Against the North Wall

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Dominique Nabokov
Don DeLillo, New York City, 1990s

Don DeLillo is the poet of entropy. The world he sets up in his fictions is a tightly wound machine gradually running down, and in it all action is a kind of lapsing drift. Even in immense works such as Libra (1988) or Underworld (1997) or Mao II (1991), with plots as intricate and murky as the New York sewer system, stories do not so much unfold as become blurred; everything grows vague, attenuated, detached. He is an unmistakably American artist—not for nothing was his first novel called Americana (1971)—yet he seems to have taken his predominant tone straight from the nouveau roman. The great strong commanding voice of the nineteenth-century American novel, the same voice in which, for instance, Philip Roth still speaks, has in DeLillo become a wearied murmur telling us things we mostly would rather not hear. It is as if in the last third of the twentieth century and the first, amazing decade of this one, public life has been so violently loud that anyone hoping to be heard must speak in an undertone that will call attention to itself by being fascinatingly unlike all the rest of the surrounding clamor.

The danger of this strategy of calculated withholding is that it will seem like nothing more than a studied numbness. Oftentimes DeLillo’s characters take on the aspect of an unfunny Buster Keaton, staring out at us from the page in white-faced shock. What is intended to convey existential bafflement and dismay can strike us as merely mannered. In particular, his dialogue is becoming increasingly stylized, frequently reading like the subtitles from one of Antonioni’s more jadedly peudo-sophisticated movies of the early 1960s. Here, taken almost at random from DeLillo’s September 11 novel Falling Man (2007), is a passage of talk between Lianne, whose estranged husband has made an unlikely escape from the collapsing Twin Towers, and her mother, Nina Bartos, a former academic, “the So-and-So Professor of Such-and-Such,” as her son-in-law describes her:

Lianne stood by the window.

But when the towers fell.”

I know.”

When this happened.”

I know.”

I thought he was dead.”

So did I,” Nina said. “So many watching.”

Thinking he’s dead, she’s dead.”

I know.”

Watching those buildings fall.”

First one, then the other. I know,” her mother said.

One understands, of course, that the novelist here is seeking to establish a mode of speech to communicate something of the dazed horror and helplessness we all felt, more or less, on that terrible day. Yet it does not convince. Worse, looked at from a certain angle, listened to at a certain pitch, a passage such as this can seem risible. Here is another exchange, from DeLillo’s new novel, Point Omega. Two strangers, man and woman, stand together watching, or absorbing, an installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, a showing of Hitchcock’s Psycho slowed down so drastically that it will …

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