Tuesday, April 08, 2008

naming convention

Let's talk Don DeLillo.

After being eviscerated by Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times (who, in a way, herself has become a cartoon character of vitriolic literary criticism) for his latest novel Falling Man in May 2007, I imagine he's probably working on another massive tome analyzing the trajectory of American culture in a (soon-to-be but not-soon-enough) post-George W. Bush United States. Considering nearly all of his novels are carefully sculpted studies of Americans and American perceptions (I've read six of his fifteen), I suppose this is what the DeLillo fan base is expecting.... The man has enough imagination to create a neverending list of varied events and characters in novels (all of them well-spoken and wont to deliver intricately woven self-aware monologues), so I always have faith that a DeLillo novel will not bore me.

That said, sometimes I get thrown off the wagon. Having just finished reading The Names, DeLillo's first novel to practically pitch him onto the literary scene as a household name and figure in many a Jeopardy answer, I'm stumbling upon a disappointing observation about the works of his that I've read. The Names was published in 1982 (his eighth novel at the time!) and was positioned in his literary career as the predecessor to White Noise. DeLillo certainly has a flair for setting and character, and his novels usually grab me without fail or without too much wriggling, but I reach a point somewhere in the last quarter of the book where I lose my footing. In The Names, for instance, I had been following the first-person narrator of an American journalist/writer-of-some-sort throughout his short time in Greece with his wife and child, to include his separation from that wife, to include his traveling about the Middle East and India, to include his fascination and subsequent investigation of a cult implicated in a serious of brutal murders based on typographical coinicidence.... and then suddenly I'm forced to focus in his 3rd person on a peripheral character who travails the Himalayan foothills of India. There's something about a lady going on a hunger strike too.

I finished The Names and considered it an okay read, but I was disappointed that the ending felt like a shoehorned non-sequitir. That said, I never lost confidence in DeLillo's intent on telling this story, despite pulling a ninety-degree turn on me.... I just kind of wanted him to finish telling me the story he started with. This is the same exact problem I ran into when I finished reading Running Dog, predecessor to The Names.... Running Dog had a much more playful story (it's about a porn/snuff film starring Adolf Hitler, yes, Adolf Hitler, and about the madcap crew of murdering underground art dealers that will do anything to get their hands on the footage), but the end seemed to trickle off with a seocndary character reenacting some kind of wartime training in the deserts of west Texas. Both Running Dog and The Names span a lot of locations, the former taking us from New York to Washington DC to Texas, the latter volleying between Greece and Jordan and India.... but neither novel has much of a commitment to circularity, oftentimes throwing us off the horse we rode in, in terms of both character and story. It seems what either of these novels is about, so to speak, doesn't really matter as the novel comes to a close.... they both seem to lift up into some existential ether that I'm not prepared for.

It's funny, because I can ascribe similar feelings to DeLillo's post-White Noise effort Mao II. Arguably a much easier read than the other three, Mao II seems to lose focus by switching between the dual lives of a Salinger/Pynchon-style hermit writer and his hidden passion for suicide-bomber-directing duties.

There's part of me that wishes that DeLillo would deliver on his promise from the get-go of his novels. Even the tail end of White Noise seems to derail into a meta-comic meditation not exactly congruent with the tone of the rest of the novel. He exhibits such control and a good sense of pacing, but it seems that somewhere around when the ending should appear, he gets bored or decides to ninja star his way through what he started and put us somewhere new. In the case of White Noise I'd say he's most successful.... and I'm not saying that because it's one of my favorite novels of all time. Terrorism, of all kinds, is an unarguable theme through the lot of DeLillo's work, but I think sometimes it gets the best of him.... whereas the world of White Noise is terrorized by a noxious cloud of gas, Running Dog and The Names and Mao II seem more apt to transport us from a world we know and are firmly established in for 200+ pages into a somewhat-sensational boobs-booze-'n'-bombs spyglass. For instance, when I start a novel about a reporter on the hunt to find a mythic Hitler porn film (already a plot description that sells for me all the way), I don't want to end the book crawling on hands and knees through sagebrush and in Texas with an black ops army trainee turned art broker turned terrorist trainee. There's something about that that I didn't sign up for.

1 comment:

Writeprocrastinator said...

Though I've only read "Underworld," you bring up a valid point that I've seen echoed in some of the braver reviews of his work: he leaves characters for more than fifty pages at a time and expects the reader to want to be embrace them all over again.

Most people are perfectly happy with that, but to me, that's just lazy writing, and a touch of ego.