9.3.10

On DeLillo's Point Omega and White Noise

Comparisons between the two novels

Leo Robson reviews Don DeLillo's new novel, Point Omega, in the New Statesman. Taking DeLillo's other books into account, the article settles on a kind of comparative study between Point Omega and his early masterstroke, White Noise:
Don DeLillo took an eventful run-up to writing the four books that established him as the beadiest and canniest of American novelists. He spent the 1970s palming around for an exciting subject and a fruitful approach, and eventually found both in White Noise (1985) and parts of both in Libra (1988), Mao II (1991) and Underworld (1997). His earlier novels take aim at industries and state apparatuses - journalism, espionage - yet he proved less adept at exposing secret machinations than at tracing the shadows they cast on the public stage. DeLillo is an excavator, a pathfinder - a specialist in the "secret history" of observable phenomena and recorded facts.

There has been a corresponding process of abdication over the years since Underworld - signs of contracting appetite and of what the author himself (diagnosing a CIA operative in Libra) called "motivational exhaustion". De Lillo's dream of purpose was comprehensively realised in his loose, four-part work concerning the atmosphere of panic and dread that prevailed in the US between the 1950s and the 1980s - an atmosphere that made the idea of American reality such a slippery beast. Too slippery, thought Philip Roth and Norman Mailer, for the novelist to capture it. But DeLillo managed to.

The solution was an obvious one. DeLillo squared up to American reality on its own turf and terms, made his fiction a repository for catastrophes greater and absurdities sillier than those thrown up at the time of writing. Confronted with the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination, the stoners in Underworld are amazed that "there were forces in the culture that could out-imagine them, make their druggiest terrors seem futile and cheap". By the time he wrote that scene, DeLillo had already succeeded in out-imagining the culture. In White Noise and then Mao II, he practised a form of satire at once dark and daft - though more or less prophetic, as things turned out.

He also performed a thorough job of revealing what the culture had "imagined". Woody Allen used to joke that he was working on a non-fiction version of the Warren Commission report: DeLillo spun a vast novel - Libra - out of the uncharted conduct of Oswald, Ruby and the crooks and spooks who puppeteered them. Underworld - vaster still - portrayed the whole of American society during the cold war as a single network connected by germs and baseball and the bomb. As J Edgar Hoover reflects in the novel's opening scene: "All these people formed by language and climate and popular songs and breakfast foods and the jokes they tell and the cars they drive have never had anything in common so much as this, that they are sitting in the furrow of destruction." [Read the article]

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