The popular press fête few novelists with the intensity which accompanies each new Don DeLillo "event." So before I crashed the party I decided I should see whether anyone else had. Thanks to Gale's Expanded Academic ASAP, I now know I'm not alone. Earlier Jonathan chided me for "an unfortunate and inaccurate comparison to Baudrillard [un]worthy of Dale Peck." My only (admittedly lame) defense consisted of a frank admission that I thought the comparison both obvious and apropos. So I delight in communicating that someone else considers the comparison equally apt: in his review of Cosmopolis, James Wood makes a strikingly similar observation:
Eric [Packer] is given to riffing on contemporary culture and technology, in a Baudrillard-bruised language evocative of an assistant professor of cultural studies with, alas, an MFA: "He took out his hand organizer and poked a note to himself about the anachronistic quality of the word skyscraper. No recent structure ought to bear this word. It belonged to the olden soul of awe, to the arrowed towers that were a narrative long before he was born." Or: "He was thinking about automated teller machines. The term was aged and burdened by its own historical memory. It worked at crosspurposes, unable to escape the inference of fuddled human personnel and jerky moving parts. The term was part of the process that the device was meant to replace."
He being James Wood and me being my lowly self, he trumps my bland comparison by coining the compound "Baudrillard-bruised" to describe Packer's language. Still, the fact that his impression of DeLillo-speak dovetails neatly with mine encourages me to perform even greater displays of brazen evaluation. But I need not bother, because Wood has already done the work for me:
The difficulty of the book is working out how much of this is Eric's mildly satirized theory and how much of it is DeLillo's indulged and wanton theory. Eric would think just like this, one supposes. But as so often, DeLillo's language seems too complicit, in its scrabbling enthusiasm, with the subject of his protagonist's reflections. "Here was the heave of the biosphere" (whatever that means): alas, this sounds like DeLillo, not Eric. (But then we do not know what Eric sounds like, because he has no quiddity.) It is DeLillo who seems to be excited as he regards "the heave of the biosphere."
Exactly! I too am unable to differentiate between DeLillo's voice and the voices of his various narrators. I took my copy of Underworld from the shelf to prove this, but Wood says it better than I can:
Eric Packer's techno-incantations, his amorous ruminations on postmodernity, are continuous with Brian Glassic's in Underworld, the Brian Glassic who stood before the Staten Island landfill and reflected thus on garbage:
To understand all this. To penetrate this secret. The mountain was here, unconcealed, but no one saw it or thought about it, no one knew it existed except the engineers ... a unique cultural deposit ... and he saw himself for the first time as a member of an esoteric order, they were adepts and seers, crafting the future, the city planners, the waste managers, the compost technicians, the landscapers who would build hanging gardens here, make a park one day out of every kind of used and eroded object of desire.
Brian's rapt tone—bathetically close in impulse to Wordsworth on the Simplon Pass, or to Ruskin on Rouen Cathedral—is hardly different from Eric's tone when he regards the digital ticker in his car. There is the same rising churn of language, the same hovering incoherence, and the same conversion of concrete singularities into massive plurals. Thus, as Brian moves from thinking about one specific landfill to thinking about countless technicians, seers, planners, and adepts, so Eric moves from his ticker to the mere prospect of "the planet's living billions" and "the heave of the biosphere."
Lest you think this entire post an argument from authority, I should say that I very rarely agree with Wood's criticism. In this case, though, he beats me to every roundhouse I wanted to throw. A lesser scholar would have proceeded to build his case despite the knowledge that he really only wandered into another man's mansion. But I am no lesser scholar. (For you to quantify my scholarship thus it would have to be readily available for public consumption. In truth it sits here on the hard drive, twiddling its thumbs in anticipation of its eventual apotheosis in the pages of prestigious journals.) That said, I feel obliged to produce some compendium of my own complaints.
So I've devised a game I call "Name That Narrator!" All of the examples are from Underworld. Each of them has a racial and class heritage outlined with precision in the novel. I want you to 1) identify this heritage and 2) demonstrate how you have come to this conclusion (or as the mathematicians say, "show your work"). Hands on your buzzers...
It's the rule of confrontation, faithfully maintained, written across the face of every slackwit pitcher since there were teams named the Superbas and the Bridegrooms. The difference comes when the ball is hit. Then nothing is the same. The men are moving, coming out of their crouches, and everything submits to the pebble-skip of the ball, to rotations and backspins and airstreams. There are drag coefficients. There are trailing vortices. There are things that apply unrepeatably, muscle memory and pumping blood and jots of dust, the narrative that lives in the spaces of the official play-by-play.
I believed we could know what was happening to us. We were not excluded from our own lives. That is not my head on someone else's body in the photograph that's introduced as evidence. I didn't believe that nations play-act on a grand scale. I lived in the real. The only ghosts I let in were local ones, the smoky traces of people I know and the dinge of my own somber shadow, New York ghosts in every case, the old loud Bronx, hand-to-mouth, spoken through broken teeth—the jeer, the raspberry fart.
I carried my house keys in an ankle wallet that fastened with a velcro closure. I didn't like to run with house keys jiggling in my pocket. The ankle wallet answered a need. It spoke directly to a personal concern. It made me feel there were people out there in the world of product development and merchandising and gift cataloguing who understood the nature of my little nagging needs.
Enough already! Enough! I'm on page 86 and I already have to halt this experiment. This prose has that cloying postmodern nostalgia for meaning responsible for DeLillo's popularity among academics. Can't you see that he's writing sentimental narratives designed to appeal to those who resist the thrall of the postmodern condition? Can't you see that this comforting pseudo-intellectual crap seems intelligent because it mimes the concerns you've acquired through years of study? Can't you see this? The tone of resignation in the face of global capitalism is a trope DeLillo abuses in every single sentence. He may attempt to brook this bathetic display by introducing themes which undermine it ... but those themes are intellectual, whereas the tone works on readers' emotions. If we focus on the intellectual substance of his books, we necessarily pass over, unadjudicated, the sentimentalism which compels us to take the books seriously in the first place. In other words, I like DeLillo as his sentences pass before my eyes because his pablum flatters my concerns; but as soon as his pap ceases soothing my critical faculties I feel dirty and used.
To be frank, I'm floored anyone falls for his schtick. I would attribute it to the precision of his sentences, only that falls under the aegis of evaluative critcism, and defenders of DeLillo always speak to the quality of his ideas (and because in the contemporary academic environment evaluation is anathema). So all this adds up to little more than a rage against the dying of insight ... and its replacement with the comfortable "truths" of contemporary life.