Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Don DeLillo’s third novel, Great Jones Street (1973), is often billed as a classic rock and roll novel, but readers who expect an inside look at the rock scene of the late 1960s and early 1970s will be disappointed. The narrator and protagonist, Buddy Wunderlick, is a rock star, but, for the novel’s purposes, he might have been any kind of celebrity artist at all. Great Jones Street shares its purpose with many DeLillo novels, early and late: to investigate what possibilities for intense or numinous experience remain in a world increasingly enclosed within all-encompassing systems of rationality and control.
It is only important that Buddy is a rock star because the rock star, as avatar of the counterculture and bearer of delirious rhythms, was the ’60s placeholder for Dionysian frenzies proscribed by the Apollonian administered society. Ironically, though, this eruption of the sonically subversive was captured by that very society when it became commercialized and fell under the control of vast transnational corporations. An early reviewer, Sara Blackburn, judges Great Jones Street one of a “still-gathering number of depressed obituaries of the sixties.” The depression set in once those who had placed their faith in the counterculture’s rebellion understood that radicalism itself could be co-opted and sold as just another commodity in the marketplace, a development that has surely reached its apogee in our time of corporations Tweeting about their depression and anxiety or celebrating every shade of queerness, guarded by a phalanx of radicals defending this opportunism on the grounds that #representationmatters.
But Great Jones Street is not quite a tract on those themes, either. A recent and controversial review-essay by Lauren Oyler in the London Review of Books decried the “moral obviousness” of contemporary literature, and DeLillo, who once told an interviewer that his political opinions were “none of your fucking business,” is nothing if not morally opaque, or simply indifferent to moral themes.
While we could construe his novels as satires on postmodern living, they tend not to propose collective alternatives. Their dissatisfied characters—they might all be called, after his 2001 novella, body artists—seek not rebellion but radically private, often mystical, forms of retreat. Moreover, DeLillo’s objection to the postmodern or neoliberal or late capitalist or whatever condition is not moral but aesthetic. He doesn’t lament a society of inequitable and exploitative labor practices, but rather a world that increasingly makes real sensation, authentic feeling, unavailable to individuals. And while metastases of capitalism to every aspect of life may exacerbate this problem, it is ultimately rooted in the rational mind itself, in its drive to make linguistic sense of all phenomena. DeLillo’s heroes and heroines, by contrast, want to experience some sublime outside of reason and language.
In Great Jones Street, then, our narrator, the rock star Buddy Wunderlick, absents himself from his enormous fame and retires to a small apartment room at the eponymous Lower Manhattan address. Having reached the limits of his art, he seeks to learn “how to survive a dead idea” in “endland, far from the tropics of fame.” Where better than in the de-modernizing landscape of New York City in its ’70s decay, a “city that seemed older than the cities of Europe, a sadistic gift of the sixteenth century, ever on the verge of plague”?
But the world comes to Buddy’s door despite his attempt at hermeticism. There are his eccentric neighbors: Mrs. Micklewhite, who lives with her disfigured child downstairs, and Eddie Fenig, a hack writer who paces the floor above as he tries to conquer the literary market from high to low. Then there is Buddy’s bandmate Azarian, himself disappearing into the racial masquerade of “blackness,” not only “[b]lack music” but “[b]lackness as such,” as well as the band’s manager Globke, middle-aged representative of Transparanoia, the corporation that owns Wunderlick’s music (and, befitting their name, the building he has retreated to). Globke explains his and Transparanoia’s business priorities: “Diversification, expansion, maximizing the growth potential.”
Buddy is also breifly joined, before her untimely death from countercultural malnutrition, by his lover Opel, a traveler in “timeless lands” who gives him his “mountain tapes,” recordings made at a high-altitude retreat that saw his music and lyrics break through the wall of reason into emancipatory and primordial nonsense:
I was born with all languages in my mouth
Most menacing among his visitors, and most eventful plotwise, are the representatives of the Happy Valley Farm Commune, a utopian society committed to returning “the idea of privacy to American life” and finding Buddy’s retreat an admirable model. However, representing another aspect of the soured ’60s dream, an arm of Happy Valley has gone violent and militant. A spokesman explains the rationale:
“Man the primate has been violent for only forty thousand years. What started it was abstract thought. When man started thinking abstractly he advanced from killing for food to killing for words and ideas. Maybe with mindless violence we’re going into a new cycle.”
They recruit Buddy into a plot: they’ve stolen the “ultimate drug”—one that destroys the language center in the brain—from a “U.S. Guv” research facility and are storing it in Buddy’s apartment. Eventually, another of his visitors, a callow catspaw of Transparanoia named Hanes, absconds with it, and the Commune returns to Buddy to collect their debt and to sabotage the comeback his “mountain tapes,” with their new musical direction, make possible.
The novel reaches its climax when Commune heavies inject Buddy with the drug and chemically amputate his language capacity; but an epilogue informs us that the effects have worn off—obviously, given that Buddy is the novel’s linguistically-adept narrator—and Buddy redeems language for the aesthetic and the spiritual by offering as coda to the novel a lyric catalogue of the city’s ineffable phenomena.
As inventive as all of the above might sound, Great Jones Street is not a very effective work. The novel often reads like a gallery of imitations. DeLillo relies on a disparate set of influences not yet assimilated and synthesized into his own style. In Buddy’s attempt at withdrawal from the world, we find Beckett-like descriptions of consciousness reduced to total inertia. The Transparanoia and Happy Valley elements of the plot, not to mention the silly names of characters and organizations (have I mentioned Dr. Pepper, “the scientific genius of the underground”?), recall Pynchon’s semi-farcical excursions into counterculture, conspiracy, and paranoia. Buddy’s neighbors, as well as a few other side characters, comprise a company of comic-grotesques out of Flannery O’Connor. And a lyricism of urban alienation deriving from modernism at large marks the city scenes.
The least successful elements are the Beckettian and the Pynchonian. DeLillo’s phenomenology of consciousness-attempting-unconsciousness is not without interest, but it dissipates the novel into abstract prose that defeats attention:
The bed was a vast welcoming organism, a sea culture or synthetic plant, enraptured by the object it absorbed. As I headed deeper into mists and old stories, into windy images poised on the rim of sleep, I began to feel that the bed was having a dream and that the dream was me. One candle burned, this light not quite eluding my awareness. I was barely conscious, being dreamed by a preternatural entity, taken for a mind’s ride into the mystery of things. It was all a question of control. I was being dreamed-smoked-created. The dream took form as a man asleep in a bed situated in the middle of a room in which a lone candle burned. This was not real but a dream and I was no more than the stale chemical breath of the dreamer.
But it is the reader who should be dreaming, just by virtue of reading the book. The writer induces that dream by giving us concrete particulars to fix the attention, not vaporous evocations of whatever altered state.
Moreover, while DeLillo borrows Pynchon’s effects and themes, he doesn’t share Pynchon’s corresponding interest in how modern and postmodern social structures actually work. We don’t learn anything from DeLillo about how rock bands or multinational corporations function, in contrast, for example, to the more-detail-than-we-need dispensed about military and intelligence organization in Gravity’s Rainbow. DeLillo is a novelist of the inner life: he wants to show how living within such systems feels in the interior, how it transfigures the soul. The mismatch between the novel’s single-room setting and its “transparanoid” plot is less a worthy experiment in contrasting genres than a simple lapse in coherence.
The O’Connor-like grotesquery, the overt New York gothic material, works well, though, even if it might seem tasteless by today’s exacting standards. There is a kind of poignance that only pitilessness can disclose (today’s practitioners of “moral obviousness” might take note). DeLillo achieves this frisson, particularly with the only character in the novel who seems to have a moral epiphany at all, the hack writer Eddie Fenig. Fenig’s pursuit of uncolonized literary markets leads him to write pornography for children, but he is eventually sickened by the subject and voices the novel’s only humanistic cri de coeur, all the more persuasive because it comes from so peculiar a figure:
“I failed at pornography,” he said, “because it put me in a position where I the writer was being manipulated by what I wrote. This is the essence of living in P-ville. It makes people easy to manipulate. It puts people on the level of things. I the writer was probably more aware of this than whoever the potential reader might be because I could feel the changes in me, the hardening of mechanisms, the subservience to lust-making and lust-awakening. You have to be half-mad to be a great pornographer and half-Swedish to expose yourself repeatedly to outright porn without losing a measure of whatever makes you human. Every pornographic work brings us closer to fascism. It reduces the human element. It encourages antlike response.”
The finest parts of Great Jones Street are those that justify its title. It is unbeatable as a latter-day streetside prose-poem, half-Baudelairean vision of hell and half-Whitmanian catalog of American diversity, detailing the modern city in its terminal phase:
Pigeons and meningitis. Chocolate and mouse droppings. Licorice and roach hairs. Vermin on the bus we took uptown. I wondered how long I’d choose to dwell in these middle ages of plague and usury, living among traceless men and women, those whose only peace was in shouting ever more loudly. Nothing tempted them more than voicelessness. But they shouted. Transient population of thunderers and hags. They dragged through wet streets speaking in languages older than the stones of cities buried in sand.
DeLillo, poet of the end, was only beginning his literary project with this novel; the best works—his own mountain tapes—were ahead of him.