June 22, 2016

First Time Around: "Americana," by Don DeLillo

First Time Around: An essay series by Chris Schahfer

Americana, by Don DeLillo

By Don DeLillo
Houghton Mifflin, 1971
Reviewed by Chris Schahfer

Welcome to the second and final week of my Don DeLillo mini-retrospective, which dovetails quite well with my sixth entry in the First Time Around series. Needless to say, we're going back to the beginning of DeLillo's career here, to the time before he was one of the default Great American Novelists, before White Noise or Falling Man or "Pafko at the Wall." Instead, we're going back to the Weird DeLillo, a film buff and jazz fan who swapped out his career as an advertising writer for a career as a novelist, whose whole publication history up until this point consisted of a handful of less-than-impressive satirical short stories. Here we have his first novel, and it's quite the strange one indeed.

Basically, Americana tells the story of David Bell, an advertising executive who gets sick of being an advertising executive. Haunted by memories of a domineering father and feeling fundamentally hollowed out by his work, he sets off with two friends to make a "'long unmanageable movie full of fragments of everything that's part of my life, maybe ultimately taking two or three or more full days to screen'" (205). Of course, the movie doesn't go as planned, and in the ridiculously rushed fourth part, Bell ends up first on a hippie commune out in the desert and then, for reasons that are never adequately explained, on a desert island, where he watches the failed film over and over, trying to piece together something about his own life from the ashes of his failed creation. I wasn't a big fan of the last part. I like it conceptually, since his attempt at perfect self-understanding devolves into chaos, which I'd say is a super-postmodern move, but the execution of this segment just doesn't feel purposeful enough to bear its own narrative weight, which seems pretty heavy based on DeLillo's intentions.

So in some ways, Americana can be thought of as two books, joined together by David Bell's disillusionment with the world around him: the "office-politics" based first segment, which foreshadows the likes of Office Space and American Psycho in taking corporate America to task for its slow devouring of the American soul, and the road-trip second segment, which explores the anxieties of small American towns purportedly removed from the corporate soul-devouring. The office politics segment has gotten a particular amount of attention because of American Psycho's massive popularity, as Bell has been painted as a sort of proto-Patrick Bateman. Now, I'm not sure what I think of that, because I think DeLillo makes Bell a more compelling character than Ellis does for Bateman. Full disclosure, I'm not a huge Ellis fan, but I appreciate how DeLillo lent Bell interiority, how I get the sense of him as this lonely guy trapped by people he can't relate to. Which I suppose you can also say of Bateman, but DeLillo doesn't rely on violent histrionics or those awful five-page catalogues of what everyone's wearing to make his point.

Anyway, the workplace sequence in many ways interests me more than the road trip sequence, or at least presents me with more to talk about, because it introduces one of my favorite aspects of DeLillo's fiction. This guy loves to set his fiction in a funhouse mirror version of what Americans would still recognize as America, but have his characters react to these bizarre worlds as though they're completely normal. Bell's workplace is pretty strange. People get fired left and right, engage in the sort of stilted circular conversations that became DeLillo's trademark, and a "mad-memo writer" (dubbed "Trotsky" by Bell) drops quotes from various famous philosophers everywhere. In short, it seems like some sort of surreal hellhole is lurking just behind all the smiling faces. Yet DeLillo, master of dissonance that he is, knows how to tie this to something identifiable. After all, someone living in a bizarre world would get used to it. Such is the case with Bell, who is at first bored, then disillusioned, then finally hollowed out by his workplace. His quiet desperation culminates in a sort of basketball game with a piece of paper and a wastebasket, an act of boredom he doesn't let anyone see for fear of it reducing his reputation as an office morale-booster.

That's what draws Bell to them in the first place; he feels that corporate life has drained the world of a vague notion of authenticity, and that he'll find that authenticity in the small towns. Of course, he runs into a problem as soon as he starts pointing his camera at people and as soon as he starts feeding them a script. Couple this with the tensions, especially romantic tensions, that emerge between Bell and his companions, and it's easy to see why he then feels compelled to split with them and stake out on his own, to find his self-identity another way. Which, again, is where the whole novel kind of goes wonky. Which is a shame because, pre-wonkiness, it's one of my favorite DeLillo novels. Not only is it one of his funniest, but it lays down a lot of his later fascinations for all to see, making it almost an embryonic version of his more famous later works. His signature morbidity is certainly in place, as evidenced by the death-themed radio show Bell frequently tunes into; Infinite Jest fans might note its similarities with "Sixty Minutes, More or Less, with Madame Psychosis." See also his fascination with media's effect on people; in one notable scene, residents of a small town crowd around Bell and friends because they have a video camera. It rather reminds me of the pull America's Most Photographed Barn, still my favorite thing in the great White Noise, exerts over that book's protagonists.

I suppose that makes now a good time to get into the "what did he go on to do?" question. I divide DeLillo's career as a novelist into three phases. Americana is, of course, part of the first, his period as a weirdo avant-garde novelist from the underground. His books didn't sell at all during this period, but they received good reviews and earned him quite a following. In some ways, this is my favorite period of his whole career. Yes, he got technically better, and wrote his finest books in the "second period," but this first period has a sense of wildness to it that appeals to me. I'd say the highlights of this phase are End Zone (1972), which equates football with nuclear war (only to famously refute that equation); Great Jones Street (1973), which concerns a reclusive rock star, domestic terrorists, and a cult that sends their underwear across America; and the off-the rails thriller Running Dog (1978), which involves an alleged Hitler porn film and develops a sense of mysticism as it goes on. He also wrote weaker novels like Ratner's Star (1976) and Players (1977) during this period, but even at his weakest, you can tell he was trying to do something new.

It's the second phase of his career that most people caught onto. Beginning with The Names (1982), a thriller set in Greece about a cult obsessed with language, his readership exploded. He followed up The Names with 1985's White Noise, which is still his most widely-read and popular novel, one of those novels that scored with the general reading public (it's on TIME's greatest books of the twentieth century list! With the Grapes of Wrath and to Kill a Mockingbird!), academics, and especially fellow writers; he's probably had as much influence on the current generation of novelists as David Foster Wallace, not to mention a considerable influence on David Foster Wallace's generation. 1988's Kennedy-themed Libra and 1991's terrorist-themed Mao II continued his success, which culminated in '97's 800-page Underworld, the source of some of his finest writing.

Unfortunately, things get a little less interesting afterward. I'd stick up for 2001's slim Body Artist, which I found nicely ghostly if a little lacking in momentum, and 2003's oft-derided Cosmopolis strikes me as an appealing return to crazy-DeLillo. Still, I wouldn't call either of them high points of the guy's career. The award-winning Falling Man (2007), marketed as DeLillo's "9/11 novel," is downright tame compared to the wildness we'd seen from him before; it strikes me as too much of a "serious novel about America," much like Denis Johnson's Train Dreams and Tree of Smoke. Point Omega (2010) didn't do a lot for me, either, and I'm probably better off referring you to my recent review of this year's Zero K than talking about it here. So I guess the arc is underground hero to major American novelist to guy taking a victory lap? Well, he's still got his style, but I do miss the unpredictable early days. DeLillo was liable to do anything early on, and while that would often result in him wandering way off the mark, it also resulted in a string of fascinating novels that I'd easily put at the forefront of twentieth century American literature. Definitely someone worth getting into, in other words.

Filed by Chris Schahfer at 7:00 AM, June 22, 2016. Filed under: Chris Schahfer | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |