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The American Strangeness: An Interview with Don DeLillo
by Gerald Howard

Don DeLillo by Joyce Ravid
In 1983 Don DeLillo published in Rolling Stone a powerful meditation on the meaning(s) of the assassination of John Kennedy twenty years after the event. In it he describes a poker game that took place in a Manhattan high-rise on April 4, 1968, the evening of yet another shattering assassination, the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Memphis. As sirens began to echo around the city, one of the card players, white, began speaking as if possessed in a deeply resonant Negro voice and would or could not stop, disconcerting all the players. It's a perfect found DeLillo moment, and his comment on it is equally perfect: "How strange it was to be an American."

Indeed. We are only beginning to grasp how strange. In his ten previous novels Don DeLillo has been constructing ever more haunting geographies of American strangeness, capturing with his restless, acute, and unflagging intelligence the floating moods of a country unsure, it seems, of almost everything besides its own dread and uncertainty. In the process he has created a body of work extravagantly and rightly admired by critics and his fellow novelists -- and by an increasingly wide readership eager to rise to the challenge of his fiction.

On October 3, 1997, Scribners will publish DeLillo's new novel, Underworld, a massive, 833-page -- let's get the word out of the way, there's no avoiding it and no reason to try -- masterpiece. Like some fantastically all-seeing, all-knowing literary search engine, he probes the postwar American psyche for the source of our dis-ease, and locates it in the nuclear threat that has shadowed our every mood and action since Hiroshima. Underworld is a Book of Days for America's nuclear age, for our very, very Strange Days, and it comes at the perfect post-Cold War moment. As Klara Sax, a visionary artist and one of the book's two central characters, muses, "Now that power is in shatters and tatters and now that those Soviet borders don't even exist in the same way, I think we understand, we look back, we see ourselves more clearly and them as well."

Although Underworld can fairly be called epic in scope and while it might well serve as a textbook for the study of postmodern literary techniques, it feels intimate throughout. It is certainly DeLillo's most personal book in its use of and allegiance to the Bronx of his boyhood, the borough from which the book's four main characters emerge into history: Klara Sax; Nick Shay, an executive in the richly metaphorical business of waste management; his brother Matt Shay, an atomic intellectual; and the teacher Albert Bronzini, Klara's former husband and Matt's former chess coach. Around them orbit a cast of characters partly real -- J. Edgar Hoover, Sergei Eisenstein, Lenny Bruce -- and partly invented -- Sister Edgar, the Texas Highway Killer. Threaded throughout the proceedings, in a manner not dissimilar to the search for V. in Thomas Pynchon's novel, is the quest for the most significant home run ball in baseball history. It ends in a brutal death and a moving transfiguration in the South Bronx -- one of the few convincing manifestations of grace, in the precise Catholic sense, in American fiction since Flannery O'Connor.

Don DeLillo is the pure product of New York City. Raised in the Arthur Avenue section of the Bronx, he was educated in Catholic schools -- Cardinal Hayes High School and Fordham University -- and for a time worked, like Salman Rushdie, for Ogilvy and Mather as an advertising copywriter. But since the late sixties he has done nothing professionally but write novels, essays, short stories, and plays. Literally nothing: like his peers William Gaddis and Thomas Pynchon he has never taught creative writing, given lectures, attended writers conferences, sat on discussion panels, reviewed books, or participated in the other extraneous activities of a contemporary literary career. His purity is exemplary, and, in the way it forces readers to apprehend his work, aesthetically shrewd.

He does, however, sit for the occasional interview. When this publication asked me to do this piece, I realized that in a way I had been talking in my head to Don DeLillo since 1973, when I was captured by the very first sentence of his first novel, Americana ("Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year"). I felt then, and I still feel now, that whatever he writes is speaking to me and for me. Through the seventies and early eighties I immediately bought his novels in hardcover first editions when this constituted, for me, a major outlay of discretionary income. In 1988 a delightful series of circumstances allowed me to be the editor at Viking for Libra, his most commercially successful book to date; it doesn't get any better than this. We share Catholic, outer-borough backgrounds and a love for and fascination with New York City, movies, and jazz. This interview took place on a late spring day in Don DeLillo's home just north of New York City -- not terribly far from the Bronx neighborhood and the now-vanished Manhattan stadium where key sections of Underworld take place.

Howard: The last time you sat for an interview, in 1993 for the Paris Review Writers at Work series, you had just published a novella, Pafko at the Wall, which then turned into the long prologue to the book we have now. When and how did you first become aware of the extraordinary coincidence of the two "Shots Heard Round the World," Bobby Thomson's epochal 1951 home run, and the explosion of a Soviet nuclear device?

DeLillo: I was reading the newspaper one morning in October 1991, and there was a story about the fortieth anniversary of a legendary ball game between the Giants and Dodgers, the third game of the play-offs, which the Giants won dramatically on a ninth inning home run by Bobby Thomson. I read it and forgot all about it, but several weeks later began to think about it again in a different context -- historical. It seemed to be a kind of unrepeatable event, the kind of thing that binds people in a certain way. Not only people who were at the ballpark, but fans in general and even nonfans who were not necessarily interested in the baseball implications. There was a sense, at least for me, that this was the last such binding event that mainly involved jubilation rather than disaster of some sort. Anyway, I went to the library and found a reel of microfilm for the New York Times of the following day, October 4, 1951. I didn't know what I was looking for, but what I found was two headlines, symmetrically matched. It was like fitting together two pieces of ancient pottery. One headline concerned the ball game, "Giants Capture Pennant" and so on. The other headline concerned an atomic test that the Soviet Union had set off in Kazhakstan. Very few details were given, but the two bold matching headlines caused a sort of pause in me. There was a strong sense of the power of history, and this is what got me started thinking about the Cold War.

Howard: Well, my only caveat to that is that there wasn't much jubilation in Brooklyn that day. My father, a regular attendee at Ebbets Field, wore the scars from that game like a stigmata.

DeLillo: That's right, of course. But I think that what flowed from the event was the picture of Thomson circling the bases and the celebrations that arose spontaneously throughout the city, excluding Brooklyn. Very soon, perhaps the next day in the Daily News, this home run became known as "The Shot Heard Round the World," which connected it again, eerily and coincidentally, with the Soviet nuclear test.

Howard: Underworld provokes a number of simpleminded factual questions that I know are completely unworthy of me, and I am going to confine myself to one. Is it true that J. Edgar Hoover, Frank Sinatra, and Jackie Gleason were in a box together at that game?

DeLillo: Yes, it is true, they were at the game, and Toots Shor as well. They were cronies and they met that morning at Toots Shor's restaurant, more or less accidentally, and Sinatra had four tickets which had been given to him by Leo Durocher, the Giants manager. They got into a limousine and went up to the Polo Grounds. Hoover is, of course, the odd man out in this little congregation -- seemingly. But in fact he was an avid sportsman, at least at some level, and went often to the race track. He did frequent the Stork Club and Toots Shor's restaurant, and liked being around celebrities. So once I found out that Hoover had been at the game, it struck me with the force of revelation, because it meant that I had someone in the Polo Grounds who was intimately connected to what had happened in Kazhakstan. And I was able to blend these two events naturally and seamlessly.

Howard: The structure and the overall conception of Underworld is exceptionally inventive and unconventional. The general drift of the book moves backward in time, from our ambiguous post-Cold War present to the intimate clarity of life in a Bronx neighborhood in the fifties. This reverse trajectory is traced by all of the book's major characters. The unity of the book, its vast tapestry of characters, settings, and episodes, is created not so much by plot as by a weave of thematic connections. I'd like to ask you how this conception of the book evolved.

DeLillo: Once I set the structure and once I figured it out, I took it for granted and haven't really thought much about it. But it occurred to me recently that in a curious way it duplicates the countdown voice we associate with a nuclear test -- ten, nine, eight, seven . . .

When I finished the prologue and started Part One, I began the narrative on the day following the game. See, I had no sense at this point that I wanted to create an enormous separation in time between the Prologue and the beginning of the book proper. So what is now Part Six was originally Part One, and I wrote twenty pages, was having a wonderful time describing street games in the Bronx -- and realized, finally, that this was all wrong. And it wasnÕt until I finished twenty or twenty-five pages that I decided I had to do something drastic. And then the idea of a Part One that begins roughly forty years after the Prologue occurred to me. Then I realized that I would have to work backwards, toward the day of the ball game. What may seem obvious to most people looking at the book struck me with the force of enormous revelation, as obvious things often do when you are working on a piece of fiction, particularly something of this length.

Howard: This is entirely parenthetical, but another thing I thought of when I was coming over here was Magic Mountain. I remember finishing that book, and at the end Thomas Mann basically says in an afterword, "Thanks for finishing it. Now go back and read it again, because now you can appreciate what I have been doing, since I work with this leitmotif method." And that is precisely the feeling that I had about Underworld as I went back through it the second time to prepare for this interview. This time around I was clued to the idea that this wasn't a book that was structured in conventional narrative terms -- although it does have plenty of narrative elements.

DeLillo: Someone finishing Underworld said, "This is not a book you can read, this is a book you have to re-read." I haven't read Magic Mountain, but that is an interesting statement Mann made, which I came across, coincidentally, just recently -- that you can't read my work, you have to reread it.

Howard: Well, the first thing that people are going to notice about Underworld is its length. The second is its ambition -- it aspires to nothing less than a re-imagining of the American experience in the nuclear age. The short list of books that similarly attempt to grapple with the subterranean history of postwar American life, notably Gravity's Rainbow (Pynchon), The Recognitions (Gaddis), and perhaps Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace), is stacked with behemoths. What is it about that task that demands such length and complexity?

DeLillo: Maybe the answer is contained in the question. The last half century has been an enormously complex period -- a strange spin-out experience, filled with danger and change. The novel is a very open form. It will accommodate large themes and whole landscapes of experience. The novel is here, the novel exists to give us a form that is fully equal to the sweeping realties of a given period. The novel expands, contracts, becomes essaylike, floats in pure consciousness -- it gives the writer what he needs to produce a book that duplicates, a book that models the rich, dense, and complex weave of actual experience. The novel goads the writer into surpassing himself.

Howard: It seems to me that Underworld proposes almost a new understanding of history -- what history is, how people experience it. It is different from your earlier work. One of the most quoted lines from your novels is the line from Libra: "History is the sum total of the things they're not telling us." Libra dealt with aspects of conspiracy and paranoia. This book, in contrast, is pretty free of conspiracy. There is no sense of some vast agency or Other pulling the strings. There is a sense of togetherness under a nuclear shadow, and that to understand the history of the post-Bomb years we have to understand how that shadow manifested itself in every nook and cranny of our lives.

DeLillo: That's right. What is the role of high technology in creating the way we think and feel? The paranoia in Libra flows from unknowable plots being worked out in hidden corners. In Underworld it comes from the huge overarching presence of highly complex and interconnected technological systems. There's a feeling I have that people become more pliable, that people lose a measure of conviction as technology becomes more powerful and more sophisticated. I think it's interesting and curious that the Heaven's Gate group was computer-proficient. Against this technical skill we pose their childlike innocence and superstition. Maybe it's not coincidental. I think there is something in Underworld that moves in this direction. Of course, the novel ends in cyberspace. This is a realization of a sense in the book that all technology refers to the Bomb. Because what we see in those final scenes is a series of hydrogen bomb explosions on a special Web site. There's a religious aspect to this and again I think of the Heaven's Gate group and their mass suicide. There's a false faith. Maybe they thought they were going into cyberspace. The worship of technology ends in the paranoid spaces of the computer net.

Howard: Underworld draws its title from the brilliantly imagined rediscovered film of Eisenstein, Unterwelt. It joins other visual documents, actual and fabricated, of the twentieth century in your work, the autobiographical road movie by David Bell in Americana, the allegedly pornographic film made in Hitler's bunker from Running Dog, the Zapruder film whose footage haunts Libra and also Underworld. Why does film stand so conspicuously at the center of your work rather than books?

DeLillo: Because this is the age of images, I suppose, and much that is different about our time can be traced to the fact that we are on film, a reality that did not shape, instruct, and haunt previous cultures. I suppose film gives us a deeply self-conscious sense, but beyond that it's simply such a prevalent fact of contemporary life that I don't think any attempt to understand the way we live and the way we think and the way we feel about ourselves can proceed without a deep consideration of the power of the image.

Howard: I really admire the way the Eisenstein film unites so many strands of meaning and imagery in Underworld. To take just two: A viewer of the film remarks that "the theme deals on some level with people living in the shadows," which I think is a clear statement of your novel's anatomy of the nuclear shadows characters live under. And its parade of haunting grotesques anticipates the horrible fate of the downwinders from America's nuclear test sites and the inhabitants of the Museum of the Misshapen in Kazhakstan. I think it's in this film that the method of the book is fully realized.

DeLillo: The film supplies a Russian presence right in the middle of the book, the almost literal middle of the book, and it also explores a kind of gradation from the political repression of the Stalin era to something that in a way is deeper and more personal, a kind of sexual self-repression. Eisenstein figures into this and so does J. Edgar Hoover. And so does the mention of the old radio program "The F.B.I. in Peace and War," and the theme music of that program from Prokofiev, "The Love of Three Oranges," which is played at the Radio City Music Hall during the showing of Unterwelt. And these things curiously invent themselves. One doesn't have to work very hard to establish this sort of thematic consistency. A theme will insist on its own development.

Howard: It seems inevitable that the nuclear threat would serve as a focal point once again for a novel of yours. End Zone was an earlier, more manic excursion into atomic anxiety. Underworld, for all its moments of comic genius, is a relatively sober book with a gravitas and a scope that is absent from End Zone. What sort of distance do you think you and the country have traveled since 1973?

DeLillo: I think the country has entered a curious time warp. Time moves faster, memory is more or less obliterated, events seem to repeat themselves endlessly. And I guess the distance I traveled from End Zone is substantial but I don't think I can provide clear coordinates. You become a serious novelist by living long enough.

Howard: Let's talk about Nick Shay and your other characters for a while. Because I'm a native outer-borough New Yorker myself, perhaps, I found the material set in the Bronx of your childhood and the present day magical and moving and terrifically evocative. One of the dialectics that powers Underworld is that between the urban neighborhood and the larger world, the classic urban trajectory. You yourself have made that journey and so have Bronx-born literary figures like E. L. Doctorow and Richard Price. I am wondering how much of yourself you put into the rendering of Nick Shay, Matthew Shay, Klara Sax.

DeLillo: Well, certainly the background is the same. They are fictional characters. They are not drawn directly from real people, but the Bronx episodes in Part Six particularly were written out of a sense of intimate knowledge. Something I discovered after I finished writing the book, as I was reading the proofs, is that much of the book is nearly saturated with compound words, hyphenated words, many of them which I invented or grafted together. In Part Six, suddenly the language is a bit different. It's a bit simpler. It's more visceral. And it occurs to me that this is what a writer does to transcend the limitations of his background. He does it through language, obviously. He writes himself into the larger world. He opens himself to the entire culture. He becomes, in short, an American -- the writer equivalent of his immigrant parents and grandparents. And so there are two sets of language in this book. The difference between them isn't very stark but in fact a sort of journey is detectable, solely in sentences and pacing and word choice, between the Bronx of Part Six and the larger environment that surrounds it.

Howard: Your ear for that street speech is absolutely perfect and it constituted for me a kind of time machine back to that time and place. I'm positive that those speech patterns could not be discovered today, except maybe in some very remote Italian-American pocket of Brooklyn or the Bronx or conceivably Staten Island.

DeLillo: Yes, it's extraordinary what memory can summon. The farther back I went, it seemed the clearer my sense of the way people spoke and dressed and the way things looked.

Howard: By a happy coincidence, I finished Philip Roth's really terrific new novel, American Pastoral, the other night and I'm struck by its affinities with the Bronx section of Underworld. Roth's memories of Newark are just as eidetic and encyclopedic as yours of Arthur Avenue. The valence is different, though. Where he is angry, you are saddened by the terrible betrayal of the American promise represented by the social disaster that has been visited on these areas. Have you read the book yet?

DeLillo: I have, yes, and it's a very strong book. Of course the Newark passages are filled with a kind of rage and I think this is the major note in the book and it's very powerful.

Howard: Just to follow that for a second, there's no sociological cause and effect proposed between the American obsession with the Cold War and the malign neglect of the cities in Underworld, but the parallels are unmistakable. Was the near death of the Bronx and Newark as clear a cost of the Cold War as, say, the devastating pollution of certain Soviet cities?

DeLillo: In the book there's a wasted section of the South Bronx called the Wall. It's an area outside the reach of basic services such as water and electricity. And these passages are set around the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. There is certainly no explicit connection. There is a kind of shadow, a whisper. And there are themes of weapons and waste. The beautiful, expensive, nobly named weapons systems. And then the waste, many types of waste, and the Wall is a particular part of the waste -- the part that includes human lives.

Howard: In an earlier interview, you were speaking about the urban scenes in Great Jones Street, and you stated, "A writer may describe the ugliness and pain in graphic terms but he can also try to find the dignity and significance in ruined parts of the city in the people he sees there." This feels to me to be a conscious anticipation of the present-day Bronx sections of Underworld, particularly the Puerto Rican sections. These scenes and the final one, with the death and transfiguration of Esmeralda and Sister Edgar and your very Catholic conception of cyberspace, have a remarkable effect on one's understanding of the 800 pages that precede them. It's almost as if the reader would not know what the book means without them. This is an achievement and a gamble. Were you aware of the gamble you were taking?

DeLillo: Mainly I was trying to survive, day by day. There's a strong element of faith involved when a writer works on a book of this length -- his faith in what will be revealed to him as the months and years pass. A book this size does not reveal itself except in stages. I had no idea, for example, that the death of Esmeralda would end up so near the finish. It was originally part of an early chapter. You wait for things to show themselves. And when they do, it's exhilarating. Was I aware of the gamble? I wanted it. I went looking for it. That's why I wrote the book.

Howard: I think your lifelong allegiance to Father Joyce has paid off splendidly.

DeLillo: Mailer calls him Doctor Joyce. You and I know that he's a priest.

Howard: I'm struck by your generosity and your empathy in writing about artists in other mediums, especially visual artists. Warhol is a major inspiration and influence in Mao II and I felt that the painter Klara Sax is clearly a spiritual kin to Sullivan, the sculptress muse in Americana. Where does your feeling for art and artists come from? Have you associated with them much?

DeLillo: I have a few friends who are painters, but I think it's mainly one of the major effects of having grown up in New York City. It's simply the time I spent at the Museum of Modern Art and at a half dozen repertory movie theatres looking mainly at European films in the late fifties and early sixties. There's jazz in Underworld, too, and that would be the third element in my personal trinity -- of abstract expressionism, foreign films, and jazz. These things were probably stronger influences on my sensibility than anything I read.

Howard: One of the particular excellences of Underworld is the way you get downtown New York in the seventies absolutely right. It was such an interesting period in American art and American sensibility. Were you, to use a shopworn phrase, a "downtown" person in those years or were you just picking up signals?

DeLillo: A little of both. Downtown is where things lay hidden, waiting for people to find them. And one of the hidden things, not only downtown, is the rooftop world -- the water towers, gardens, architectural ornaments -- and this is the world I tried to explore in Part Four, in the rooftop summer sequences. And of course the fact that Klara Sax is a painter and sculptor helped me see Manhattan in those terms.

Howard: I remember coming out of college in 1972 and sort of discovering Soho and areas south. There was the sense that something was going on, but it was hidden. You'd be walking along a fairly deserted street and you'd hear music from a loft, and you'd think, "I want to be up there." And eventually I did get up there. Soho was a widely shared cultural secret that had its own code.

DeLillo: And the code was largely architectural, contained in the great cast-iron buildings.

Howard: This is a complete shot in the dark, but have you ever seen any theatrical productions by Robert Wilson? Because Underworld is the closest thing to Einstein on the Beach that I can imagine in prose.

DeLillo: Well, that's one I haven't seen. I did see a production of Alcestis in Cambridge and it was quite interesting. I am not aware that there is any connection between his work and mine. I will say this, though: Einstein on the Beach is a title I wish I'd thought of first.

Howard: As you know, the part of the book that really floored me is the psychic history of the Cuban Missile Crisis in the form of a series of monologues delivered over its duration by Lenny Bruce. From my point of view you don't so much imitate or represent Bruce as channel him. It's a beautiful example of hipster hysteria, irony, scorn, and terror, mixed in precise Brucian proportions. Did you ever actually catch his act?

DeLillo: Just once. There was a place not far from where I lived. It was a club in a hotel, called the Den in the Duane, in Murray Hill of all places. I think Lenny Bruce was a very strong influence on the culture and deserves recognition at the level of Ginsberg and Burroughs and Kerouac. Although of course he was different -- he was not a beatnik, he was a hipster. But the things he released into the culture were important.

Howard: You present a paradox to your admirers. In your work you describe the literary vocation with a keen sense of comic futility. I'm thinking of the obsessively unpublished writer Edward B. Fenig in Great Jones Street -- one of my favorite characters of yours -- and the pop culture theorist Murray Jay Siskind in White Noise. In Libra you suggest that our greatest experimental novelists have been trumped by the Warren Commission Report, and Mao II proposes that terrorists have replaced novelists as the master shapers of our common narrative. And yet in your eleven novels and especially, I believe, in Underworld, you offer your readers each and every one of the consolations of literature, including a moral and intellectual purchase on our inchoate and unnerving recent history. How aware are you of this contradiction? Does it energize you?

DeLillo: Well, it was a relief not to have a writer in this book, yes.

The writer has lost a great deal of his influence, and he is situated now, if anywhere, on the margins of the culture. But isn't this where he belongs? How could it be any other way? And in my personal view this is a perfect place to observe what's happening at the dead center of things. I particularly have always had a kind of endgame sensibility when it comes to writing serious fiction. Before I ever published a novel, this is how I felt about it -- that I was writing for a small audience that could disappear at any minute, and not only was this not a problem, it was a kind of solution. It justified what I wrote and it narrowed expectations in a healthy way. I am not particularly distressed by the state of fiction or the role of the writer. The more marginal, perhaps ultimately the more trenchant and observant and finally necessary he'll become.

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