Don DeLillo's Bum Luck: The Novelist's Low Status in an Age of Cultural Proliferation. (Cultures & Reviews)

Article excerpt

In February, a literary event of no small significance occurred. Don DeLillo, arguably America's finest living novelist still in full control of his talents -- and inarguably one of the most important and respected writers of the past 30 years -- released his 12th work of fiction, a novella called The Body Artist. Though the critical response to The Body Artist has been less than uniformly positive, its sheer volume testifies to DeLillo's eminence. This is a book that has been written up everywhere that matters -- The New York Times even saw fit to review it twice --and many places that don't.

Since his 1971 debut, Americana, DeLillo has gone from sometimes being dismissed as an epigone of Thomas Pynchon to being acclaimed (in the words of hard-to-please. novelist Martin Amis) as "a writer of high intellect and harsh originality, equipped with extraordinary gifts of eye and ear -- and of nose, palate and fingertips."

Along the way, DeLillo has crafted an oeuvre that includes such highly regarded novels as 1972's End Zone (which hilariously links college football and nuclear war); 1985's White Noise (which follows the travails of a professor who creates the academic field of "Hitler Studies"); and 1988's Libra (which offers a detailed and compelling meditation on Lee Harvey Oswald, the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the role of accident and chance in history).

In 1997, he published Underworld, a massive, 827-page novel about the second half of the American Century and the end of the Cold War that was universally hailed a masterpiece. Amis again: "It isn't every day, or even every decade, that one sees the ascension of a great writer."

DeLilo is, in short and in every way, what undergraduate literature courses dub a Major Author. Yet he is also an essentially invisible author, largely unread by and unknown to not simply the vast majority of Americans, but the vast majority of well-educated Americans, most of whom have never read one of his books and could not name even one of his many memorable characters.

His situation thus represents something of a mystery: In terms of literary merit and artful explication of an American experience -- and in terms of relative sales -- DeLillo is easily the equal or superior of a Hemingway or a Fitzgerald. Yet he occupies nothing like the cultural niche they filled. Indeed, he doesn't even rise to the level of presence achieved at times by such postwar authors as Norman Mailer or Gore Vidal.

What explains this? Part of it is surely DeLillo's own doing.

While he has never obsessively shunned publicity a la J.D. Salinger or Thomas Pynchon, he has rarely made himself available to the press or to critics; neither does he regularly publish reviews of or essays on contemporary writers, a tried and true way of boosting one's profile.

But a bigger part of the answer relates to the underlying dynamic of cultural proliferation and the vast outpouring in recent decades of art, music, literature, video, and other forms of creative expression. …