Implications of the the Incredible Shrinking Man Allusion in Don DeLillo's Americana

By Laist, Randy | Notes on Contemporary Literature, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Implications of the the Incredible Shrinking Man Allusion in Don DeLillo's Americana


Laist, Randy, Notes on Contemporary Literature


David Bell, the 28-year-old protagonist of Don DeLillo's first novel, Americana (1971), jokes that he has spent "28 years in the movies" (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1971: 224). He has not been involved in the cinematic industry as such, but his actual existence has been so saturated with cinematic values that there is no definitive demarcation between his own experience, perception, and memories and the dreamlike influence of the thousands of movies he has seen. DeLillo's narrative tends to emphasize the ontological qualities of film itself rather than to isolate the narrational identity of any particular filmic texts, but there is a very large number of specific films identified in Americana, either by title or allusion, including From Here to Eternity, Ikiru, Breathless, Shone, and Blow Up. Among the most striking of these filmic references, however, occurs toward the climax of the novel, when David Bell, having scrapped his own movie project and abandoned his traveling companions in a fit of disillusionment, hitchhikes to Arizona and spends a night with a scraggly commune centered around a person known as Incredible Shrinking Man.

"His name," as one of the commune-dwellers tells David, "is the name of an old sci-fi movie" (357). The movie, of course, is The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), in which Robert Scott Carey (Grant Williams) discovers that he is diminishing in size as a result of exposure to a mysterious radioactive mist. At first glance, this title seems like an inappropriate handle for the charismatic hippie-chieftain, who is not a diminutive figure at all but stands "about six feet eight inches tall, broad across the chest" (357). Whereas Robert Scott Carey spends the majority of his narrative lamenting his emasculating victimization by a cruel and absurd fate, his namesake Incredible Shrinking Man is a figure of virility, vanity, and masculinity. But when we return to the movie, and particularly to its strange, metaphysical ending, the reference begins to make more sense not only as it relates to this character, but also as an allusion which refers us toward one model for the reconciliation of the paradox between transcendence and self-diminishment which resonates throughout the novel as a whole.

Telling David about the future he foresees, Incredible Shrinking Man says, "Then the saucers will land and our children will be forced to embrace the new technology. If they're not prepared, if we don't prepare them, there'll be an awful lot of confusion" (358). With such a vision, it may seem that a more appropriate name for Incredible Shrinking Man would be something like Day the Earth Stood Still, or some title which refers to an explicitly UFO-themed film, whereas The Incredible Shrinking Man is a wholly terrestrial narrative. The "new technology" which afflicts Robert Scott Carey is a cloud of industrial chemicals, looking forward to the Airborne Toxic Event of DeLillo's 1985 novel White Noise. But like Incredible Shrinking Man aspires to do, Carey works through the confusion pressed upon him by the existential implications of the new technology, which is alien and unprecedented enough that it might just as well be from outer space. Exiled from society in the basement of his house, Carey lives in a survivalist mode similar to the lifestyle Incredible Shrinking Man has adopted in his desert retreat. Incredible Shrinking Man's body "stained with the blood of the rattler he held in his hand" (362) recalls the black blood that covers Carey after he impales a spider with a sewing needle in the climax of his movie. …

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