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Don Delillo Biography

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Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1936. Education: Fordham University, Bronx, New York, 1954-58. Awards: Guggenheim fellowship, 1979; American Academy award, 1984; National Book award, 1985; Irish Times-Aer Lingus prize, 1989; PEN-Faulkner award for fiction, 1991; Jerusalem Prize, 1999. Agent: Wallace Literary Agency, 177 East 70th Street, New York, New York 10021, U.S.A.

PUBLICATIONS

Novels

Americana. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1971; London, Penguin, 1990.

End Zone. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1972; London, Deutsch, 1973.

Great Jones Street. Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1973; London, Deutsch, 1974.

Ratner's Star. New York, Knopf, 1976; London, Vintage, 1991.

Players. New York, Knopf, 1977; London, Vintage, 1991.

Running Dog. New York, Knopf, 1978; London, Gollancz, 1979.

The Names. New York, Knopf, 1982; Brighton, Sussex, HarvesterPress, 1983.

White Noise. New York, Viking, 1985; London, Pan, 1986; published as White Noise: Text and Criticism, edited by Mark Osteen, New York, Penguin, 1998.

Libra. New York and London, Viking, 1988.

Mao II. New York, Viking, and London, Jonathan Cape, 1991.

Underworld. New York, Scribner, 1997.

Uncollected Short Stories

"The River Jordan," in Epoch (Ithaca, New York), Winter 1960.

"Spaghetti and Meatballs," in Epoch (Ithaca, New York), Spring1965.

"Take the 'A' Train," in Stories from Epoch, edited by Baxter Hathaway. Ithaca, New York, Cornell University Press, 1966.

"Coming Sun. Mon. Tues.," in Kenyon Review (Gambier, Ohio), June 1966.

"Baghdad Towers West," in Epoch (Ithaca, New York), Spring1968.

"Game Plan," in New Yorker, 27 November 1971.

"In the Men's Room of the Sixteenth Century," in The Secret Life of Our Times, edited by Gordon Lish. New York, Doubleday, 1973.

"The Uniforms," in Cutting Edges, edited by Jack Hicks. New York, Holt Rinehart, 1973.

"Showdown at Great Hole," in Esquire (New York), June 1976.

"The Network," in On the Job, edited by William O'Rourke. NewYork, Random House, 1977.

"Creation," in Antaeus (New York), Spring 1979.

"Human Moments in World War III," in Great Esquire Fiction, edited by L. Rust Hills. New York, Viking Press, 1983.

"Walkmen," in Vanity Fair (New York), August 1984.

"Oswald in the Lone Star State," in Esquire (New York), July 1988.

"The Runner," in Harper's (New York), September 1988.

"Shooting Bill Gray," in Esquire (New York), January 1991.

"Pafko at the Wall," in Harper's (New York), October 1992.

"Videotape," in Antaeus (Hopewell, New Jersey), Autumn 1994.

Plays

The Engineer of Moonlight, in Cornell Review (Ithaca, New York), Winter 1979.

The Day Room (produced Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1986; NewYork, 1987). New York, Knopf, 1987.

Valparaiso: A Play in Two Acts. New York, Scribner, 1999.

*

Critical Studies:

In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel by Thomas LeClair, Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1988; Introducing Don DeLillo edited by Frank Lentricchia, Durham, North Carolina, and London, Duke University Press, 1991; Don DeLillo by Douglas Keesey, New York, Twayne, 1993; American Literary Naturalism and Its Twentieth-Century Transformations: Frank Norris, Ernest Hemingway, Don DeLillo by Paul Civello. Athens, University of Georgia Press, 1994; Conspiracy and Paranoia in Contemporary American Fiction: The Works of Don DeLillo and Joseph McElroy by Steffen Hantke. New York, P. Lang, 1994; White Noise: Text and Criticism by Don DeLillo, edited by Mark Osteen. New York, Penguin Books, 1998; Critical Essays on Don DeLillo, edited by Hugh Ruppersburg and Tim Engles. New York, G.K. Hall, 2000.

* * *

Don DeLillo's novels since 1985 have turned their attention to the paradoxes and contradictions of postmodern culture. DeLillo's is the terrain of shopping malls and supermarkets, the temples of the new consumerist creed, of a market organized entirely around consumer demand, of the detritus and waste of consumerism produced by that insatiable demand. His is a world in which the mode of production associated with modernism has given way to the postmodern mode of information in which television shapes perceptions and creates its own self-referential world. As he moved into the 1990s we see that his novels become concerned with what might be called the "global postmodern," the point at which media spectacle itself becomes a world-wide phenomenon, the point at which every interstice of the international world is saturated in capital. His is a global landscape traversed by the indeterminate circulation of signs, by messages of resurgent nationalisms and religious fundamentalism, as well as the violence of international terrorism.

DeLillo is above all concerned with how the artist goes about representing this new world that, according to Frederic Jameson, exceeds the abilities of our "cognitive mapping." What is the place for the artist in a world whose multifarious representations (electronic and otherwise) exceed, in both scale and inventiveness, those of the artist? DeLillo's own sensibility was shaped in the fifties, a time when art was cast in the heroic mould, a time when literature was conceived as oppositional, flouting the conventions of taste and defying the solicitations of the market. Yet as DeLillo understands, cultural forms are no longer confined to the enclave of high art and its oppositional impulses, but permeate all aspects of society. Rather than being oppositional, art is often complicit with the new market order. Thus postmodern culture challenges the assumptions of an older modernist aesthetic. Accordingly, DeLillo's artist figures (such as Bill Gray in Mao II) find themselves searching and groping for new ways to express their artistic concerns and formulate "sneak attacks on the dominant culture" (as DeLillo puts it in Underworld). DeLillo's novels both explore the conceptual horizons of modernism—and modernism's vanishing point—but enact and embody new ways of attempting to represent what seems unrepresentable.

Although he writes on this subject in many of his earlier novels, White Noise (1985) is his most sustained exploration of the media saturation that characterizes postmodern culture. The narrator, Jack Gladney (holding, like many of DeLillo's protagonists, to older modernist notions of culture), sifts through the layers of "white noise" of contemporary culture—electronic media, printed information, traffic sounds, computer read outs—listening for significance, for a grasp of essence in the flux. But clearly the impetus of the larger culture works against Gladney's attempts to find essences, fixities, and stable identities. For television, with its "flow" and its proliferating images, represents a "peak experience" of postmodern culture. As Murray Suskind, a visiting professor at Gladney's university, explains to Gladney, television "welcomes us into the grid, the network of little buzzing dots that make up a picture patterns…. Look at the wealth of data concealed in the grid, the bright packaging, the jingles, the slice-of-life commercials, the products hurling out of darkness, the coded messages and endless repetitions, like chants, like mantras. 'Coke is it, Coke is it, Coke is it."' Gladney may hold to notions of an authentic ground of being and authentic selfhood, but all about him the self is being saturated and colonized by media images, and the simulated environments of mall and mediascape are eclipsing the real.

Libra (1988) also reflects DeLillo's desire to explore postmodernity, with its televisional society of spectacle. For as DeLillo sees it the assassination of John F. Kennedy inaugurated the era of media spectacle, if not of a postmodern politics. For in a society increasingly filled with media representations (as was America by the early sixties), terrorism and assassination become one extreme in the logical extensions of spectacle. DeLillo depicts Lee Harvey Oswald as the first truly postmodern figure, desiring his ten minutes of media fame. Oswald is a protean figure engaged in a quest for self-fashioning in terms of what the culture offers—and what the culture offers is precisely the immortality of the image. Just before his attempt on General Walker's life, Oswald directs his wife, Marina, to take a picture of him with a black shirt on, a rifle in one hand and a revolutionary pamphlet in the other. Oswald's understanding of revolutionary ideology is at best vague; what he wants is for this picture to be printed on the cover of Life and Time.

If Libra is DeLillo's attempt to trace the originary moments of postmodernity in the 1960s, Mao II marks that moment when spectacle goes global in the 1990s. The novel depicts a world where televisional catastrophes, spectral fear, pseudo events, and spectacle are an integral part of daily life. This is a new "geopolitical" arena that defies spatial coordinates. A character sitting in a revolving "designer" bar atop a skyscraper—which could be in any urban center in the world—suddenly says to the person across the table "Jesus. Where am I?" Eerie "nonplaces" like embassies and airport transit lounges populate the narrative. Along with this disorienting globalization comes an "everyday fear" fuelled by perceived dangers that come from no single isolable place but rather lurk in some unspecifiable future. Terrorism is a "x" factor in this fear blur, and terrorism is as anonymous as a natural catastrophe: postmodern death comes not in the natural course of things but upon those who are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Terrorism becomes part of a generalized "everyday fear," however, because it is a media phenomenon. As part of the proliferation of image and spectacle, terrorism poses a "crisis of representation" insofar as its hyperreal character—and at the same time the totalizing logic of media spectacle—undermines the artist's traditional attempts at critical distance, analysis, and critical intervention. This is precisely the dilemma of Bill Gray, protagonist of the novel. As Bill Gray articulates this dilemma, terrorism presents the novelist with a "zero-sum game." "What terrorists gain, novelists, lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous."

Feeling that the contemporary writer can no longer be an oppositional force, Bill Gray decides to confront the real world and offer himself as a hostage in exchange for a French poet being held by a revolutionary group. Ironically, as hostage, Gray finds himself part of a media exhibition of signs, part of the larger phenomenon of the loss of referent, part of the semiotic flow and exchange of signifiers in late capitalism. The hostage's very identity is ultimately absorbed into the "digital mosaic in the processing grid," the mutating set of signs of a technology of digitized global communication. Ultimately the novel asks, how can the artist be oppositional in a world where, like a Warhol silkscreen, simulations rule? How can the subversive imagination be effective when an image-saturated global network brings the single, universal story of prosperity and the global victory of the market? Even images of terrorism merge and mix with fashionable commodity images. An ad for a new soft drink, "Coke II," becomes confused in the mind of one character with a placardannouncing a Maoist group because in both cases the "lettering is so intensely red."

Underworld (1997) is DeLillo's summary statement of postmodernity and its discontents. The novel encompasses the period from the early 1950s to the present. The world of DeLillo's 1950s youth, the Italian neighborhood of the Bronx, intersects with the global postmodern in the trajectory of the novel's protagonist, Nick Shay. Shay is in effect the inheritor of the legacy of America's Cold War supremacy and prosperity. Living his middle years in suburbia in the Southwest, Shay is an executive in a company that specializes in waste management. One of the forms of waste the company "manages" is nuclear waste.

Thus while the novel recapitulates many of the themes of DeLillo's previous novels—consumer detritus, media saturation, and the decentered world of global capitalism—Underworld introduces an issue that remained in the shadows in his earlier novels: the bomb. For it is not just that nuclear waste goes "underground" in landfills and bunker systems under mountains in Nevada. Rather, the specter of nuclear disaster is part of the "Underworld" of the social unconscious. The bomb is the "Other" of the contemporary world, the real specter that haunts the "floating zones of desire" of postmodern culture. Nick Shay is so haunted by the bomb that in middle age, when he uses sun block, he remembers Dr. Edward Teller putting suntan lotion on his face just before observing the first nuclear explosion. Nick is also haunted by the trauma of the disappearance of his father when he was a youth, yet even these traumatic memories haunt him in images that suggest collective nuclear anxieties. As a middle-aged man Nick is obsessed by a particular image, the logotype on the package of Lucky Strike cigarettes—his father's brand. A series of concentric rings circling a void at the center, the image is an uncanny reminder of ground zero.

Ultimately, Underworld takes us into the postmodern terrain of the present, where nuclear power has triumphed. In the last section of the novel, Nick Shay is sent to Russia to investigate business prospects, specifically of investing in a Russian company that specializes in nuclear energy. The Russians have developed a new process for dealing with nuclear waste: "we destroy contaminated nuclear waste by means of nuclear explosions." If waste is contamination, decay and death, it is also a "remainder," something that cannot be assimilated by the system, something intractable, a reminder of the "real." Yet here (in a way that parallels DeLillo's concern for the eclipse of the real by electronic representations and commodity signs), nuclear energy itself swallows all traces of the real. As such it is a form of postmodern production par excellence, part of a larger play of monetary entities and the total flow of financial speculation that circumscribes all aspects of culture.

DeLillo's novels have always been concerned with the limits of representation, how one represents the unrepresentable in a literary text. Indeed, one of the purposes of DeLillo's narrative in Underworld is to revisit historical anxiety and trauma, the "unspeakable" experience of the bomb, and to represent it in narrative form. DeLillo's narrative circles around the "unsayable" moments of nuclear trauma, but it also enables the unspeakable to be spoken by a narrative orchestration of events. This is, of course, part of the larger problem of the artist in the new world of the global postmodern, a problem that haunts, more than any of DeLillo's characters, Bill Gray in Mao II. To be sure the downward spiral of modernism and its subversive aesthetic DeLillo depicts in a novel like Mao II seems a truly grim topic for a writer who has aspirations, such as DeLillo clearly does, of critiquing society and interrogating culture. Yet DeLillo poses these problems precisely to indicate the need for new artistic strategies consonant with a new media age. His own novels go further than any other contemporary fiction to "cognitively map" the global postmodern. His works are comprised of "heteroglossic" narratives in which discourses clash and rebound, are decoded and recoded according to the logic of a society of information and spectacle. All this indicates an effort to understand—and thereby to critique—the semiotic and cultural dynamics of postmodernity. More than any other fiction of the contemporary period, DeLillo's novels probe the "limits of representation" of the novel and forge new ways of presenting the unpresentable.

—Leonard Wilcox

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over 6 years ago

Excellent review!!