Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald
rfmcdpei

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[REVIEW] Two DeLillo Novels

Don DeLillo. White Noise. New York: Viking, 1985. 326 pp.
Don DeLillo. The Body Artist. New York: Scribner, 2001. 124 pp.

Don DeLillo emerged in the 1980's as one of the United States' leading authors, in large part because of the success of his novel White Noise. I've read this novel as part of a survey course of contemporary literature, and I don't understand why White Noise made DeLillo a major author. Superficially, White Noise's plot is interesting, but it is compromised by DeLillo's tendency to overwrite, to insert into his plot only superficially narrative sections concerned with his philosophical predilections (the vapidity of consumer society, mainly). In this respect, Delillo is no different from Tom Clancy, whose first novel--The Hunt for Red October--was, in fact, a decent novel. The plight of Captain Ramius--an ethnic Lithuanian captain in a Russian-dominated fleet, a man whose hopes for a family and a fulfilling life were repeatedly betrayed by the Communist system--was explored, but not in excessive detail. Technical and military jargon was used, but not to the exclusion of comprehensible language. Even sophisticated military technologies were adequately summarized in a paragraph or two. After The Hunt for Red October, Clancy's writing sadly deteriorated; jargon replaced dialogue, the description of technologies and organizations supplanted characterization. The same process was compressed into a single book, White Noise; DeLillo differs from Clancy only in supplanting techno-fetishism with what would now be called the No Logo school of cultural criticism.

White Noise and DeLillo caught on because of their denunciation of mass culture as pointless. This is a tired, tired piece of rhetoric. Yes, mass culture is replete with silly people and trends that are presented to their audiences as entirely serious entities. (When I wrote this, the most spectacular incarnation of this is Britney Spears and her single "I Am a Slave 4 U," each presented as serious artistic innovations.) At the same time, there is much in popular culture that is both serious and important. I like Verdi and U2; I watch Showcase and the History Channel and Space and MuchMoreMusic; I read Don Delillo and Peter Høeg and John Barnes and Muriel Spark. Charges of elitism are made too often to be taken very seriously, but the bifurcations of popular culture into highbrow and lowbrow segments, or the separation of even modernized traditional hence "authentic" culture (Maritime fiddle music comes to mind) from the rest of popular culture, strike me as difficult. Always, "lowbrow" and "highbrow" cultures have interacted fertilely, recombining at will to produce new forms.

Must we really be forced to see the world through Jack Gladney's unintentionally but scathingly critical eyes? Mass culture is too easy a target. Mass culture--distinct for the purposes of this reviewer from popular culture in that popular culture is identified as more spontaneous and traditional than mass culture, supposedly dominated by corporate economic and political interests--has been condemned for centuries in a wide variety of cultures. Under the late Tokugawa Shogunate, the floating world (ukiyo-e) of Tokyo was condemned by the Shogunate's Confucian moralists for its open sexuality, its undignified dramatic and musical arts, and the penetration of the floating world by appallingly greedy businessmen. Pronouncing corporate slogans in your sleep is supposed to mean, by DeLillo, that even the unconsciousness dreamtime of children has been corrupted by mass culture. Here I was, believing that our dreams and nightmares are products of our sociocultural environments in their totality, and that all individuals are embedded in their environments. Yes, it's quite true that excessive openness is a problem and that all people should maintain a certain critical distance. Delillo’s caricatures are hardly capable of proving that.

And then, there is Dynex, the amazingly advanced pill that is supposed to guard against the fear of death and decay. DeLillo's characters--Jack’s wife Babette, for instance--seem to see their use of Dynex as proof of their failure to deal with their impending deaths, as a devastating personal critique. This is ridiculous; this is a simple reflection of a long-standing prejudice against any medical intervention that might diminish one‘s reputatino as durable. Remember when hockey players scorned protective facemasks as unmasculine? Dynex is no different from other psychopharmaceuticals that are used to treat serious psychological problems (like, oh, a crippling fear of death) which could be easily minimized if only a chemical imbalance was corrected. True, Germaine Greer makes an interesting point in arguing that providing menopausal and post-menopausal women with estrogen in order to minimize associated medical problems problematizes a natural part of the aging process. Then again, rejecting helpful medication on the grounds that the health problem is a natural phenomenon is silly. In their next works, will DeLillo or Greer condemn glasses and crutches for denying our personhood? Who knows? Tom Cruise has already announced that psychiatric medication is bad for you. While I wait, I think I'll forego the opportunity to write a page-by-page fisking of White Noise

The novella The Body Artist is a much subtler and immensely better work, thankfully. Perhaps its non-didactic readability comes from the fact that in The Body Artist DeLillo chose not to address directly the subject of mass culture, instead concentrating upon the title character--Lauren Hartke--as she tries to recover from the suicide of her art-film director husband Roy Robles in their New England summer home. There, as she mourns alone, Lauren meets a man beyond language, a man who she fancies to be an angel but who is incapable of being creative, only imitating her words and her actions. The irony of this is acute, since she is a body artist, practising an unusual art form that combines gymnastics with ballet as she bends her body to represent shapes, and abstract forms, and themes. In Lauren words are made flesh, if you will. The Body Artist is a solemn work, written in an elegantly spare prose style and with a sober eye for personal and physical detail, with the sort of ending that I like. It proved to me that Delillo does deserve a reputation. He just doesn't deserve the reputation that he has.
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