Voice from a Silent Landscape - A Profile of Don DeLillo

Article excerpt

Linda Simon is professor of English at Skidmore College. The author of Genuine Reality: A Life of William James (Harcourt Brace, 1998), Of Virtue Rare (1982), Thornton Wilder: His World (1979), and The Biography of Alice B. Toklas (1977), she edited William James Remembered (1996) and Gertrude Stein Remembered (1994).

In twelve novels--his latest, The Body Artist, appeared this year--Don DeLillo has staked out his own unsettled terrain, a rocky territory mined with despair, where prevailing winds bring blasts of dread and gusts of paranoia. His characters, beset with anxiety and fear, have lost (or forgotten or never had) a moral compass. They are unmoored from any spiritual center, emotionally and sometimes physically isolated. Intelligent, edgy, even neurotic, they search for an authenticity that eludes them. "They feel instinctively," DeLillo explained, "that there's a certain struggle, a solitude they have to confront. The landscape is silent, whether it's a desert, a small room, a hole in the ground. The voice you have to answer is your own voice." Often, these characters are outsiders--sometimes by dint of fate, sometimes out of their own choice--to consumerism and commercialism, two forces that DeLillo sees as central, and insidious, in American culture.

His fiction, as one interviewer noted, conveys "an apocalyptic feel, ... an intimation that our world is moving toward greater randomness and dissolution, maybe even cataclysm." This intimation faithfully reflects DeLillo's own reality, infected, he believes, with "suspicion and distrust and fear. It's my idea of myself as a writer ... that I enter these worlds as a completely rational person who is simply taking what he senses all around him and using it as material." His fictional worlds do, indeed, seem chillingly like our own. So like our own, in fact, that one reviewer suggested that DeLillo's readers "keep a newspaper folded on one side of the book and a supermarket tabloid on the other, and cross-reference."

Don DeLillo was born in New York City on November 20, 1936, and grew up in the Fordham section of the Bronx, a neighborhood peopled largely by Italian immigrants like his parents. He discovered much later that he had lived near Lee Harvey Oswald, whose life and deeds became the focus of his ninth novel, Libra (1988). DeLillo divulges little about his childhood to interviewers but attributes to his Catholic upbringing his interest in religion "as a discipline and a spectacle, as something that drives people to extreme behavior. Noble, violent, depressing, beautiful. Being raised as a Catholic was interesting because the ritual had elements of art to it. Sometimes it was awesome; sometimes it was funny. High funeral masses were a little of both, and they're among my warmest childhood memories."

Religion informed his education as well as his family life: he attended Cardinal Hayes High School and Fordham University, where he studied history, philosophy, and theology, graduating in 1958. A desultory student, he emerged as an autodidact. The cultural life of New York-- museums, art galleries, jazz clubs, movies--gave him what he considers his real education. Added to those experiences was reading: eclectically, widely, and deeply.

Modernist writers such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce gave him a sense of unconventional possibilities for language and literature, but his reading was not limited to fiction and poetry. "I started reading mathematics," he told an interviewer, "because I wanted a fresh view of the world. I wanted to immerse myself in something as remote as possible from my own interests and my own work. ... Aside from everything else, pure mathematics is a kind of secret knowledge." This type of reading resulted in his fourth novel, Ratner's Star (1976), which explores the undulating boundary between science and mysticism, knowledge and mystery. Mathematics, he said, "brings out a religious feeling in people. …