My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Guernica: Do you have any favorite genre writers or books?
Don DeLillo: I don’t really read much of that. I don’t read detective work and I am afraid I don’t read graphic novels.
Guernica: That’s interesting, because your books often make little feints in that direction. I’m thinking about, for instance, the shooting at the end of White Noise.
Don DeLillo: That was intentional. If I can recall my design accurately, it was to reduce the idea of death to a tabloid level. Running Dog, I think, would also meet your definition. I wrote that book in four months. I hope it doesn’t look it. Maybe it does.
Guernica: Were you thinking of Running Dog as a sort of refraction of genre material or as an actual attempt at—
Don DeLillo: I knew I wasn’t doing utterly serious work, let me put it that way.
Guernica: But did you think it might be a hit?
Don DeLillo: I knew I wasn’t writing hits.
The first-edition hardcover I have out of the library was once shelved as “mystery” according to a stamp on the top edge. Running Dog is a stripped-down 1970s thriller of wry paranoia. It alternates between several characters’ viewpoints as they compete to acquire a film, possibly pornographic, shot in Hitler’s bunker at the end of World War II.
The novel’s heroine is Moll Robbins, a journalist for the ironically-named radical magazine Running Dog. “Running dog” is a phrase from the Maoist lexicon, a term of abuse for capitalism’s supposed servants, as in “running dogs of capital.” “‘Capitalist lackeys and running dogs,'” says one of the characters to Moll, glossing the magazine’s name. She answers, “‘Someone remembers,'” a rueful reply as I read it, not only a cynical comment on the folly of youth but perhaps also an elegy for expired radical dreams. Moll is, to my mind, much the most interesting character in Running Dog, the most novelistically inward—as indicated by her name, which combines pioneering novelist Daniel Defoe’s most famous protagonists, Moll Flanders and Robinson Crusoe, those exemplary modern individuals who had to make their own way through a newly interconnected and money-dominated world, alone within society and before God, no tradition to guide them. But DeLillo’s Moll comes after, not before, inwardness; all that’s left in DeLillo of the modernist dream of psychological depth is a droll self-consciousness, a weird writers’ view of the world: “The shirt accentuated her height in ways she found interesting.” DeLillo’s later work will achieve greatness in exploring this sensibility. In Running Dog (his sixth novel and, I must confess, the earliest I’ve read), he is not quite there yet.
Other seekers of the Hitler film whom the novel uses as viewpoint characters include the endearing elderly gentleman Lightborne, who runs the gallery Cosmic Erotics; Earl Mudger, a vaguely comic take on a postmodern Mistah Kurtz type, a military contractor who brought back an entourage from Vietnam and who is now obsessed with making knives; Lomax, some kind of deep-state agent who meets his contacts in a black limousine; Lloyd Percival, a senator who collects rare erotica; Talerico, a mafia boss with facial paralysis who operates out of Toronto; and probably more I’m forgetting. These are the fauna of the thriller and the detective novel, colorful gargoyles to adorn the plot architecture. They are entertaining enough but eventually tiresome, at least if you are not a devotee of those genres.
The novel’s main hero, perhaps even more than Moll, is Glen Selvy, a man so well-trained as a deep-cover espionage agent (he is the real “running dog”) that there is almost nothing left of him but his nearly mystical absorption in a pared-down routine:
He was a reader. He read his man. There was nothing cynical in his view of the world. He didn’t feel tainted by the dirt of his profession. It was a calculated existence, this. He preferred life narrowed down to unfinished rooms.
This, I suppose, is an attempt to lend some aesthetic dignity to the super-spy/super-detective/super-hero archetype, especially as Selvy moves toward his inevitable end, undergoing a kind of ritual purification. I don’t find it an entirely successful gesture: DeLillo takes a figure that belongs in an exaggerated aesthetic environment and tries to fit him into a novel that, for all its thriller trappings, still works in the mode of Flaubert. Hemingway is perhaps DeLillo’s model here, but Papa’s heroes were common soldiers, fighters, etc., not super-spies. An air of camp, though, hangs over the whole novel, from its now-offensive beginning, where a man dressed as a woman falls to his death (we later learn that he is the source of the Hitler film). So perhaps I am the one taking Selvy too seriously. Still, when I want Batman, I want Batman, and when I want Flaubert, I want Flaubert. I respect Running Dog‘s attempt to create a synthesis but find it unpersuasive. When compared to the extraordinary Lee Harvey Oswald of DeLillo’s Libra, Selvy in his cartoonish extremism vanishes.
While allowing for DeLillo’s correct assessment that Running Dog is not “utterly serious,” I think it does gather itself into an argument. That so many authority figures in the novel desire a Hitler porn movie suggests a secret yearning among the elite, government and criminal, to believe in fascism’s self-advertisement as the politics of self-annihilating ecstasy. Without spoiling the conclusion, I can say that the novel shows fascism up as a far more conventional, even sentimental affair, not an aesthetic sublime in the least. And whatever nostalgia the novel may harbor for the ’60s dream, DeLillo is also aware of how that dream was commodified into irrelevance, turned into traditional authority’s loyal opposition:
“Who do you work for?” Selvy said.
“Running Dog,” she said.
He paused briefly.
“One-time organ of discontent.”
“We were fairly radical, yes.”
“Now safely established in the mainstream.”
“I wouldn’t say safely.”
“Part of the ever-expanding middle.”
“We say ‘fuck’ all the time.”
“My point exactly.”
Fuck all the time: the connection of sex to power, the search for an escape from “the ever-expanding middle.” And the novel occasionally suggests that sex itself is a kind of fascism, echoing Sontag’s classic essay on Leni Riefenstahl from three years before the novel’s publication. Such hints—as when the source of the Hitler film is revealed as a “transvestite” (in the parlance of the times) or when Moll suggests that homosexuality is natural to an imperial elite (as in English public schools)—will no doubt offend the contemporary reader schooled in queer hermeneutics. On the other hand, in the novel’s most arresting passage, a passage of far more relevance now than when the novel was published in 1978, Mudger explains that technological developments create an appetite for transgression:
“When technology reaches a certain level, people begin to feel like criminals,” he said. “Someone is after you, the computers maybe, the machine-police. You can’t escape investigation. The facts about you and your whole existence have been collected or are being collected. Banks, insurance companies, credit organizations, tax examiners, passport officers, reporting services, police agencies, intelligence gatherers. It’s a little like I was saying before. Devices make us pliant. If they issue a print-out saying we’re guilty, then we’re guilty. But it goes even deeper, doesn’t it? It’s the presence alone, the very fact, the superabundance of technology, that makes us feel we’re committing crimes.”
In my Inherent Vice review, I alluded to T. S. Eliot’s treatment of the occult in The Waste Land: he seemed to see it as a rich source of imagery, even one to which some authentic spiritual yearning could be attached, but also a body of lore that it would be insane to take literally. I think this describes DeLillo’s approach to conspiracy and other forms of apocalyptic thought, including the mystique of sexual transgression. These are images he returns to, again and again, to make his art; but the art itself is the real riposte to the omnipresence of technology, to the machine-police that estrange us from ourselves. Because this insight is not quite articulated in Running Dog, as it will be in Libra or Underworld—because in fact a somewhat bathetic super-heroic tragedy, only half meant in earnest, is substituted for it—I can’t say that this is one of DeLillo’s best novels. Then again, he mined it again and again for his later fiction: White Noise’s Hitler motif, Libra’s Dallas-tending conspiracies, Underworld’s and The Body Artist’s bold female intellectuals, Cosmopolis’s pursuit of an exterior to capitalist technocracy—all are present in Running Dog. Not bad for four months’ work.
Finally, the DeLillo dialogue is here in all its stylized dueling-monologue comedy. It has always reminded me of Wilde. You either love it or hate it, and I love it:
“Are you as sluggish as I am?”
“No,” he said.
“It’s my biorhythms. They’re way out of whack today.”
“I’m great, I’m tuned.”
“Biorhythmically I feel awful.”
“You need a swim,” he said.
And the DeLillo prose-poetry is here (though sometimes held up by too much genre-fiction exposition), the voice of a bewildered aesthete entranced at the postmodern spectacle. I will end where the novel begins:
You won’t find ordinary people here. Not after dark, on these streets, under the ancient warehouse canopies. Of course you know this. This is the point. It’s why you’re here, obviously. Wind comes gusting off the river, stirring the powdery air of demolition sites. Derelicts build fires in rusty oil drums near the piers. You see them clustered, wrapped in whatever variety of coat or throwaway sweater or combination of these they’ve been able to acquire. There are trucks parked near the warehouses, some of them occupied, men smoking in the dimness, waiting for the homosexuals to make their way down from the bars above Canal Street. You lengthen your stride, although not to hurry out of the cold. You like that stiffening wind. You turn a corner and move briefly into it, feeling your thighs take shape against the dress’s pleasurably taut weave. Broken glass shines like white mica in the vacant lots. The river has a musky tang tonight.