Friday, March 6, 2009

James Wood vs. Don DeLillo

James Wood

Don DeLillo

Now here’s a real problem; a British literary critic whom I greatly admire, one James Wood, publishes an essay on why he doesn’t like a novel called, Underworld, by one of my favorite authors, the American novelist Don DeLillo. And that pesky rub is somewhere between the two, because I really like DeLillo’s book, while Wood’s 12 page critique of it, is an accurate and dead-on review that would make any fan of literature nod their head in one way or another. The facts: Underworld was first published in 1997 and James Wood’s essay entitled, Against Paranoia: The Case of Don DeLillo, was published in The New Republic shortly thereafter. Both the novel and essay are brilliantly crafted pieces that give the reader unexpected insights into the world around us. And no, I’m not kidding or being gratuitous when I say that.

Corner #1

James Wood
Born 1965; Durham, UK
Wood has published three books of criticism and one novel. He is a writer for the New Yorker and has written for The Guardian and The New Republic. He teaches at Harvard and Columbia Universities.

Corner #2

Don DeLillo
Born 1936; New York City, USA
DeLillo has written 15 novels and three plays. He’s won a National Book Award and a PEN/Faulkner Award. Underworld was voted the second most important work of fiction in the last 25 years by The New York Times.

Round 1

Wood ~
To call Underworld, Don DeLillo’s large novel, a failure, might seem an act of slightly flirtatious irrelevance. The book is so large, so serious, so ambitious, so often well written, so punctually intelligent, that it produces its own antibodies and makes criticism a small germ. Moreover, Don DeLillo’s huge endeavor represents a promise to restock the novel’s wasting pedigree in our age, and few want to see the promise broken. It is easy, and rightly so, for big books to flush away criticism. But DeLillo’s novel, despite chapters of great brilliance, does not gather its local victories as a book this large should. Instead, it enforces relations between its parts which it cannot coax. Curiously, it is at once distractingly centrifugal and dogmatically centripetal: its many characters dissolve an intensity which the novel insists on repeating.
Some background:

Underworld is the story of the kind of history that influences our lives in monumental ways. That being our personal history; things like, birth place, parents, siblings, school, environment, friends, romantic counterparts, and of course all this sets against the history we all know; JFK, Vietnam, Civil Rights, the Cold War. The book starts in 1951 with the “Shot Heard Around the World” in baseball when Bobby Thomson hit a homerun for a New York Giants victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers. Simultaneously the USSR makes its “shot” when it detonates its first atomic bomb in Kazakhstan. Underworld takes us on a journey from then to the late 1990’s in which we follow Thomson’s baseball that in reality was never found, but here its ownership changes over the next 50 years frequently. Every person to come in contact with the ball is a character along with others including, a Jesuit nun, a New York graffiti artist, a Kazakh medical ward, a conceptual artist, a waiter, and fictionalized versions of real characters; J. Edgar Hoover, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and most significantly, Lenny Bruce. The book follows a non-linear narrative that goes back and forth in time through the years of the Cold War.

Round 2

DeLillo talking about his book in an interview ~
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 realities of a given period. The novel expands, contracts, becomes essay-like, 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… And it occurs to me that this is what the writer does to transcend the limitations of his background. He does it though language, obviously. He writes himself into the larger world. He opens himself to the entire culture.
Round 3

Wood ~
Don DeLillo is a serious artist whose pointed stewardship of the novel in our culture and pleasure in the chafe of fictional language are cherishable. But his very defensiveness of the novel leads him, as far as one can see, into a philosophy of history which may weaken the novel, and into a battle with the culture which the novel can only lose. Again, the problem is that DeLillo veers toward a complicity with the very culture he wants to defend the novel against. Yet DeLillo’s struggle with the anaconda of postmodern America, if not his personal theory of that struggle, is representative of much American writing since 1960, when Philip Roth famously argued that American reality was more vivid, and hence more fictional, than American fiction. DeLillo is not isolate; where Underworld fails, it fails collegiately.
Round 4

page; 446
In cities you build a language of circumspection and tact, a thousand little intimations, the nuance that has a shimmer of rubbed bronze. Then you go to the wilderness and become undone, lapsing into babble, eating mushroom caps that implode your brain, that make you preternaturally aware and afraid, turn you into an Aztec bird.
Matt Shay sat in the terminal of the airport in Tucson and listened to announcements bouncing off the walls.
He was thinking about his paranoid episode at the bombhead party the night before. He felt he’d glimpsed some horrific system of connections in which you can’t tell the difference between a soup can and a car bomb, because they are made by the same people in the way and ultimately refer to the same thing.
There was a garbage strike in New York.
There was a man being paged known only as Jack.
A woman with an accent said to someone seated next to her, “I so-call fell in love with him the day he paint my walls.”
There was a man in a wheelchair eating a burrito.
Round 5

Wood ~
What is striking is how many paranoid people there are in Underworld, and how this multitude drives so many perforations of unreality into the book’s form that its truths come to seem ragged and uncertain, while its untruths have an airy consistency… Such an agglomeration of paranoid people makes the reader weary about discrimination, and thus deprives this novel of one of fiction’s great goads. Paranoia must necessarily do this to fiction, for it silences judgment. One might call this the logic of pampered ignorance. If what you start out from is what you do not know, this is an infinitely extendable mystical spectrum. One can always not know more. Paranoia approaches knowledge from behind, so that anything can be connected with anything. It is dogmatic occultism. Yet fiction’s task is to show where connections seem to end, the better for their vivid spread.
Round 6

page; 301
You withhold the deepest things from those who are closest and then talk to a stranger in a numbered room.
page; 778
It was dark and quiet now and he went up the narrow street toward his building but then swung into a gateway on an impulse and went down the steps and into the yards.
There was no light in the outer passage and he felt along the walls for the door that led inside. He smelled wet stone where the super had hosed the floors. He went inside and walked past the furnace room to the door at the end of the passage.
He still felt uneasy about the basement room, about the needle and strap and spoon, but it was passing little by little into faded time, half lost in the weave of a thousand things.
Page; 803
Most of our longings go unfulfilled. This is the word’s wistful implication – a desire for something lost or fled or otherwise out of reach.
In Phoenix now, with the years blowing by, I take a drive sometimes out past the regimented typeface on the map…
Closing Arguments

Don DeLillo is an amazingly talented writer and I have no problem calling him a genius. However in my view, Underworld is not his best work, yet it stands near the top of a skinny mountain that is the best of contemporary fiction. Of DeLillo’s work that stand above Underworld are; The Names, White Noise, The Body Artist, and Mao II.
Literary Criticism is something that I’ve really enjoyed reading the past few years. It can give insight and understanding of literature that’s not always immediately apparent, and in turn, criticism can add to the evocative nature of the works it analyzes. James Wood is a fairly recent find for me. Out of the very few critics that I like, he is the best because he seems to possess an almost ESP-like ability to break things down and render them comprehensible to the layman while adding his own touch of resonance.

Round 7

Wood ~
Naturally enough, DeLillo has his own American anxiety; you cannot have the calm growl of a Tolstoy in late-twentieth-century America, nor should you. But the paranoid vision incorporates a certain restless despair that makes the creation of rounded individual characters impossible. Paranoia acts as a falsely religious stimulant, to both novelists and their characters. Thus it is that DeLillo fights history with the religion of the novel, and speaks of the novel as “fanaticism, with elements of obsession, superstition and awe” – an extraordinary inversion of the sober nineteenth-century legacy, and a superstitious cul-de-sac for the novel. Living in America, inheriting a dread that American reality is too powerful for American fiction, he responds by crawling very close to an outright denial of reality’s groundedness, while exaggerating the strength of fiction’s potential resistance to that reality. If Tolstoy fought superstition with the daylight of realism, DeLillo merely fights superstition with a new superstition. He fights the religion of history with religion of fiction.
Round 8

Page; 827
And you can glance out the window for a moment, distracted by the sound of small kids playing a made-up game in a neighbor’s yard, some kind of kickball maybe, and they speak in your voice, or piggy-back races on the weedy lawn, and it’s your voice you hear, essentially, under the glimmerglass sky, and you look at the things in the room, offscreen, unwebbed, the tissued grain of the deskwood alive in the light, the thick lived tenor of things, the argument of things to be seen and eaten, the apple core going sepia in the lunch tray, and the dense measures of experience in a random glance, the monk’s candle reflected in the slope of the phone, hours marked in Roman numerals, and the glaze of the wax, and the curl of the braided wick, and the chipped rim of the mug that holds your yellow pencils, skewed all crazy, and the plied lives of the simplest surface, the slabbed butter melting on the crumbled bun, and the yellow of the yellow of the pencils, and you try to imagine the word on the screen becoming a thing in the world, taking all its meanings, its sense of serenities and contentments out into the streets somehow, its whisper of reconciliation, a word extending itself ever outward, the tone of agreement or treaty, the tone of repose, the sense of mollifying silence, the tone of hail and farewell, a word that carries the sunlit ardor of an object deep in drenching noon, the argument of binding touch, but it’s only a sequence of pulses on a dullish screen and all it can do is make you pensive – a word that spreads a longing through the raw sprawl of the city and out across the dreaming bourns and orchards to the solitary hills.


Satan Muffin said...

Wood has good points here, but he is missing something crucial. Although I have not read Underworld, I have read other DeLillo stories. DeLillo is in the practice of symbolizing our deepest fears and thoughts, so I am going to take a wild guess that in this book he shows the characters for the paranoid fools they are. His point sometimes tends to be to push the reader to see this, plus give the reader the portal to look thru and get beyond the things the characters are doing and feeling. I could be wrong as i have not read this, I just think DeLillo is smart and has an ulterior motive. While Wood is critical of it, maybe that is what DeLillo wants all of us to do with that book. He probably chuckles at Wood.

Stafford said...

DeLillo probably does chuckle at Wood, but Wood will not doubt smirk back. Because Wood is always emphasizing realism over allegory and metaphor, which is DeLillo's and even more so, Thomas Pynchon's specialty. I'm in the weird position of equally liking both Wood's critique and DeLillo's book...