Don DeLillo and the Age of Terror
When recently revisiting the novels of Don DeLillo’s “major” period (roughly 1985–97), the first thing that I noticed was the foregrounding of terror. These pre-9/11 novels provided a clear forewarning of the cultural paranoia that came to characterize our lives after 9/11. Twenty years ago, when his tenth novel Mao II appeared in 1991, DeLillo already had his binoculars trained on the Twin Towers. Already, he was discerning that the power of high art was slipping away and that terror was quickly invading mass media and becoming a primary means of voicing revolution in a fallen world. DeLillo was one of the first literary artists to envision the sheer scope of terror and was keen to depict the nefarious methods by which ideologues were infesting the minds of their followers. Such disciples, he showed us, were desperate to locate a means by which they could transcend their dusty and desperate circumstances and locate new meaning and purpose in a world of loss and trauma. Without specifically talking about 9/11, DeLillo achieved something breathtakingly prescient in Mao II: a serious consideration and analysis of the “War on Terror” a full decade before it was announced by the Bush administration.
We should pause here and reflect on this observation for a moment. Obviously, long before 2001, the American intelligence community was aware of how terror was moving to center stage in our cultural awareness. American citizens, like myself, raised in the 1960s, had come naturally to expect bombs, kidnappings, mass murders, and suicidal terror to be deployed as political devices. In the 1960s, phenomena like the Weathermen and the Manson Family—and later events like the schemes of the Symbionese Liberation Army, the Unabomber, or the Oklahoma City bombers in 1995—underscored how even American citizens could be lured into these practices. And of course, American history had been marked by acts of terror well before the 1960s, perhaps most notably in the heyday of the lynching practices of the Klu Klux Klan and other hate groups. Terror has long been an American staple.
And yet in retrospect, didn’t “terror” seem to explode into our lives irrevocably on that peaceful and sunny morning in September of 2001? Worst of all, perhaps, was the slow realization that those jetliners slamming into skyscrapers were being diverted and guided by religious fanatics whose plans seemed to them destined and ordered by Allah. Terror as spiritual practice; terror as a signpost of the sinister side of God’s will—or at least, of the wild misperception of it. Perhaps this dramatic distortion of God’s power and character is the great, unspoken delusion of our age, when it comes to all things religious and spiritual. Related to this abuse is the bald fact that many of the most famous “religious” leaders these days are themselves terrorists: the Ayatollahs and the bin Ladens, and the contemporary versions of the Mao at the center of DeLillo’s novel. And lest we forget, American leaders have themselves long exploited our own civil religion in the service of violence and conquest. Even relatively benevolent beliefs can be cashed in for wealth and power by unsavory leaders, a fact that is certainly a key source of the cynicism I find in many of my students today, who are disaffected from religion at levels that some sociologists are claiming to be historically unprecedented and possibly irreversible (see Kinnaman and Lyons 2007).
With all this on my mind, I returned to Don DeLillo and taught Mao II this past spring. I had the good fortune about a year ago to meet DeLillo and to interview him extensively. I dutifully prepared a “DeLillo 101” lecture as part of his highly-advertised visit to our fair city. And I was fortunate to be allowed to dine with him and attend not one but two genteel cocktail parties in his honor. DeLillo seemed more like a street-wise, gentle, diffident, warm, and funny senior citizen from an Italian-American family in New York, than a world-renowned author worthy of serious consideration for a Nobel Prize (as I most often think of him). He dismissed his own celebrity, and he laughed and nodded at my lame jokes, a true kibitzer who could give and take. I liked him immediately, which is not always my experience with famous writers.
DeLillo’s New York background is crucial to understanding his fiction and, specifically, his ties to 9/11. In an earlier interview he once stated, “I became a writer by living in New York and seeing and hearing and feeling all the great, amazing and dangerous things the city endlessly assembles. And I also became a writer by avoiding serious commitment to anything else” (Bing 1997). Born on 20 November 1936, he was brought up in the Fordham section of the Bronx, a neighborhood of mostly Italian-Americans. “My parents were born in Italy. My father came to this country in 1916, I believe, when he was a young boy of nine. There was my grandmother, my father, and his brothers and sisters. There was a total of about seven people, including a dwarf, and a child my grandmother picked up in Naples along the way” (Burn 1991).
Though DeLillo is not usually construed as a “religious” writer, he has often spoken in interviews about his deep Catholic roots: “Being raised as a Catholic was interesting because the ritual had elements of art to it and it prompted feelings that art sometimes draws out of us. I think I reacted to it the way I react today to theater. Sometimes it was awesome; sometimes it was funny. High funeral masses were a little of both, and they’re among my warmest childhood memories” (LeClair 1982). DeLillo also attended Fordham University, where, he says, “the Jesuits taught me to be a failed ascetic” (Harris 1982). He hated school but readily reels off a list of early influences. “I think New York itself was an enormous influence. The paintings in the Museum of Modern Art, the music at the Jazz Gallery and the Village Vanguard, the movies of Fellini and Godard and Howard Hawks. And there was a comic anarchy in the writing of Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and others. Although I don’t necessarily want to write like them, to someone who’s twenty years old that kind of work suggests freedom and possibility. It can make you see not only writing but the world in a completely different way” (Harris 1982).
His early novels include the American college football/nuclear war black comedy End Zone (1972) and the rock ‘n roll satire Great Jones Street (1973), in which a rock star called Bucky Wunderlick (reminiscent of Bob Dylan) abandons his career and lives in an obscure room somewhere in lower Manhattan. DeLillo’s fourth novel, Ratner’s Star (1976), took two years to write and drew numerous favorable comparisons to the works of Thomas Pynchon. It is a conceptual monster, the picaresque story of a fourteen-year-old math genius who joins an international consortium of mad scientists decoding an alien message. A central theme in these early works is the mystery of human longings, which is manifested in the decoding of confusing and erudite messages (including the Dylanesque lyrics that DeLillo has claimed were one of the great joys of creating the shady character Bucky for Great Jones Street). DeLillo has always been preoccupied with the challenge of understanding human language—a major reason he often has been associated with postmodernism, deconstruction, and theories of language (associations, he assured me, he rejects with a passion).
With the publication of his eighth novel White Noise in 1985, DeLillo began a rapid ascendancy to his present status as a major American novelist. White Noise was a breakthrough both commercially and artistically for DeLillo, earning him the National Book Award and a place among the academic canon of contemporary novelists. Among DeLillo’s works, White Noise is by far the most common on college reading lists. It includes some of his most famous images and concepts, such as the opening scene of the affluent parents moving their precious children into the freshmen dorms of “College-on-the-Hill.” He clearly delights in lambasting the arcane and abstract academic world, as represented by the shady and paranoid professors he sketches throughout. The novel’s intrepid protagonist, Jack Gladney, who has made his name as founder of the field of Hitler Studies, typifies the dry humor and irony for which DeLillo is most noted. As an academic specialist in the study of the chief icon of twentieth-century terror, Jack represents some of DeLillo’s dearest preoccupations: the scope of political abuse and the banality of evil wherever we might care to look. And so, even more famously, does the advent of the “airborne toxic event,” a foreboding cloud of poison just over the horizon and quickly approaching the campus, suggestive of the standardized, vague threats lamented on the nightly news. With the first section of the novel called “Waves and Radiation,” this airborne event is characterized by its pervasive and intrusive nature, like the unseen waves that are constantly passing into and out of our bodies. Similar vague threats are documented in almost all of his work.
Despite a rapid ascendency after White Noise, DeLillo remained detached, and his reputation as a recluse grew, even though he had started doing interviews and other forms of public relations during the early 1980s. It is also true that some of his most famous public performances were a bit Dylanesque in his flaunting of fame and celebrity. For instance, when called upon to give an acceptance speech for the National Book Award, he simply said, “I’m sorry I couldn’t be here tonight, but I thank you all for coming,” and then sat down.
In David Streitfeld’s profile “Don DeLillo’s Gloomy Muse,” DeLillo remarked, “I’ve been called ‘reclusive’ a hundred times, and I’m not even remotely in that category” (1992). DeLillo has, in fact, granted interviews more frequently than the popular conception of him would suggest. And yet, according to DeLillo, the serious writer must maintain a marginal status from the society he hopes to record: “The writer is the person who stands outside society, independent of affiliation and independent of influence. The writer is the man or woman who automatically takes a stance against his or her government. There are so many temptations for American writers to become part of the system and part of the structure that now, more than ever, we have to resist. American writers ought to stand and live in the margins, and be more dangerous. Writers in repressive societies are considered dangerous. That’s why so many of them are in jail” (Arensberg 1988).
The follow-up to White Noise would become one of his most controversial works: Libra (1988) was a speculative, fictionalized take on Lee Harvey Oswald’s life up to the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. For this novel, DeLillo undertook a vast research project, which included reading at least half of the Warren Report. Subsequently, DeLillo described that massive report as “the Oxford English Dictionary of the assassination and also a Joycean novel. This is the one document that captures the full richness and madness and meaning of the event, despite the fact that it omits about a ton and a half of material” (Bigley 1993). Originally written with the working title of either American Blood or Texas School Book, Libra became an international bestseller and earned DeLillo another nomination for the National Book Award. The novel, which questioned the Warren Report’s findings, elicited fierce critical division, with some critics praising DeLillo’s take on the Kennedy assassination while others decried it. George Will, in a notorious Washington Post article, declared the book to be an affront to America and “an act of literary vandalism and bad citizenship.”
Next came Mao II (1991), highly influenced by the events surrounding the fatwa placed by Muslim extremists upon the author Salman Rushdie and the intrusion of the press into the life of the reclusive writer J. D. Salinger. The main character, Bill Gray, is a solitary, legendary novelist suffering from writer’s block, and the opening scene during which the Rev. Sun Myung Moon conducts a wedding ceremony for thousands of arranged marriages in Yankee Stadium—based on a real event—is one of the most famous and significant images in all of DeLillo’s writing. In many ways, the novel exemplifies the themes that are most commonly associated with DeLillo: a deep and fearful paranoia about the violent tendencies of late capitalistic America, the looming presence of threats from Asia and the Middle East—including terrorism and brainwashing, and the diminishing abilities of literature to change anything in our world for the better. He writes in Mao II, “What terrorists gain, novelists lose. The degree to which they influence mass consciousness is the extent of our [the writers’] decline as shapers of sensibility and thought. The danger they represent equals our own failure to be dangerous.” Again, the predominant mood is fear and disillusionment (“the future belongs to crowds,” he warns us), the tone toward darkness and very black humor. For my students, born and raised on Comedy Central, South Park, and the Coen Brothers, Mao II is the novel that I have found most useful in the classroom: it is a good read, it is filled with memorable images, and it is quintessentially DeLillo.
The final novel produced by DeLillo prior to 9/11 is considered by many to be his finest. In 1997, six years beyond Mao II and after exhaustive research, DeLillo broke cover with his long awaited eleventh novel, the epic Cold War history Underworld. The book was widely heralded as a masterpiece, with many critics hailing it as the great achievement of a great American writer. After re-reading it in 2010, over ten years after its publication, DeLillo commented that Underworld “made me wonder whether I would be capable of that kind of writing now—the range and scope of it. There are certain parts of the book where the exuberance, the extravagance, I don’t know, the overindulgence... There are city scenes in New York that seem to transcend reality in a certain way” (Caesar 2010). He told me, “Underworld wanted to be a monster. And I’m not exaggerating when I say there was nothing I could do about it. And I followed it for five years, and it was both challenging and rewarding.” And the massive work load paid off: Underworld, many concluded, was the literary culmination of DeLillo’s work.
But it was hardly the end of DeLillo’s meditations on terror and paranoia. It was not even, as some have suggested, the final great work of his so-called “major” period. Along came 9/11, which hit very close to home for DeLillo and affected some of his family members. His novel Falling Man (2007) must be reckoned as one of the most powerful tales of that fateful day yet produced by an American. DeLillo first grappled with the implications of 9/11 in an essay for Harper’s, “In the Ruins of the Future,” published just months after the disaster in 2001. DeLillo claims there that “People running for their lives are part of the story that is left to us.... the cellphones, the lost shoes, the handkerchiefs mashed in the faces of running men and women.” He believes that, for the artist, such concrete images must take precedence over politics, history, and religion. “The writer tries to give memory, tenderness, and meaning to all that howling space” (DeLillo 2001).
A focus on that “howling space” is signaled in the opening line of Falling Man: “It was not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night.” The novel does feature a character, Hammad, who is one of the 9/11 hijackers. But the story is not so much about international intrigue, as Mao II and The Names (1982) often were, as it is about the inhabitants of the actual Ground Zero: the real New Yorkers on the ground, or nearby, as DeLillo himself was on that day. In an interview in Guernica, he explained:
I did not want to write a novel that had a great deal of political sweep. With the terrorist [Hammad], I wanted to trace the evolution of one individual’s passage from an uninvolved life to one that becomes deeply committed to a grave act of terror. And that’s what I did. Not that I planned this beforehand. I mean, what I do, almost always, is I just start writing and through a character arrive at a sense of an overarching scheme, perhaps, under which he moves. With Hammad, I wanted to try to imagine how a man might begin as a secular individual and then discover religion, always through the power of deep companionship with other men. This is the force that drives him. Ultimately it’s not religion, it’s not politics and it’s not history. It’s a kind of blood bond with other men. And the intensity of a plot, which narrows the worlds enormously and makes it possible for men to operate without a sense of the innocent victims they plan to destroy. (quoted in Binelli 2007)
In my own discussions with DeLillo about Falling Man, he went into much further detail:
For New Yorkers, of course, it was a completely devastating event. And on the day it happened: I have a nephew, he and his wife and their two daughters lived a block away from the World Trade Center. And eventually, after many attempts, I was able to reach him on the phone. He hadn’t yet left for work, his wife hadn’t yet left for work. And they didn’t know what had happened. They had no idea what the explosion signified. Their windows were immediately blackened by dust and debris, and along with other people on their floor of the building, they moved into the stairwell behind steel fire doors. And when we spoke on the phone, this is what he reported to me, and of course I reported to him what I knew, from the television coverage. So there is the overwhelming disaster and then the personal drama.
Eventually, hours later, the police showed up at the house and led all the people behind the doors, the entire seventh floor I suppose, including many children—led them off to safety. Well, not exactly to safety. Led them down the stairs into a world of dirt and rubble, in which it was very hard to see two feet in front of your face. And they carried the kids with coats over their heads north to safety. And so this of course colored my experience of the event, and shortly afterward I managed to get access to what was called the frozen zone, the area below Canal Street. I just wanted to walk around and see what it looked like, and it was an overwhelming experience of empty streets, occasionally a squad of soldiers going by or a police vehicle, and then the barrier of chain-link fence around what came to be called Ground Zero.
I wrote an essay about the experience, including the experience my nephew and his family were involved in, which appeared toward the end of that year. I had no idea of writing a novel, none whatsoever. And then I was struck by another visual idea: a photograph of a man in a suit and a tie, carrying a briefcase, and he was covered with dust and soot. And I just had to follow it. I had another idea, for a completely different novel, and this man in effect, in the photograph, walked right through it. And it occurred to me soon after that the briefcase he was carrying didn’t belong to him. And that’s where the idea started, with a question concerning who owned the briefcase. And I was determined not to write a tactful novel about September 11. I didn’t want a novel that happens somewhere in the vast distance, in which the event is just alluded to. I wanted a novel that goes into the towers and that goes into one of the hijacked planes. And so that’s what I did.
That’s what he did, all right. In Falling Man, DeLillo gives us an inside view of the tragedy, from close up, even rubbing our noses in it a little bit. The narration forces us to breathe in some of the sooty air, flecked with human remains and charred steel. And the upshot of the novel seems to be captured in the title: the spiritual overtones suggest the fall of man, and the falling of the towers suggests the fall of Western civilization, with echoes of the fall of the Tower of Babel. Thus the novel is populated with people walking about in dazed confusion, bewildered office workers stumbling down hundreds and hundreds of stairs toward some ambiguous notion of safety, emerging into dirty sunlight, gasping for breath. The sheer variety of language gestures toward lost meanings while failing to capture it. Vision is murky, survivors failing to see.
Above all, the title evokes the sheer horror of human bodies falling hundreds of feet into the pavement. The falling of those bodies, the novel shows us, is later mimicked by performance artists, one of whom calls himself the “falling man.” This odd character goes from place to place in the disheveled city, rehearsing the sordid image of humans plummeting to earth. Grotesquely, such were the images we all confronted on the network news shows, repeated over and over, images we all hypnotically failed to keep our eyes off: the mechanical reproduction of horror, and the fall of man into—what, precisely?
Falling Man reminds us that DeLillo excels at the creation of these grand, tonal pictures, blurry yet somehow almost beautiful. His best work trains our helpless gaze upon our slow, post-imperial fall into—what, precisely? Whatever it is, reading DeLillo’s novels can be a deeply terrorizing experience; novels fit for the Age of Terror. Perhaps DeLillo is the dark Monet of American decline, and Falling Man his late, dazzling water-lily of a novel.
Harold K. Bush is Professor of English at Saint Louis University and author, most recently, of Lincoln in His Own Time (University of Iowa, 2011).
Arensberg, Ann. “Seven Seconds.” Vogue, August 1988.
Begley, Adam. “Don DeLillo: The Art of Fiction.” Paris Review, Fall 1993.
Binelli, Mark. “Intensity of a Plot.” Guernica, July 2007.
Bing, Jonathan. “The Ascendance of Don DeLillo.” Publisher’s Weekly, 11 August 1997.
Burn, Gordon. “Wired Up and Whacked Out.” Sunday Times Magazine (London), August 1991.
Caesar, Ed. “Don DeLillo: A Writer Like No Other.” London Times, 21 February 2010.
DeLillo, Don. “In the Ruins of the Future.” Harper’s, December 2001.
Harris, Robert B. “A Talk with Don DeLillo.” The New York Times, 10 October 1982.
Kinnaman, David and Gabe Lyons. unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity… and Why It Matters. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2007.
LeClair, Thomas. “An Interview with Don DeLillo.” Contemporary Literature 23 (1982): 19–31.
Streitfeld, David. “Don DeLillo’s Gloomy Muse: The PEN/Faulkner Winner and His Novels of Conspiracy.” Washington Post, 14 May 1992.
Will, George. “Shallow Look at the Mind of an Assassin.” Washington Post, 22 September 1988.