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21.2.10

DeLillo on Mad Men and Writing

American writer shares his experiences working for an advertising agency
Falling Man in Mad Men

Anticipating the release of his new novel, Point Omega, The Sunday Times interviews Don DeLillo about his life and work, exploring some the American author's 'writing tics', and making note of his contemporary relevance.

The article mentions AMC's period drama Mad Men, and it's easy to see why it shares key thematic links with DeLillo's work. Set in a New York advertising firm in the early 1960s, the show explores the consumerist manufacture of American aspirations with a sharp and ironic detachment. It has skillfully addressed the Kennedy assassination in a media climate of Cold War anxiety, and includes a cast of characters struggling with personal neuroses and societal repression.

Whether intentional or not, links between DeLillo's work and Mad Men can be seen throughout the series. For me, perhaps the most unsettling parallel is also the most provocative: the uncanny image of a Falling Man in Mad Men's opening title sequence. On the surface, we see a figure suspended in a densely commercial urban landscape, evoking a playful, and slightly sinister, impression of the Sterling Cooper advertising agency. It acts as short-hand for disorientation and modern alienation.

But there is also a strong association with the imagery of DeLillo's 2007 novel, Falling Man, published two months before Mad Men aired. I would suggest that to many viewers, interpreting the image is impossible without reference to American tragedy. And so, if Mad Men shares some of the images and themes of DeLillo's work, perhaps we can assume it also shares some of its intentions. The Falling Man roots the series to the anxieties and concerns of its twenty-first century audience; and while Mad Men may offer an ironic and nostalgic commentary on the past, its true concerns lie with the present.
[...] What’s extraordinary about DeLillo’s fiction is how many of its concerns — his preoccupation with the Twin Towers and terrorist spectaculars, for example — have coalesced into painful reality. It’s also interesting to see how many of his more benign imaginings have seeped into the culture. There is, of course, the knowing stuff: the rock band Airborne Toxic Event, for instance, named themselves after the chemical cloud that forms the centrepiece of White Noise (DeLillo was sent a CD, but found it “a little mainstream” for his tastes). There is also a sense in which DeLillo’s best novels capture what will become appealing to us. In Underworld, for instance, there is a chapter describing an advertising executive named Charlie Wainwright, working on Madison Avenue in 1961, that is almost a word-for-word treatment of the television show Mad Men. “The married copywriters met their secretaries,” DeLillo writes, “or the secretaries of other writers, or the tall and lissome secretaries of account executives, white-shod and well-spoken, and went about their tender regimen of lunchtime love...”

DeLillo worked as a copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather in the 1960s. He hasn’t seen Mad Men, because he only watches “sports, documentaries and movies, never continuing series”. He will say: “It’s pretty interesting that a show about that era should become popular now” — a programme about the formation of the branded consumer universe. But that’s all he has to say on the matter.

DeLillo would prefer to talk about how he works. His writerly tics — particularly his habit of writing only one paragraph per page on his typewriter — are revealing. DeLillo says he began writing in this fashion when he was living in Greece in the 1970s, working on The Names. He saw that the Greek alphabet was not just a tool, but a work of art. By using only one sheet of paper per paragraph, he could see his work more clearly.

“The shapes of letters began to attract me,” he says.

“I began to notice the shapes of words and letters within words — not only the sound and the meaning it created, but the look of a particular set of words. A phrase like ‘the raw sprawl of the city’, which I used towards the end of Underworld — I see the word ‘raw’ inside the word ‘sprawl’ and I like this, it seems right. And I get a certain pleasure when that correspondence develops.”

This period, when writing The Names, was also when DeLillo “rededicated himself” to writing novels seriously. He began to rediscover the “great pleasure” he had in collecting material for his work. DeLillo has been dedicated ever since. He says he has had “the luckiest life” as a novelist, and has always been able to do “pretty much what I wanted”. And, despite the advance of technology and a dwindling serious readership, he continues to believe utterly in what he does.

Before he leaves, DeLillo makes an impassioned case for the continuing significance of the novel. “It is the form that allows a writer the greatest opportunity to explore human experience,” he says. “For that reason, reading a novel is potentially a significant act. Because there are so many varieties of human experience, so many kinds of interaction between humans, and so many ways of creating patterns in the novel that can’t be created in a short story, a play, a poem or a movie. The novel, simply, offers more opportunities for a reader to understand the world better, including the world of artistic creation. That sounds pretty grand, but I think it’s true.”

With that, he’s done. DeLillo has stopped wanting to talk about it. He is back to work, one paragraph at a time. [Read the article]

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