his honesty about his disarray soon renders him the most endearing and disturbing of the author’s leads to date. Bizarre as his existence and surroundings prove to be, this bond of character and reader founded on disheveled feeling anchors both in a reality at once berserk and wholly credible. Clear in delusion, deluded in clarity, Jack prevents us from drawing distinctions between mundane unease and extraordinary fear. He is, one cannot help but feel in hearing him so close, so little in control: he can neither live up to his “professional aura of power, madness and death” nor find a method to escape it. A lifetime of identifying with power has left him absolutely helpless—just as he leaves the reader absolutely helpless to deny it. The helplessness and fear, we find, comes with the job.
It’s not a question of good and evil. I don’t know what it is. Look at it this way. Some people always wear a favorite color. Some people carry a gun. Some people put on a uniform and feel bigger, stronger, safer. It’s in this area that my obsessions dwell.
Crowds came to form a shield against their own dying. To become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk death as an individual, to face dying alone. Crowds came for this reason above all others. They were there to be a crowd.
For all his mordant skepticism regarding the motives, tactics, speech acts, capabilities, and apparel of the Sixties left, DeLillo had always taken seriously its assertion that US society as it actually existed was indistinguishable from the ideal of an exceptionally prosperous and long-lived fascism. It’s no more a coincidence that “Hitler studies” is housed in the same campus building as the department of “American environments” than it was that the Nazis modeled their rallies on American football games, their race laws on American apartheid, or their geopolitics on American frontier expansion. One man’s Nazi German theory is another’s white American practice, and both of these men are Jack Gladney. What surges forth in Jack’s experience of the nation—college gatherings glimpsed as upscale fascist rallies, reading Mein Kampf at the Dinky Donut while his wife and her ex-husband catch up—is far from a call for political counterforce. It’s a profile of the supine human spirit framed as a taxonomy of language, overdubbed by an anthology of whiteness framed as a catalog of noise. The commercial gabble and the misremembered trivia, the portentous lectures and the genocidal shrieks, the desperate love, the still more desperate phobias, the murderous aggression phrased in balancing accounts and Heideggerian cant, the accented rants of the nuns without faith like oneself: where do they all lead one, if not toward death? However, in centering his existential narrative on Gladney’s spongelike consciousness, DeLillo is conducting, perhaps inadvertently, psychological tests with political undertones.
Jack’s partially cartoonish presentation doesn’t mask the salient features of his class identity. With his Annie Hall–ish intellectual walk-and-talks and his conjugal erotica readings, his self-aware, ecstatic shopping sprees and his hands-off parenting of a blended family, he is, in fact almost too recognizably, a symbol of the millions who defined the Sixties cultural revolution by deserting settled standards of white manhood to forge a separate persona based on secularism, expertise, experiment, permissiveness, discernment in consumption, self-pleasure, sexual freedom, and above all wit. His outstanding and outlandish occupation brings into relief a mentality more quietly and commonly shared: that of the faithless white male, cleverly distanced from white power’s classically violent icons but still basically dependent on its ambiance for individual validation. As the novel progresses, his fears of being unmanned, contaminated, and eternally deceased1 increase until the salves of everyday consumerism and professional esteem no longer relieve. Just unnerve him enough, take his woman away, put a gun in his hand: thus the glad man reverts to the jackbooted fascist agenda of curing his fears by applying brute force to the racialized Other.
The construction of the plot of White Noise, the consolidation of Reaganism, and the emergence of the modern neo-Nazi terror movement all took place in the US between 1983 and 1984. Couple these with more seasoned, parallel phenomena abroad such as Western Europe’s Gladio terrorists, South African apartheid, and Latin America’s death squads—all US-sponsored, obviously—and the novel’s timeliness looks plain. But the radical pattern DeLillo describes in his book only grazes on Reagan’s more elderly, churchgoing base or the naked fanatical hate of militiamen armed to the teeth. The fascistic tendencies that interest DeLillo in White Noise are latent, not blatant; not on the cold war’s hardened, booming front lines, but deep inside the soft unspoken heart of liberal whiteness. To give them credit, the secular professionals of Gladney’s generation—DeLillo’s own—were generally disgusted by the Eighties’ rightward turn. In relation to his time, Jack’s situation is anomalous to the point of being taken for a thought experiment or farce. Only in the long duration since the novel’s publication does his figure start to loom, crossing over the horizon of reality to approach us at an ever-faster rate.
To trust in a conspiracy is to believe in balance. The expenditure of energy required to break from the official tale is underwritten by a sense that truth, unveiled, will turn the tide. Ironically, this is how actual conspirators (some surely must exist somewhere) conduct themselves as well. The effort of planning and acting in secret implies that it matters, is making some difference.
Literature is not conspiratorial thinking. It seeks to describe the real balance of power, not to tip it. And if literature could be read as a conspiracy, even a global one, it would still only be the weakest one of all. It reveals truths that have been obvious from the beginning of the world—the facts of the heart over time. Ideology and politics are not illusions, but literature takes care to translate them to common motives and emotions so as to weigh them fairly. It knows that the heart is the ultimate balance.
One might say that the naming of Libra, DeLillo’s 1988 successor to White Noise, is already suggestive of such knowledge, but it’s certain that a different balance is achieved by contrasting the two major works. Chronologically, the prophetic White Noise is opposed to Libra, a novel centered on the Kennedy assassination—as if, having already driven his futurist vision to final frontiers, the author had no place left to turn except for history. The articulate shambles of Jack Gladney’s first-person fugue are far from Libra’s limber, magisterial third-person narration based on assiduous documentary research, a free indirect style smoothly crossing over into more than twenty-five characters. Compared to White Noise, the keening of commercial propaganda has been muffled; meanwhile the faint hum of the foreign policy machine (Jack’s ex-wives all had ties to the intelligence community) is amplified, brought forcefully home. The stage of White Noise was a thin geography located in a nameless state, its sites generic almost to the point of allegory: Blacksmith, Iron City, Glassboro, Farmington, Watertown, Coaltown. Libra pitches the tent of its plot on the poles of twelve genuine cities in four countries including the pinnacles of all three cold war worlds: New York and Washington, Moscow and Minsk, Tokyo and Mexico City. And if the protagonist of White Noise is a drooping member of the professional middle classes whose prolonged exposure to Hitler particles helps prime him for the murder of a nonwhite cipher, Lee Harvey Oswald, Libra’s antiracist antihero, couldn’t be more different.
“You mentioned politics,” he said. “How far left is this young friend of yours?”
“There is politics, there is emotion, there is psychology. I know him quite well but I wouldn’t be completely honest if I said I could pin him down, pin him right to the spot. He may be a pure Marxist, the purest of believers. Or he may be an actor in real life. What I know with absolute certainty is that he’s poor, he’s dreadfully, grindingly poor. What’s the expression I want?”
More than half of Libra’s chapters are devoted to narrating from within Lee’s odd biography, a life which in its brief span rubs against a dizzying array of secret operations run by the planet’s best and brightest agencies. From his introduction as a teenage underdog more emotionally committed to the metal shriek of New York subway trains than to family, friends, or school, Lee longs to merge his being with a higher power manifesting as an underground machine. As McCarthyism peaks, he checks out Marxist scripture from the New Orleans library. He imagines joining a Communist cell, carrying out secret missions, taking on a revolutionary alias. To escape his overbearing single mother, her unquenchable fretting and harping, he enlists in the Marines. Stationed at Atsugi air base in Japan, he hangs with Tokyo leftists while off duty. Once his service overseas ends, he defects to the Soviet Union. He informs the KGB about the U-2 spy plane’s powers and a false defector program run by United States naval intelligence. Soon disillusioned with Soviet society, he defects back with curious ease. “Trotsky is the pure form,” Lee now thinks in Fort Worth, New Orleans, Dallas. He still believes in Castro, still wants to strike a pure blow for the cause. But he has a wife and baby daughter to support, the jobs he finds pay poorly, and he’s known to authorities. The FBI bullies, the CIA baits him: to work, to inform. Whose side is Lee on? He agrees with everyone and goes his own weird way.
The broad cast of characters in Libra, a function of its lead’s mobility and mutability, provides DeLillo with a chance to deploy what might be called the institutional imagination. He characterizes not only individuals, but through them their organizations. His FBI agents and Mafia eminences have a family resemblance: both radiate a kind of blunt, bullish authority in common, only the wise guys have more humor, an earthy kick in their linguistics that demands and rewards being read out aloud. (“Speaking of Cuba, a couple of weeks ago I dream I’m swimming on the Capri roof with Jack Ruby. The next day I’m on Bourbon Street, who do I fucking see? You talk about coincidence.”) Oswald’s KGB inquisitor, a Marxist stalwart, thinks in terms of the collective underdog and indulges in self-conscious paranoia for a living: “Despite all the tests and interviews, we may know less about him than he knows about us.” CIA has a sleekness to it, a dominating grip as shadowy as it is steady. In Libra one is educated to the continuity of human personality in vast impersonal systems. Few novels go as far toward individuating the 20th century, systems and all.
He has thought about us—whoever we are—more than we have thought about him.Tweet
Anchoring his fiction on the floor of real events, DeLillo frees himself to sift the tides of daily being for the indelible patterns of emotion that constitute identity. However chilling their designs, Libra’s three fictional CIA renegades come off as warm-blooded, men of real feeling. With his bookish temperament and suburban/academic setting, his deep attachment to his family and his ineradicable fear of death, Win Everett seems a prior avatar of Jack Gladney even when he doesn’t plan a shooting. Laurence Parmenter’s class, the smug sophistication and assurance that comes from being “part of the Groton-Yale-OSS network of so-called gentlemen spies,” manifests in knowing, droll exchanges between him and his wife. T. J. Mackey, the cowboy of the bunch, has burned through a marriage already: mistrustful and hardened, pulling lesser but like-minded men into his orbit, he sees himself as what he is without regret, “a man they used to pay to teach other men the fundamentals of deadly force.”
DeLillo’s attention to terror was hardly exclusive to right-wingers: he knew how violence and the threat of violence from the left formed crucial variables, however overshadowed, in the social equations defining cold war. Explosive characters identifying as anticapitalist shape the plots of Players, Running Dog, and The Names—they drive James Axton out of Athens once his cover’s blown. If Gladney’s path in White Noise illustrates the basic helplessness that fascist subjectivity roots in, Oswald’s odyssey in Libra plays out the dark potential for discovering one’s true self via Leninist initiative. To take stands against the behemoth of racist American capital takes uncommon commitment: Oswald is resilient, brave. But having spine is hardly proof against being pretentious, misguided, and poor. As Oswald’s schemes to enter history by paying back the President for America’s attempts to put down revolutionary Cuba start coinciding with the CIA rogues’ plot to pay back Kennedy for failing those attempts, the ideal of violent justice loses all heroic luster in the reader’s sight. The meaningful division in the world looks less like right or left—more like murder or life.
Wise, grand, and tender, DeLillo’s narration grasps all that aspiring assassins cannot. Through the eyes of his supporting characters, especially the wives, he perceives the vitality, hope, and delight of the Sixties before the killings turned them to “the Sixties.” “You could be happy now,” imagines Mary Frances, Win Everett’s wife, basking in the Texas suburbs of late spring. Parmenter’s wife Beryl thinks it possible to live “layered safely in, out of the reach of dizzying things.” Oswald’s Russian wife Marina is thrilled simply by the sight of neon, or walking through a Safeway: “The packages of frozen food. The colors and abundance.” The stolid forms and grisly energies of early postwar life did not preclude authentic elements of innocence and cheer amid prosperity; as he describes these childlike qualities, DeLillo underscores their loss. If an axiom can be distilled from Libra’s ramifying plots, it must be this: the more a character’s mentality approaches that of a child, the deeper the assassination wounds them. The book does not just clarify the killing as a cruel, inevitable outcome of cold war logic. In DeLillo’s hands, it serves as a Rosetta stone to translate all the towering machinery of that epoch into a simple principle: death’s relentless incarnation in the childish heart of daily life. Thus the novel concludes not with Kennedy or Oswald but with Oswald’s funeral as filtered through the testimony of his mother Marguerite, more childish even than children, her indefatigable drive to clear her boy’s name manifesting as a cataract of grief and grievance, an investigative frenzy, fragments of Greek tragedy with the Warren Commission standing in as silent chorus.
I am going through a death and it is hard.
I have a sixth sense, judge. People have remarked on my ESP. If Lee Harvey Oswald shot the President, why didn’t I know it at the time? It is a prevalent feeling every mother has when the phone rings and she knows it is her son. Why didn’t I sense he was in a window with a gun when the shots rang out? Even being his gun doesn’t mean he did the shooting. I will wear a camera. I will time his movements on the fatal day. I am ready to go round and round on this because there are stories inside stories, that the press is unaware.
My only education is my heart. I have to work into this in my own way, starting with the day I took him home from the Old French Hospital in New Orleans. I am reciting a life and I need time.
In the end, the scales of Libra’s title refer less to a court of law than to the fluctuating life that law attempts to bind. The novel is not a space where innocence and guilt can be assessed with certainty, nor is it, for all its tremendous political literacy, in any way polemic. What it attempts to do, and magnificently succeeds in doing, is to chart the myriad ambiguities of a life lived in interaction with different-minded systems, and to set that life forth as a valid symbol of historic life itself. Oswald is “a study in divided loyalties or in the irrelevance of loyalty”: he can’t make up his mind about what he stands for, and can’t tell who he’s ultimately working for. He splits the difference between purity and complicity, conspirator and scapegoat, adult and child, toughness and fragility, idiot and genius, transparency and impenetrability. As with so many in the 20th century, with him the only thing for sure is that he wants to join. Yet once enlisted, his peculiarity and particularity are such as to disrupt the steady operation of whatever scheme in which he’s being deployed. Bartleby aboard the Pequod: this is the paradox of Oswald, and the wildcard status it confers on him in spite of everything irradiates the other figures in the novel—redefines them, their affiliations, and their era in his indeterminable image. One opens the book wondering which one of their sides he’s on and concludes it half-suspecting that they’re all on his.
As the Soviet Union flickered out during the Eighties, the Marxist militancy that it sponsored faded too. In both practice and theory, conspiracies of violent transformation from the left soon ceased to be: the win over apartheid could not efface more general failure in Berlin, Managua, Addis Ababa, Kabul, Moscow. By resurrecting Oswald with its art to bury him again, Libra doubled as a farewell to the dying cold war balance that his life revealed. In its treatment of the bloody past—with great compassion and without the least nostalgia—it defined the only path for peace in years to come.
In 1922, the Soviet poet and cultural historian Osip Mandelstam published an essay on “The Nineteenth Century” which concluded with a forecast of the 20th. “In the veins of our century there flows the heavy blood of extremely distant monumental cultures,” Mandelstam announced; faced with “this new age, turned cruel and immense,” artists were challenged to “humanize the twentieth century, to make it glow with a theological warmth.” Like much else vibrant in the Soviet Twenties, the poet and his ambitious program met a brutal end. Still, the situation he defined did not end with his life, nor was it restricted to his homeland. The defining feature of the 20th century was the worldwide maturation of administrative structures that, in dwarfing and depersonalizing the individual, disrupted all the settled certainties of art conducted on a human scale. There was no way to hide: what the modernist artist would make of the systems in art was conditioned by all that the systems were making of them, and their world.
The systems were made to wage war with each other, and did. In the wars’ intermissions, the artists made art that reflected the warfare, for better or worse. By the end of the Eighties, a singular outcome emerged. Of the two major systems, one was doomed to collapse very soon: bankrupt in all senses of the word, crippled by unprecedented peaceful people’s movements, it had nothing left to do except set fire to its final violent legacies and sink into the waters of oblivion. The other one, endowed with wealth, willpower, and the highest intelligence, had proven its fitness by thriving through years riddled with apocalyptic perils elsewhere on the planet. Its bold and wise administration of its many interests guaranteed that, in the coming new world order, its preeminence would be unrivaled. And among its most brilliant crown jewels were the dozens of artistic prodigies that had emerged under its auspices during the fateful decade.
Of the creators of these films, songs, paintings, television shows, poems, short stories, and novels, few were less suited or eager for fame, and none more unprepared for it, than Don DeLillo. With scarcely any intermission between composing White Noise and plunging into Kennedy assassination research, he had spent the Eighties hard at work on writing, in the sort of relative obscurity with which he was contented since his days as an unpublished author. Resurfacing near decade’s end to see how Libra fared, he found himself confined in a polemic hurricane. Taking time out from supporting George Bush in the impending 1988 election, George Will, heavyweight influencer of the established right, devoted his Washington Post op-ed column to broadsiding Libra. The book was senseless, irresponsible left speculation; its author was guilty of the crimes of “literary vandalism and bad citizenship.”
The message was clear: Having published consecutive prize-winning best-selling books that dismantled conservative national narratives, DeLillo was significant enough to warrant an extended public flaying. Be it phrased as infamy or celebration, fame would haunt him henceforth, injecting an unwelcome presence into his life and an unstable theme into his art. Could he have asked for any of this? Because his masterpieces challenged readers with their formal intricacy, controversial content, and above all discretion of tone, they triggered releases of simpleton critical bile with Pavlovian consistency: after two major works, his worst haters were already primed to combust from their rage. Meanwhile, his most devoted acolytes, typically talented writers themselves, considered him something like a god on Earth. For the quarter century from Reagan’s reelection to the Great Recession, the surest way to orient oneself in the entire US literary field would be to take a stand on Don DeLillo’s reputation. He became, himself, the kind of polarized public material about which he preferred to write.
The DeLillo referendum was unequal to the point of deep frustration. On the occasions when they weren’t reduced to sputtering epithets (“stupid—just plain stupid,” raged Dale Peck in the New Republic), the novelist’s foes were reduced to purveying demonstrable lies: that he’s “not especially good with character and plot” and focused on “sterile philosophizing” (Laura Miller), that “there are no human beings” (James Wood) in his books, that his characters lack “any genuine humanity” (Jonathan Yardley). Between these educators of the dull and the contenders for DeLillo’s genius there could be no significant contest. Stalinist debate clubs would have been more competitive.
The irony, however, should one happen to review the accolades bestowed on Don DeLillo by many of his literary fans, is that they bear clear traces of a cult of personality themselves. When the novelist is framed as “a tower of remoteness and command and intellect” (Jonathan Franzen), possessed with “oracular foresight” (David Foster Wallace), what sort of man is this, if man he be? By the time one hears out Martin Amis praising his “high intellect and harsh originality,” or scans Christian Lorentzen declaiming how he’s “more interested in probing the limits of consciousness and perception than in sketching inner lives,” or views Jonathan Lethem ambivalent, balking from DeLillo’s “chilly, intellectual grandeur,” the Great Leader vibes start to seem unmistakable. Still in the end it takes another GL to, as the phrase goes, seal the deal:
DeLillo is a tough guy. He has no patience for what doesn’t apply. It is cold, but it is a coldness one delights in. It’s part of what gives you the frisson you are reading for in DeLillo. That chilling knowing becomes a comfort in itself. One is warmed by the absolute correctness of it. In this respect he is our most visionary writer.
Already, by the Eighties, the fanatic proselytizer of a frigid cult of language centered on himself,2 DeLillo’s longtime crony Gordon Lish was certain to expound the virtues of a dictator of ice—impervious, untouchable, supreme. What’s striking about the contempt and the awe for DeLillo is how they refer to the same cold motifs. The man’s inaccessible thinking, his soulless and heartless approach to existence, is taken for granted. All that remains is to value it. More striking still is how this image fails to correspond in the least with the author DeLillo became in the Eighties. No intelligent person can experience The Names, White Noise, and Libra and conclude that their author is lacking in warmth, much less hostile to life on an everyday plane.
Where did the disjunction between the author and his image start? It’s one of the profounder ironies of literary history. White Noise, the novel that made DeLillo’s fame with younger readers by proving that TV an sich could be the subject of a literary masterpiece, introduces them to the author’s formidable yet lesser back catalog. From there, an image of the author is extracted that appeals to their secular, TV-besotted, and professionally anxious selves more than the actually existing author ever could. And these processes—the replacement of originals with their more emotionally gratifying images, the tendency for secular, TV-besotted, and professionally anxious selves to crowd beneath the images of great white men instead of facing up to the fear of insignificance and death alone—are precisely the materials of which White Noise is made. It is easier to identify with a hologram of Don DeLillo than to see yourself as Jack Gladney. What DeLillo describes as “our willingness to abandon ourselves to a strong personality” in “Silhouette City: Hitler, Manson and the Millennium,” a 1989 essay on fascist tendencies in Western culture, helpfully included in the LOA edition—this willingness is not restricted to the Nazis, neo-Nazis, and medieval cults that he discusses. As Mao II made clear, DeLillo saw the same impulse at work inside the mechanics of literary celebrity itself. The issue was what he could make of it besides just giving in.
I didn’t much like Mao II when I read it first. It’s not a masterpiece. The tone is leaden and the plot’s a whimper; still, even a reasonably clever teen boy could sense seriousness on the part of the author, and that’s what I was. The World Trade Center buildings had collapsed a couple years prior, clear proof of terrorists twisting the Western world’s narrative, just like the book said. The attack had become an excuse to wage war. I didn’t know much, but I hated the war. Something was wrong with my country, I had time to think. I lived in the suburbs, was heading to college. What more could I know? No one told me anything. I liked TV, the internet, lifting weights, CDs, and books; also, video games.
Mao II is supposedly about crowds. The future belongs to them. But the book’s reality, what it feels like over every page, is the protagonist’s depression over being a famous novelist. He prefers death to fame, and he dies. I still knew nothing about death, depression, or fame, so the book was inert. But I liked Don DeLillo, the name. It sounded like the Mafia. The Mafia was cool. It had the sense of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino. It was important to be cool, and you became cool by getting close to cool things: that was the thinking of people. I had thought Mao II was going to be about Mao. Mao, whom my parents called Old Mao, had started the Cultural Revolution, which some in the West thought was cool. I knew it was an evil time my parents lived through, but he died, it ended, and they went to school again. In the Eighties they moved to America. Two decades later, I was driving a convertible on cheap gas. The whole world seemed to say: You cannot touch me and you never will. I did my best to say it, too.
Some time after, not long, at the same Barnes and Noble, I chose to read White Noise. One year later I owned all his books and suspected I was meant to be a writer. Literature, I found, was like a high school. Certain people hang out with each other; there is gossip and grades. I read The Corrections and Infinite Jest; I read Pynchon from V up to Gravity’s Rainbow. Perusing the internet, I discovered that these books were called “systems novels” (because they were about the System); that certain critics greeted “systems novels” with vituperation; that certain critics liked them and aspired to be their authors. These people, of course, were all white, were all part of a system, but what can you do? Time comes for us all. Not everything cool or important remains as it is. The literary culture of the Aughts would dissipate, as if to say: Keep working and engaging and the tide will turn. The best words care for something other than mere coolness, and they always win out in the end—remember Melville, Faulkner, Ellison, DeLillo, Morrison.
Twenty years later, and almost unwittingly, it’s with Toni Morrison that I discover what I sought but never tracked down ever since the station wagons pulled up for another fall semester at the College-on-the-Hill: words equal to the power in Don DeLillo’s works. “They clamor, it seems, for an attention that would yield the meaning that lies in their positioning, their repetition, and their strong suggestion of paralysis and incoherence; of impasse and non-sequitur.” Discussing, in her 1992 study Playing in the Dark, the repeated figurations of impenetrable whiteness that stand out from the canon’s white American works, Morrison also produced a pitch-perfect summation of tensions that animate all of DeLillo’s protagonists. How whiteness performs as a symbol in Poe’s or in Hemingway’s tales has become, for DeLillo, the story itself. And when Morrison later concludes that “whiteness, alone, is mute, meaningless, unfathomable, pointless, frozen, veiled, curtained, dreaded, senseless, implacable,” it’s hard not to observe a deep concurrence with the dominating public image of DeLillo set forth by worshipers and haters both. If a serious novelist clarifies primary questions that vex their society, and if one of those questions involves the captivity of whiteness and various attempts to break free, then it seems a fitting judgment from the System’s critics that the mode of captivity known as the archetype “The Great White Writer” snare the only white man who has phrased the question fully in the six decades since JFK’s assassination.
To be widely known yet scarcely understood might be considered a success for actors, businessmen, or politicians; for a serious author it could only register as harsh defeat. The sense of Underworld as swan song, abdication—“Peace,” goes the last word and sentence—and the diminished horizon and joy of the books ever since, may not be attributable only to the termination of the cold war dualism that DeLillo thrived on.3 There may be a more personal factor involved, that of a novelist who gave his very best only to be disappointed—hurt, even—by the thoughtless scorn and admiration of the audience that ensued. The changes in contemporary society are not so drastic, nor has DeLillo’s soul grown so inflexible, that more ambitious labors should be past his reach. (If someone ever writes a classic novel covering professional video gaming [“e-sports”], it will be him.) What may be lacking isn’t so much talent or material as the motivation born from the hope—and the Eighties were especially rich in hope—that one will be read with the same care that one takes in writing.
Beneath the carapace of Don DeLillo’s institutional bona fides is a fantastic legend still worth telling. It pursues a young man from the outer city who, entirely on his own initiative, discovers the magic of novels—he’s awed by them, unfathomably hit. Their uncanny transportation, their rhythms of desire and loss, their intelligent drive into zones of the heart shunned by official discourse: all captivate him and inspire in him a life superior to the crude though not unpleasant routines of his daily world. Through war, political assassinations, and cultural revolution, the legend tracks a personal, not merely general, loss of faith in every institution: the Church, corporations, the media, political parties, armed forces, the nation-state, gender, and whiteness especially. More than this, though, the legend involves the discovery of one’s own involvement in all these systems regardless. Even though one needs to leave them, one cannot. Only the novel remains and is sure. The novel is the final form of truth. Still, in order to complete itself, this truth must take into account its own confinement and confess, however gracefully, its own accommodation—the nature that it shares with the destructive world of men.
There are good things as well. He will learn what it is to be happily married. He will learn, in an alien city, stripped of an unbending confidence, how to be open to the fragile side of being. He will become a great writer! And even if few understand him, the fact remains that he has thought about us—whoever we are—more than we have thought about him. If for most, art is only a game, for him it’s the only game. Beyond the lethal, petrifying image, he has his just reward: if language is the last truth and the truth is what survives, he lives forever. After him, what more have we to say?
Absence of vanity; unceasing self-guided research in the era’s most colorful art forms; relentless focus on the texture and rhythm of words; challenging choice of material; fearlessness facing historical presences; apprehension of both power and powerlessness; taking death and world religion deadly serious—the ideal path to being a writer and the path that Don DeLillo took are one. This is his legacy, proof of the timeless imperative to live in one’s time.
Still, times change. In the Reagan years white Christian fundamentalism was felt by its enemies, and felt itself, to be a temporarily dethroned regime of culture with the potential for full restoration. The institutions of the corporatist state, solidified by cold war pressures, still commanded respectful attention from all—if only out of fear of thermonuclear annihilation. An infernal upsurge of the flagrantly uncool forced culture’s repo men and women to concoct new countermeasures to oppose them. (Entire corpuses of literary fiction were founded on coping with the awful TV of the Eighties.) The cultural summits of the Eighties are even more impressive for their prominence than for their elevation: beneath every Olympian crest, every Prince or Twin Peaks, slumbered hundreds of sulfurous piles.
The artists of the Eighties acted fast. They had to: there would be no future otherwise. But in battling the retrograde Reaganite look of the System, they knew they were its bastards nonetheless. They took on organized religion by altering its iconography, not destroying it. Consensus uncoolness, delivered through media, was countered by coolness more media-fluent. Faced with dead forms, they formed live ones in their image. You, too, have become a zombie; all the more reason to dance better than the others. I’m a government man. I am chairman of the department of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill. The evil Frank Booth, in Blue Velvet, looks straight at the camera: “You’re like me,” he says. You’re part of what you fight: it’s the acceptance of this fact that breathes a spirit of unsqueamishness, engagement, and humility—the beauty of a dark truth brought to light—into the best art of the flagrant Eighties.
What the Eighties possessed is precisely what culture in our time is missing: a balance. Regardless of political administrations, the cultural changes unsealed in the Sixties have continued to progress: by now the contests between cool and uncool, libertarian and structural, and religious and secular are too lopsided to deserve the name. Religions, structures, and uncoolness have yet to vanish from the earth. Culture and reality are not the same. But culture and ideals are closely linked, and the prevailing ideal for the past sixty years, growing stronger with every new cohort of youth, is cool, libertarian, and secular, all to the point of consumerist digital death. White Noise, in 2023, is not only some myopic retread of the more banal aesthetic tricks from Eighties movies (though unfortunately, it’s that too). It’s a novel we live in—and yet not entirely, because we have art like White Noise. (Perhaps the scariest aspect of the novel’s setting was the total lack of artworks, set against the omnipresence of aesthetics, vibes, waves, auras, radiation.)
Like the Man in Lana Del Rey’s music or Cooper’s evil twin in Twin Peaks: The Return, Jack, too, is America.Tweet
As if in compensation for how politics today amounts to little more than slow-mo sumo between liberal and reactionary capitalist parties, people have more access to great art than ever. The problem, however, is that we possess more Jack Gladneys than ever as well. Jack is a creature constituted by his insecurities, and neoliberalism means nothing if not insecurity for all. After many decades of the white man in America losing ground—in society quite slowly, in culture much faster—DeLillo’s latent archetype, his patient zero of American secular fascism, has spawned into real life, is becoming a nation of millions. Jack’s ludicrous symptoms, his ghoulish temptations now grow ever more common and prominent. His fantasies of a transcendent death, framed as the closing shots of a TV biography of Attila the Hun, are moronic; yet insipid holograms of a historical fantasy held up as glorious ideals (the Bronze Age, Tolkien, traditionalist Catholicism, the cold war) are intellectual currency in general circulation now. “Not everyone spoke English at the cash terminals, or near the fruit bins and frozen foods, or out among the cars in the lot”—coming from a late-middle-aged Hitler scholar terrified of his impending permanent demise, this already encapsulated, decades in advance, the future politics of neoliberal immigration. Jack’s unwarranted wariness in front of Asian kids, professionals, and industrial products is absurd; still, it presages all the envious, whinging hostility toward “the Chinese” typical of fascist ideologues today. (Why can’t we have an efficient dictator to battle theirs?) It’s beyond preposterous when Jack attempts to take shelter from his own inadequacies by kneeling at the image of a garrulous secular racist celebrity who’s also a historically proven, capital-L Loser. Fashioning facsimiles of cool through allusions to Nazi insignia. Reconciling liberty and structure through sadistic plots. Blending faith and secular identity in a materialist cult of personality. Hiding from death by inflicting it. It’s all too hysterical to make up real life, and still part of our world.
All this is held back less by moral qualms than by imperatives of economic growth and geopolitics; so far it has been, but it’s hard to be sure that it always will be. As screen culture advances, the avid viewers’ nerves become more vulnerable and tenderized, more easily influenced. The seas of white male insecurity keep rising. The agitprop foundations are already laid: the Jacks have bylines, thrive on mastheads, dribble memes. Apartheid legacies own social media. One’s political options are limited. Why hide the fact? But as far as art goes, one should look out for Jack. There’s a radioactive crater near the center of the culture where the white man used to stand. It’s best not to be squeamish and pretend that it will vanish with enough ignoring; best to take it as material for creative exploration and re-presentation. Like the Man in Lana Del Rey’s music or Cooper’s evil twin in Twin Peaks: The Return, Jack, too, is America, and his logic should be faced and understood, if only to be rooted out inside oneself. True art proffers no solutions, only a perfect phrasing of the questions: it’s here that, regardless of color,4 DeLillo can still be of service.
We may never attain to the patience and poise of an old soul whose childhood precedes TV’s rise, but the curve of his thought and career can prefigure our own, even now. Steeped in existential literature, DeLillo in the early Sixties had arrived already where we are today. In the silence or absence of God he committed himself to a cult of singularity revealed through a decisive style. Yet his journey to the Old World led to new turns in his thought, if not a full reversal. As The Names’s leads can’t help but notice in their travels, language throughout Greece and Asia is continually invested with sacred intention. “The river of language is God”: where scripture and prayers abound, the worship of language is close. His emergence into greatness coincides with a discreet relinquishment of secular self-will and a partaking in religious speech: James Axton’s last words are “Our offering is language.” However opposed in their style, White Noise and Libra are Dostoevskian novels, fueled by ideology. Both interrogate secular axioms by putting them into political action, thereby proving their tragic inadequacy. By the time of Underworld DeLillo is announcing in the New York Times—a bastion of secularism—that “at its root level, fiction is a kind of religious fanaticism, with elements of obsession, superstition and awe.”
Do you have to believe with DeLillo to see where he’s headed? Perhaps it’s some sort of—peculiarly encoded, no doubt—childhood faith resurfacing in old age. Perhaps it’s what a serious writer in a world that’s not is driven to to justify his task. Perhaps it’s just the truth. In any case, his statement, like his novels, exemplifies the “theological warmth” Osip Mandelstam predicted would be necessary to “humanize the twentieth century,” and maybe the 21st too. However they believe or fail to, writers are the bridges binding one world to the next. The dream of total literacy begins and ends with them. It doesn’t matter when it is: Should you be asked How many languages do you speak? among the tongues Religious, Secular, Structural, Libertarian, Cool, Uncool, Good, and Evil, then the answer should be Yes.
As if to reveal Jack’s precarious condition by contrast, White Noise’s only religious believers are also its only Black characters: a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses completely unfazed by the Airborne Toxic Event. “God Jehovah’s got a bigger surprise than this in store,” the wife predicts to Jack’s wife. The husband asks Jack how Jack plans to spend his resurrection—casually, “as though asking about a long weekend coming up.” ↩
No less than the Ayatollah Khomeini, Lish may well be a hidden influence on The Names: the cult is something like a sicko writing workshop, when you think about it. ↩
Note how in two of his three masterpieces, Libra and Underworld, the bivalence has been crystallized into the very titles. ↩
Without saying too much on the topic, it bears some importance that, out of the authors inspired by DeLillo, those of color learned best how to take what they need while dispelling anxieties of influence. ↩