Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo: The Physics of Language

David Cowart
Copyright Date: 2002
Edition: REV - Revised
Pages: 288
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    Don DeLillo
    Book Description:

    Don DeLillo, author of twelve novels and winner of the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award, the William Dean Howells Medal, and the Jerusalem Prize, has begun to rival Thomas Pynchon as the definitive postmodern novelist. Always thought-provoking and occasionally controversial, DeLillo has become the voice of the bimillennial moment. Charting DeLillo's emergence as a contemporary novelist of major stature, David Cowart discusses each of DeLillo's twelve novels, including his most recent work, The Body Artist (2001). Rejecting the idea that DeLillo lacks affinities across the cultural spectrum, Cowart argues that DeLillo's work invites comparison with that of wide range of antecedents, including Dunbar, Whitman, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, Freud, Lacan, Derrida, Hemingway, Joyce, Rilke, and Eliot. At the same time, Cowart explores the ways in which DeLillo's art anticipates, parallels, and contests ideas that have become the common currency of poststructuralist theory. The major site of DeLillo's engagement with postmodernism, Cowart argues, is language, which DeLillo represents as more mysterious--numinous even--than current theory allows. For DeLillo, language remains what Cowart calls "the ground of all making." Don DeLillo: The Physics of Language is a provocative investigation of the most compelling issues of contemporary fiction.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-4226-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    In his acute rendering of the bi-millennial moment, Don DeLillo ranks among the most important of contemporary novelists. But the trend away from books on single authors (a trend much discussed in the academic press) threatens even the most distinguished of living writers with premature obscurity—at least insofar as their reputations depend on acts of scholarly attention and commitment. If literature is to have any place in the increasingly utilitarian curriculum of the future, its academic custodians in the present must do a better job of articulating the unique importance of great works of the imagination. On the other...

  5. Part One: “For me the crux of the whole matter is language”
    • 1 Football and Unsäglichkeit: End Zone
      (pp. 17-32)

      “It takes centuries to invent the primitive,” DeLillo remarks in Americana (227). This cryptic observation seems to imply that an idea of the primitive can emerge only at a certain level of sophistication within a culture. In End Zone (1972) the author telescopes this socio-cultural development by presenting, as metonym for the primitive, the game of football as played by the team of Logos College, a dubious little institution at the brutal southwestern periphery of American sport. Here DeLillo imagines football as something primal—the key, perhaps, to larger manifestations of the violence to which the human instinct for aggression...

    • 2 Pharmaceutical Philomela: Great Jones Street
      (pp. 33-42)

      The desert, saints and martyrs, asceticism—all recurrent conceits in DeLillo. In Great Jones Street (1973), disaffected rock star Bucky Wunderlick, half-suicidal like Gary Harkness, retreats from a corrupt world into the wastes of the Lower East Side. “Great Jones Street, Bond Street, the Bowery. These places are deserts,” says his sometime companion Opel Hampson.¹ Here, as in those half-comic Renaissance paintings of assorted demons tormenting St. Anthony in the wilderness, Bucky attempts to fend off an endless stream of tempters, including Globke, Hanes, Azarian, Watney, Skippy, Bohack, Dr. Pepper, the funseekers Opel invites to his birthday party, and reporters...

    • 3 Mortal Stakes: Players
      (pp. 43-54)

      Like Ratner’s Star, Players (1977) begins with air travel. In his introductory chapter, a proem or (more accurately) prolusion, the author presents seven unnamed persons—“four men, three women”¹—who desultorily watch an in-flight movie from the piano lounge of a jumbo jet. Not wearing headsets, serenaded by the piano, they momentarily become the audience at a much older form of cinematic screening. They enter a kind of cultural time-warp in which low-tech entertainment coexists with high-tech transportation.

      The picture one gets of these anonymous travelers, like the long shots of golfers and their playing field in the film, is...

    • 4 The Naive and Sentimental Reader: Running Dog
      (pp. 55-68)

      Like Players, with its elaborate variations on the multiple meanings of “play,” Running Dog (1978) features its own key word, which appears at least eight times. As DeLillo unpacks the various meanings of the word code, his story modulates thematically from plane to plane. A code is a more or less sophisticated language, a system of symbolic equivalents to speech or writing. A code is also a codex: a book of laws. Indeed, the Lacanian “Law of the Father” is articulated throughout the code of the Symbolic Order. Running Dog concerns the encryption of experience and ideology in this great...

  6. Part Two: “Before everything, there’s language”
    • 5 Timor Mortis Conturbat Me: White Noise
      (pp. 71-90)

      White Noise has generated more critical attention than any other DeLillo novel (unless one considers the journalistic reception of Underworld). The author’s most engaging and accessible work, White Noise appears on many syllabi, and it has already joined Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, and Sons and Lovers in the small but elegant collection of casebooks published by Viking/Penguin. As Mark Osteen points out in the introduction to “White Noise”: Text and Criticism, responses to this novel—those of John Frow, John Duvall, Leonard Wilcox, and, to some extent, Osteen himself—have variously engaged the author’s...

    • 6 Convergence of the Twain: Libra
      (pp. 91-110)

      At the center of Hell, in Dante’s great vision, Satan sits up to his waist in ice, endlessly masticating the three worst malefactors in history. The first of these, Judas, requires no explanation in the context of a Christian poem. But why does Dante see a couple of mere political assassins, Brutus and Cassius, as deserving punishment on the same scale as Christ’s betrayer? Patriotic as well as pious, Dante dates the decline of Rome from the death of Julius Caesar. In the fullness of time the act of the conspirators would eventuate in a great civilization’s collapse into the...

    • 7 “Our Only Language Is Beirut”: Mao II
      (pp. 111-128)

      Writers have perished on the page before: Broch’s Virgil, Mann’s Aschenbach, Harry Street in Hemingway’s “Snows of Kilimanjaro.” But in Mao II, as in Auster’s City of Glass, one encounters a writer’s passing framed, as it were, by the postmodern resonance of the phrase “death of the author.” Second only to The Names, Mao II (1991) involves DeLillo with subject matter interestingly parallel to or contemporaneous with the age’s most tendentious thinking about language and its erstwhile master, the author. Though on record as believing in the continuing viability of the novel (even—indeed, especially—as written “in the margins”),...

  7. Part Three: “The word beyond speech”
    • 8 For Whom Bell Tolls: Americana
      (pp. 131-144)

      Americana (1971) represents a rethinking of the identity or alienation theme that had figured with particular prominence in the quarter century since World War II. These themes persist in DeLillo, but the self becomes even more provisional. The changing social conditions and imploding belief systems that alienate a Meursault, a Holden Caulfield, or a Binx Boiling do not constitute so absolute an epistemic rupture as the gathering recognition—corroborated by post-Freudian psychology—that the old stable ego has become permanently unmoored. Whether or not he would embrace Lacanian formulations of psychological reality, DeLillo seems fully to recognize the tenuousness of...

    • 9 “More Advanced the Deeper We Dig”: Ratner’s Star
      (pp. 145-161)

      Illusion, DeLillo suggests in Ratner’s Star (1976), dogs all scientific aspirations to objectivity. Attempting to decode a message ostensibly from the celestial body named in the title, the scientific community imagined by DeLillo eventually discovers that the cryptic transmission in fact emanates from the earth, from an ancient civilization wholly unknown to history and archaeology. This discovery of a message that encodes the transmitting self becomes emblematic of all systems of analysis and thought. DeLillo characterizes the vaunted detachment of science as, to borrow a phrase from Sir Thomas Browne, a dream and folly of expectation. He suggests, too, that...

    • 10 “The Deepest Being”: Language in The Names
      (pp. 162-180)

      One discovers in The Names (1982) the book of a writer who thinks almost obsessively about language as the medium by which human beings encounter reality—or assemble it. Predictably, DeLillo challenges traditional, naive ideas about referentiality in language, but he also raises questions about the newer thinking that, from de Saussure and Peirce to Derrida and Lacan, has ushered in a much discussed crisis of representation. DeLillo recognizes in language the defining gift of human existence, and in The Names he breaks down, anatomizes, and “parses” it, examining the phonemic schematization of alphabets and the larger systems of grammar...

    • 11 “The Physics of Language”: Underworld
      (pp. 181-196)

      In Underworld (1997) DeLillo’s engagement with language reaches an apogee. Even before one recognizes the central importance of the discussion of language in which Nick Shay and Father Paulus engage, as well as the idea of the single mystical word that Nick takes away from his reading of The Cloud of Unknowing, one discovers that every scene seems to turn on or enact or illustrate some principle of language. From page to page it is almost wholly as language that the author realizes his project of a secret or “underworld” history of America in the Cold War years, America in...

    • 12 DeLillolalia: From Underworld to The Body Artist
      (pp. 197-209)

      The recycling theme of Underworld subsumes a vision of art that lends itself to conclusions about the entire DeLillo oeuvre. Early in the narrative Nick Shay visits his former lover Klara Sax, an artist whose “career had been marked at times by her methods of transforming and absorbing junk.”¹ So given is Klara to using cast-off materials that she has been called “the Bag Lady” (70). Her recycling extends even to some hundreds of decommissioned b-52s. The author intimates that Klara is not unique. Like the Simon Rodia who created Watts Towers out of junk, she is somehow, surprisingly, an...

    • 13 DeLillo after 9/11: Cosmopolis
      (pp. 210-226)

      John Updike, reviewing Cosmopolis (2003), remarked that “DeLillo’s fervent intelligence and his fastidious, edgy prose, buzzing with expressions like ‘wave arrays of information,’ weave halos of import around every event.”¹ DeLillo’s prose has always worked this way, but the sense of “import” may be heightened here. Although the action of Cosmopolis takes place in Manhattan a year and a half before the 9/11 terrorist attack, DeLillo depicts a city over which, as he and the reader know, a terrible event looms. Thus the novel’s idiom frequently echoes the language of the essay on 9/11, “In the Ruins of the Future:...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 227-250)
  9. Works by Don DeLillo
    (pp. 251-252)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 253-262)
  11. Index
    (pp. 263-274)