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Book Reviews

Don DeLillo:  Only Connect

Noel Mawer


Ratner’s Star (1976)

Underworld (1997)

The Angel Esmeralda and Other Stories (2011)


Does anything make sense?  Those who can fall back on religious explanations—“everything happens for a purpose”--are fortunate.  For more than forty years Don DeLillo has been trying in his fiction to puzzle this out.  Does each individual’s perception create her world, is the universe governed by consistent laws, is humanity evolving or devolving?  Those are really big questions, and DeLillo has written some really big novels addressing them.


DeLillo’s range is spectacular, from the small focus (The Body Artist, Cosmopolis) through the historical (Libra, Mao II) to the vast and troubling (Ratner’s Star, Underworld).  The last two, perhaps his most ambitious, address all of the big questions and manage to progress from the verbal excess and chaos of Ratner’s Star to the control and coherence of Underworld.  In the process DeLillo’s world view seems to become more accessible, perhaps suggesting that maybe there is some meaning, or at least some pattern, in our world.


DeLillo has always been a genre-buster, and his most recent publication,  The Angel Esmeralda and Other Stories, illustrates this tendency.  The stories are so various it’s hard to believe that one person wrote them all.  Except for the one thing they and all of DeLillo’s fiction possess:  that nagging, ominous, often oppressive sense that something is THERE--out there, hanging over us, just beyond our apprehension.  One is reminded of Pinter and Beckett, who leave only questions, but no answers.  From the vastness of space to the destructiveness of earthquakes to the incomprehensibility of our urban jungle, there seems about to be some malevolent force--the Nature of naturalist fiction, of Dreiser and Hardy--which holds our miserable fates over us until, in Hardy’s words, “Crass Causality” and “dicing Time” catch us, dragging us down into the bottomless pit that awaits all creation.


In the early Ratner’s Star, recognizable as science fiction, a massive, super-tech cycloid (dome)--one of DeLillo’s favorite themes is the grasp our technology exerts on us--apparently located in the Australian outback, houses an international brigade of scientists attempting to decode a signal which has reached earth from the newly discovered and eponymous star.  The third-person omniscient narrative is chiefly confined to the consciousness of one Billy Twillig, a fourteen-year-old who has just won the Nobel Prize for mathematics.


The funhouse/madhouse journey Billy, who’s supposed to be the last hope of decoding the “message,” embarks upon is occasionally punctuated by scenes from his actual life in a working-class family in the Bronx.  (N.B. DeLillo grew up in a similar environment and uses the same background for several characters in Underworld, twenty-six years later.)  Of note is the fact that Billy’s father spends his days underground, working in the subway, an environment which Billy experiences as almost homey--another recurrent element in later fiction.


DeLillo indulges himself in verbal highjinks for several hundred pages before significant events transpire.  Ratner’s Star, it seems, is not the center of a solar system but a double star, and, since there is no orbiting planet, it cannot be the source of any sort of “message,” or at least not the originator of such a message, but may be a phenomenon that reflects a message back to earth from earth.  Amidst an entertaining parade of eccentric types, some of DeLillo’s persistent themes emerge.

Always in search of pattern, DeLillo’s characters see or imagine structures in their universe.  The locus of action moves from the cycloid to its mirror image, an inverted underground dome where a small band of scientists descends deeper into earth as Billy produces an interpretation of the message.  This journey underground is complemented by a trip engaged in by an archaeologist who has discovered that below its most primitive level, that of cave art and stone tools, civilization begins again, revealing itself as  more complex as the excavation deepens.  Apparently human society has been engaged in a hitherto unsuspected  cycle of rise and fall and rise again.


In the meantime, the message’s code is broken:  an unanticipated total solar eclipse is at hand and with it the collapse of cities and nations.  The novel concludes with Billy and a colleague regressing to the most primitive level of humanity while digging ever deeper into the earth.


One critic puts DeLillo with such postmodernists as Barth and Pynchon and Gaddis, purveyors of the “systems” novel.  Systems Theory, like gestalt psychology, insists that nothing makes sense unless it is viewed in its larger context.  Here, with DeLillo, the context is the world, the underworld, and the heavens--as well as their interpretations by mathematicians and scientists, mad and otherwise.  This  makes sense to me, but only because DeLillo’s 1997 Underworld offers clarification.  The later novel develops the themes of Ratner’s Star but perceived in the context of a more recognizable world.  Finally, the connections emerge as a coherent pattern.


Underworld preserves the verbal and narrative pyrotechnology of Ratner’s Star, but no longer in the picaresque mode.  It is as complex as the earlier novel, but its many strands of plot and character are now woven into a web of causality and coherence that Ratner lacks.  The main character once again  is a man who grew up in a working-class family in the Bronx and is now a sort of scientist--a waste-management engineer whose company attempts to solve the increasing problem of human garbage (the levels of which will no doubt engage future archaeologists) as it grows in toxicity and radioactivity.


The pattern begins to emerge on page one of Underworld with the recounting of a historic (1950’s) baseball game in which a young boy retrieves the homerun ball which saves the game.  Several celebrities are in attendance, including J. Edgar Hoover, who will reappear in a much later scene in another strand of the plot.  Like Hoover, the baseball resurfaces as a narrative motif, connecting disparate characters (who are incidentally but compellingly portrayed speaking convincing ethnic and regional accents), including Lenny Bruce and Sergei Eisenstein, whose words (or, with the latter, “lost film“) are fabricated realistically.


The apparently imaginary characters, many from that same Bronx neighborhood of DeLillo’s youth, are mostly depicted in their relationship with garbage.  One woman is transforming a desert graveyard of WW II airplanes into a gigantic work of art, which DeLillo parallels with that monument of salvaged trash, Los Angeles’ Watts Towers.  The two brothers who come close to the role of protagonists are both involved in the creation or disposal of waste (one is a nuclear scientist).  Major events, real and imagined, of the second half of the Twentieth Century are woven into a massive spectacle, enacted mostly on an earthly stage resting on a honeycomb of garbage.  There is no celestial phenomenon or archaeological discovery.  DeLillo doesn’t aspire to the quixotic quest of our actual scientific community, who search for a “theory of everything,” be it particles, waves, or strings, a construct that will show us the meaning of all the connections and parallels and chains of cause and effect.


“Creator and Destroyer” Shelley calls the West Wind.  So DeLillo depicts our own species, whose creations are becoming the garbage that may well overwhelm our planet.  He  really can’t be labeled a determinist with Thomas Hardy, but rather, with Hardy’s Victorian predecessor, Matthew Arnold, as one who strove to “see life steadily and see it whole.”                                                         



Noel Mawer has a Ph.D. in English from Bryn Mawr College and is the author of A Critical Study of the Fiction of Patricia Highsmith: From the Psychological to the Political (Studies in American Literature V. 65 (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press). She has previously been a book reviewer for Utopian Studies and is the Book Review Editor for Lost Coast Review





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