Friday, March 2, 2007

Two by Don DeLillo

*The Body Artist
by Don DeLillo
by Don DeLillo
DeLillo is perhaps the best literary novelist we have at this time, which the career-defining masterwork "Underworld" made clear to his largest readership yet: at the end of all those perfect sentences , sallow images and and long, winding, aching paragraphs is a voice whose intelligence engages the fractured nature of identity in a media-glutted age. A central concern in DeLillo's novels has been a perfect description of what his characters surround themselves with as they construct an integrated identity within an existence, creating a poetry as those items fall into disuse or are fetishized to the point where there is only faint nostalgia , not a direct address of a romantically conceived world. Melancholy pervades DeLillo's work, even his comic ones , as the material things that are made, sold and purchased fo the purposes of fixing individuals coherently in communities large and small are
reduced to competing streams of wishful thinking.
The Body Artist has him contracting the narrative concerns to a tight, elliptical 128 pages, where the Joycean impulse to have a private art furnish meaning to grievous experience is preferred over the dead promises of religion and philosophy. What exactly the woman character does with her performance body art, what the point is of her ritutalized , obsessed cleansing of her body, is a mystery of DeLilloian cast, but it's evident that we're witnessing to a private ritual whose codes won't reveal themselves, but are intended as a way for the woman to again have a psychic terrain she can inhabit following the sudden and devastating death of her film maker husband. The entrance of the stranger in the cottage turns her aesthetic self-absorption , slowly but inevitably, into a search into her past in order to give her experience meaning, resonance, a project she quite handily ignores until then. The sure unveiling of her psychic life is a haunting literary event.

DeLillo's language is crisp, evocative, precise to the mood and his ideas: you envy his flawless grasp of rhythm and diction as these traits simultaneously make the cottage on the cold , lonely coast seem sharp as snap shot, but blurred like old memory, roads and forests in a foggy shroud.A short, haunted masterwork.
Don DeLillo again shows that he's our best novelist of American absurdity with this strange off-kilter comedy that centers around the events of an eventful day in Manhattan.

makes the same obsessions with the erosion of certainty into a bizarre comedy of bad habits and quirks.Against a backdrop of raves, a Presidential motorcade, a rock star's funeral, mysterious street demonstrations and the constant, ghostly electronic feed of news of pending financial disaster, a young billionaire asset manager limousines uptown to get a haircut in order to embrace his sense of inevitable, personal apocalypse. DeLillo's writing is outstanding, funny with a cool lyricism, poetic when you least expect it.

The brillance here, as with "White Noise" and especially "Mao ll" is the way characters seek to reconfigure their metaphors, their assuring base of references , once their world view is rattled and made less authoritative by unexplainable events and human quirks. This is semiotics at its best, an erotic activity where DeLillo probes and glides over the surfaces of ideas , notions, theories and their artifacts, things intellectual and material emptied of meaning, purpose.

It's a hallmark of DeLillo's mastery of language that he gets that psychic activity that constantly tries to re-infuse the world with meaning and purpose after the constructions are laid bare; Eric, here in this world of commodity trading, which he regards as natural force that he's mastered and control, attempts to reintroduce mystery into the world he is trapped in. He is bored beyond the grave with the results of his luck.

His efforts to live dangerously , spontaneously and thus get a perception he hadn't had and perhaps secure a hint of a metaphysical infrastructure that eludes, all turn badly, but for DeLillo's art it's not what is found , discovered, or resolved through the extensions of language, but rather the journey itself, the constant connecting of things with other things in the world; this is the poetry of the human need to make sense of things in the great , invisible state beyond the senses, a negotiation with death.

His majestic tilling of the semiotic field yields the sort of endless irony that makes for the kind of truly subversive comedy, a sort of satire that contains the straining cadences of prophecy. The city, the place where the the hydra-headed strands of commerce, history, technology and government merge in startling combinations of applied power, becomes an amorphous cluster of symbols whose life and vitality come to seem as fragile and short-lived as living matter itself.


  1. My reactions to Delillo were very similar to my recent reactions to Richard Powers: namely, here's a talented assembler of prose, with a lot of interesting ideas about metaphor and identity and so forth. The problem with each of these guys was, well, the long, winding aching paragraphs you describe, the endless musing and absorption. It would be going too far to call them bloated (the Powers book moved right along), but I don't think their metaphors are quite so legendary as to justify their excess. (Or maybe I've just been reading too much science fiction.)

    After reading Underworld, I told myself that I'd be happy enough to read more DeLillo, but I'd prefer to do so at a more constrained length. So actually, I believe you've supplied a great recommendation here.


  2. I have to admit that I'm a sucker for the sort of long, winding prose
    when it's done with a certain amount of genius, an essence that Powers will most likely show in earnest as he continues to write, and that DeLillo has ,to my mind, owns in whole. Not that I'm a lover of longwindedness or eloquance per se; Updike interests me only sporadically, and Jack Kerouac never should have been allowed near a typewriter. DeLillo's Underworld makes sense in that it comes after eleven novels and three decades of writing moderate-length meditations on our estrangement from our social constructions. It was a full scale symphony and a subset of tone poems of his developed themes and metaphors, and it is notable that he returned to shorter novels, as these two fictions attest.


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