Don DeLillo, Americana

AmericanaAmericana by Don DeLillo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to a false and apocryphal story, Hemingway, on the deck of a transatlantic steamer, hurled the manuscript of his first novel into the churning sea. This a parable meaning that no first novel should see the light of day. Don DeLillo’s first novel, Americana (1971), merits a more generous response. It has its fans in academe, and it has also cast its shadow—if DeLillo’s shadow can be reliably distinguished from those of his contemporaries, Joan Didion and Renata Adler—on today’s fiction. The last few contemporary novels I sampled but didn’t finish sounded just like the first few pages of Americana, from the first sentence forward—a first sentence as memorable as a great line of poetry: “Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year.”

An observer both bemused and superior takes calm stock of his quietly outrageous surroundings, the escalatingly strange paraphernalia and the omni-mediated unreality of postmodern middle-class life. “Opposite a picture of several decapitated villagers was a full-page advertisement for a new kind of panty-girdle.” The disjunction between the narrator’s blasé tone and the mundane bizarrerie observed and articulated generates the irony peculiar to DeLillo. As a character in this novel observes of the effects of advertising on the viewer, “It moves him from first person consciousness to third person. In this country there is a universal third person, the man we all want to be.” All experience is perceived at the distance created by extreme self-consciousness.

While DeLillo is often paired with Pynchon, they have opposite sensibilities, and their prose seeks opposite effects. Pynchon is less ironist than satirist: he tries to match the scope and breadth of the scandals he describes with the comically vast range of his own style, rocketing as it does up and down the scale from schoolboy scatology to Melvillean and Faulknerian thunder. Like all satirists, he is a moralist. There is no moralism in DeLillo and no satire. He does not belong to the Melville-Faulkner-Pynchon line of preachers in burning cities on hills, men who call the errant republic to holy account. There is only in DeLillo the wry reconstitution of the way things are, with a lingering suspicion that they weren’t always that way, and that some dangerous portal to elsewhere may yet exist. But this portal is not political. We escape not through social transformation, but rather personal transfiguration—a diminution in the self that is so conscious of itself, a private askesis.

Most of this DeLilloism exists in Americana, but, in first-novel fashion, it sits uneasily beside disparate other elements. Paths not taken by the mature novelist still seem open here. In a suitably mass-mediated metaphor, a friend of mine once described reading Henry James’s looser early work as encountering the author “before the Darth Vader helmet got clamped on”—before, in other words, the author was armored by or entombed in his major style. Americana is like that.

For one thing, Americana is remarkably literary. DeLillo’s later work tends to eschew much overt allusion, but this novel is full of big names: Proust, Yeats, Faulkner, Kafka, Keats, Milton. Eliot and Joyce preside, both in flagrant references (“I wanted to be known as Kinch. This is Stephen Dedalus’ nickname in Ulysses, which I was reading at the time”) and quiet verbal reminiscences (“Jackass. Jackdaw. Jackal,” “I was wearing white flannel trousers”), foreshadowing the author’s later career, when his masterpiece, Underworld, will restage Ulysses as The Waste Land at the end of history. The narrator even says at the novel’s conclusion, “I felt it was literature I had been confronting these past days,” a comment not made in praise of literature. “Literature” here names a mediation of life, a prior instance of what the novel calls “the image,” which has in the late 20th century replaced reality (“One thinks of an image made in the image and likeness of other images”). I don’t mean “reality” in the sense of the STEMwinding anti-postmodern rationalists who always say 2+2=4, but “reality” as primal, primordial experience, in which nothing adds up. Reality is that moment of blankness, of white-out, in the middle of the orgasm.

Whether the novels and songs usurped the land, or took something true from it, is not so much the issue as this: that what I was engaged in was merely a literary venture, an attempt to find pattern and motive, to make of something wild a squeamish thesis on the essence of the nation’s soul.

Americana is divided into four parts. The first is a 125-page New York City-set office comedy about our narrator, David Bell, a 28-year-old TV executive (and son of an advertiser). We are given the absurdist parties of the counterculture-influenced bien-pensant and the pseudo-enlightened musings of those who decide what will occupy the nation’s airwaves. David is alert to how the powers that be appropriate for their own ends the period’s supposed subversions: “the establishment [has] learned that every color is essentially gray as long as everyone is wearing it”—a comment possibly more relevant to the corporatist progressivism of our own time than to the era DeLillo was observing. He scrutinizes late-’60s sexual office politics, as when David refers to “old love letters, rag dolls, and pornographic books” that male bosses had given female office workers “in the spirit of the new liberalism.” This is not midcentury misogyny, but critical consciousness launched from a slightly later era. In the background, or, more precisely, at the foundation, are death and destruction. “The war was on television every night but we all went to the movies.” David reflects on his love life, his ex-wife and mistresses, and his erotic obsession with the experimental artist Sullivan. He also muses on his obsession with “the image,” the media iconography that tells us who we are and should be. His own self and actions, he allows, are determined by the cinematic imago of Burt Lancaster. How to escape “the image” that controls us all? With the alibi of making a documentary on the Navajos, David takes to the road with the aforementioned Sullivan, as well as a Vietnam vet and experimental novelist named Brand and an animal-obsessed old tough named Pike.

Part Two is a long detour. David recreates his childhood of blue-blood privilege. He has a mentally ill mother who dies young of cancer (“It’s in the female region,” his father explains). A series of carefully patterned motifs extending backwards and forwards in the novel from this section hints at David’s oedipal obsession. Earlier in the book, he spits into an ice cube tray at party; in this sequence, he spies his mother as she does the same. Moreover, in the same passage, she only wears one shoe; in the first chapter, he’d seen Sullivan half-shod, which increased his obsession with her. In a probably over-candid 1972 essay excerpted here, DeLillo, dryly writing in the third person, explains himself:

Subtext 1: Patriotism as incest
Much of this survives in the final text. The author evidently constructed two planes of incest in ‘Americana.’ One is based on relations (or near-relations) between the protagonist and his mother. The second might be called political incest—the notion that baseless patriotism is an elaborately psychotic manifestation of love for mother country.

But we can find a subtext beneath even the subtext. In Part Two’s freestanding, highly-lyrical novella-length excursus on a privileged American childhood, is DeLillo not parodying the dominant New Yorker-burnished literary “image” of his time—the fiction of Salinger, Cheever, Updike? Is this sequence not part of the novel’s guerrilla war on dominant representations? Again eschewing midcentury male style, DeLillo is not indulging here in autobiography: he grew up among working-class Italian immigrants in the Bronx and therefore had a childhood nothing like Bell’s. Bell’s childhood comes from books. DeLillo will later abandon this model of fiction and its Freudian assumptions, its depth-psychological journeys back to an explanatory childhood. The most experimental technical feat of White Noise, done so slyly that readers don’t even notice: DeLillo reveals nothing whatsoever of Jack Gladney’s past and background; Gladney exists in an eternal present, with no psychoanalytic strata for the novelist as archeo-physician to excavate.

In Part Three, David pauses on his journey west to abandon his job and to make an experimental film in a small town. The movie, starring “actors” David recruits from the town’s citizenry and wayfarers, recombines what we’ve already seen and know of his life. Here, I think, the novel loses its way, as DeLillo fails to find a literary corollary for cinema. David’s film is merely described. The novel does not take leave of literature, though Americana is as dense with cinematic allusion as with literary. David references Bergman and Kurosawa and Godard and even Nazimova. (Nor does he neglect other popular phenomena: DeLillo alludes at least twice in this 1971 work to the man who will usurp his Nobel 45 years later: Bob Dylan.) David states his own filmic ambition: “The movie functions best as a sort of ultimate schizogram, an exercise in diametrics which attempts to unmake meaning.” But Part Three never accomplishes this feat.

Part Four comes closer. David, having abandoned a love triangle with Sullivan and Brand, takes to the road again. He rides with a Texan named Clevenger, stays for a day and a night with a group of hippies who live with Apache exiles, and then ventures to Clevenger’s place of business, an automotive test track, where a drunken orgy ensues. DeLillo narrates this grotesque debauchery in simple descriptive sentences. Each sentence generates another out of itself as in the consecutional composition theories of DeLillo’s friend, Gordon Lish:

The woman had my cock in her hand and was trying to put me inside her. I pulled her down and kissed her and she let go finally and just lay on top of me, moving from side to side and licking my face. Then she straddled me again and I realized she was pissing all over my belly and chest. She got up finally and sat on the running board and drank some beer. I pushed myself up to my knees and fastened my belt. Then I threw up.

This is as close as DeLillo gets to escaping “literature,” where literature means imposed meaning rather than recreated experience. Of Brand’s failed novel, David reflects,

Brand, of course, as it turned out was a writer of blank pages. That’s how I think of him, definitely a novelist, by all means a craftsman of high talent—but one who chose words of the same color as the paper on which they were written.

The orgy scene’s blandly outrageous writing, like some of that in the early city sequences, achieve such a blank sublimity, much more so than the novel’s descriptions of experimental cinema. The narrative’s conclusion registers the failure at large: in the end, David returns to his life in New York—though not before stopping in Dealey Plaza, another foreshadowing, in this minor novel, of the major novelist its author will become.

As I said, much of DeLillo is already here, and not only the themes. There is the unerring ear for cliché (“Turkey is a blending of several cultures, I understand”) and malapropism (“That’s a mute point”), and the wonderfully skewed eye: “the buses went by in packs, lit up like operating rooms,” “[h]is face was an odd wet pink color, as if a dog had been licking it.” DeLillo’s love of the oracular sometimes succeeds: “It takes centuries to invent the primitive,” David observes, evoking modernism’s archaic revival. But when Sullivan says, “America can only be saved by what it’s trying to destroy,” I don’t know if we should take it seriously or if it’s just a bit of ’60s ideological detritus.

Sullivan is both the most compelling and frustrating character, a shadowy sketch for the great experimental female artists of DeLillo’s later oeuvre. She tells David two stories, one at the end of Part One and one at the end of Part Three. In the first, an old Sioux prophet named Black Knife denounces “the terrible gleaming mudcunt of Mother America” (note the incest motif and the Joycean orthography) and further says, “We feel a private thrill, admit it, at the sight of beauty in flames.” The second story is absurdly long and seems obscurely to imply the origin of America in a primitive oedipal dispute between Catholic Dubliner and renegade Ulsterman, “Shem and Shaun”: “All my rich hatreds and comfortable bigotries come to this. Scotch-Irish! American! (Ineluctable, Mr. Faulkner; coeval, Mr. Joyce.)” Maturer DeLillo will jettison this and other of the novel’s over-influenced divagations into stream-of-Celtic-consciousness, as in the tediously delirious excerpts from the late-night radio show that twice plays in the narrative, “Death Is Just Around the Corner.” About 20-30% of this novel could have been thrown into the Atlantic, but I’m happy to have the rest.

It is interesting that DeLillo, with no major Italian-American forebears of note, had to elect Irish writers as his precursors, presumably because they were the most proximate mad Anglophone Catholics (then again, Ellison and Bellow, too, descend from Joyce). Please bear in mind, in the matter of identity politics, that DeLillo is the only great American novelist to share my and my family’s ethno-religious and class background. But neither he nor I make heavy weather out of it. It’s nothing, in the literary world, to be proud of. We were the first of the white ethnics to make the break with the left, and we made it more thoroughly than anyone else. As I detailed in my piece on White Noise, as Bill Clinton was the first black president and Barack Obama the first gay president, Donald Trump is the first Italian-American president.

As I said to an Irish-American the other day, however, is it Italian-Americans’ fault if we belong to what once was a minority group but which the political left never got around to creating a redemptive positive identity for? Did we have any choice except to opt for what is tendentiously called assimilationism (a postcolonial scholar once looked me up and down and said to me, “You know, you dark whites will never really assimilate”) but which might better be called universalism? Hence the name of the book: not American Catholica or, still worse, American Italiana, but, and without qualification, Americana. David Bell says, “I wanted to become an artist, as I believed them to be, an individual willing to deal in the complexities of truth.” Amen.