I admit, I didn’t have a post planned for today until midday when some new books arrived at the library. As promised, I’m writing a post about Don DeLillo as soon as I’ve gotten my hands on Zero K. One of the new novels the Library got in today was that exact novel. And, after stamping, barcoding and covering the novel (which is then sent to the back to be cataloged) I was finally able to check it out before it even reached the shelves. These are the confessions of a library insider:
When I was fifteen, my birthday present was four tickets to see a little Los Feliz band at The Electric Factory in Philadelphia. The concert was held on a Thursday night (it fell, too, on my actual birthday) and I was simply glad that my parents OK’ed it, especially with school and a dreaded French test the next day. I didn’t know it then, as I stood in the crowd with my brother and two friends, but that night would be the start of an endless love affair with soulful indie ballads and American postmodern literature. As The Airborne Toxic Event took the stage, I was completely and utterly captivated.
In 1985, Don DeLillo published a stunningly honest novel about modern fascination with consumerism and the immutable force of death, among other things. He called it White Noise, and it spelled the beginning of his critical fame as a novelist (the likes of which would only be magnified with the publication of, critically, his best work to date; Underworld). White Noise centers around the narration of university professor Jack Gladney who is credited for founding the department of Hitler and Nazi studies on his small Iowa campus. However, in the midst of Gladney’s rather formulaic but still compelling life, a strange black plume of deadly chemical gas, later named the airborne toxic event, forces him to consider his mortality in a very real, very unnerving way.
I bet you thought I lost it when I opened this post with an anecdote about my first concert. I assure you, it was very intentional. If you noticed, the band I saw on my fifteenth birthday (a date I share with the author himself, also) shares the name DeLillo gave to his large black chemical cloud. This is not an odd coincidence (like the Mexican heavy metal band that shares a name with my Astronomy professor’s binary star system), the founder and lead singer of the band chose the name very carefully. Mikel Jollett, the band’s front man is a unique creature. I’ve done some digging into the band’s history in an attempt to understand the enigma that is Jollett. In my digging, I stumbled on a few interviews with him where he talks about arguing with Stanford professors about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, writing “Wishing Well,” the band’s first song, and building the reoccurring motifs in his songs. I could link to his interviews all day, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, he’s interesting to listen to or, well, read, so I encourage you to look him up.
Ah, I find myself rambling, in my digging I realized that the name of the band was a response to several things. Firstly, it was a response to Jollett’s own grim future and his waning interest in writing (although, that venture did result in a poignant short story called “The Crack” about which he writes the song “Cocaine and Able”). Perhaps most profoundly, though, the band resonated with Jack Gladney’s new found struggle with mortality at the hands of an airborne toxic event, echoing an idea that had been floating around in Jollett’s mind for some time before the birth of the band. I suppose this is all to say that you can take one without the other, the band without the book or the book without the band, but you might find that together, they complement one another quite brilliantly.
This post is not, however, just about White Noise although I assure you I would have no problem talking about it all day. In reality, I want to talk about DeLillo’s entire collection. Or, at least, discuss him as a novelist and refer to other novels in his collection.
DeLillo, to date, has written sixteen novels, one short story collection and three plays. Of his sixteen novels the most famous are White Noise, Libra, Mao II, and Underworld. Although I haven’t read nearly all of them (I am slowly working my way through them all, though) I have read enough DeLillo to appreciate several key elements of his work. Above all else his novels possess strong degrees of postmodern satire, perhaps even paranoia. But the novels transcend those simple labels. His most prominent theme is that of death. The acceptance of, the inevitability of, the process of etc. White Noise tackles the topic of death head on when it introduces certainty of death into the mind of its main character Jack Gladney. The novel stresses that, although death is always certain, when there is an external force that draws attention to it, it becomes far more uncomfortable and foreboding. In his perpetual exploration of death though, there is also a celebration of life as seen through the satire of America’s endless reliance on consumerism. His newest novel Zero K weighs the consequences of cheating death and missing out on life.
Two of DeLillo’s novels also choose fairly socially relevant topics to dissect and explore. In The Falling Man DeLillo’s novel plunges into the crisis of 9/11 and picks it apart from the inside out. Libra has been dubbed a “paranoid” yet stunningly written account of JFK’s assassination. The “stunningly written” part of a lot of reviews and interviews speak to DeLillo’s ability as a craftsman of sentences. His books have been called “odes to language” and, as an English major, I find that his sentences are genuinely pleasurable from a purely linguistic standpoint.
DeLillo is one of my favorites, if not my favorite, for so many reasons. From his exploration of the concept of death to his astute observations of consumerism to his brilliant style, DeLillo has never disappointed me. (That’s not to say I won’t be, that’s just to say that I haven’t been disappointed yet.) For a postmodern novelist, DeLillo is a master and a must read.
If you decide to pick up some DeLillo, I suggest first reading White Noise. I also encourage you to listen to The Airborne Toxic Event’s song “The Lines of the Cars” written about the novel on their album “Songs of God and Whiskey.” When it was first written, the song was called “Waves and Radiation” after the first section of White Noise. If you want more DeLillo, check out Libra, Underworld and, of course his newest novel Zero K.
There will be a series of book reviews coming in the near future, The Turner House, The Vanishing Velasquez, and Zero K. Next weeks bibliophile post is still a wild card. We’ll see what I have in store. Until then, I’m going to be watching Peaky Blinders available on Netflix since the new season just came out in the US. If you haven’t heard of these guys already, check out The Airborne Toxic Event and happy reading, see you next week!