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DeLillo, Don

Entry updated 18 September 2023. Tagged: Author.

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(1936-    ) US author, active from about 1960, though he has never collected his early fiction; after the publication of his first novel, Americana (1970), he very rapidly established a reputation for brilliance and seriousness, and for an unrelentingly adventurous Equipoise in subject matter and shape of story (see also Fabulation); as a Mainstream Writer of SF he has demonstrated an unusual (and increasing) ease with genre modellings. Several of his earlier novels – like Great Jones Street (1973) – subject their protagonists to sf-like revelations of the nature of reality through psychotropic Drugs and devices; and the game of terror played in The Names (1982) smacks of Oulipo. His fourth novel, Ratner's Star (1976), which is sf, examines the personal and cognitive cruces surrounding the decipherment of a message from the star of the title, subjecting this sf material to a formidable array of contemporary intellectual procedures, while presenting its numerous characters as in-depth portraits of the fundamental obsessions at the heart of contemporary US intellectual life. The book stands as a model (a rather humbling one for Genre SF) of the extraordinary complexity of response that any genuine message from the stars (see First Contact; Linguistics) would necessarily elicit. Later novels whose range of implication transcends any simple mimetic import include the doom-suffused, prolepsis-dense but hilarious White Noise (1985), filmed as White Noise (2022) directed by Noah Baumbach, in which an "airborne toxic event" – a Pollution Disaster whose consequences radiate unexpectedly through the text – conflates with the introduction of a Drug intended to render Americans indifferent to the reality of death; both novel and the faithful film version generate a sense that the world has lost its inherent substance, that the white noise of death irretrievably irradiates the supermarkets and malls and environs. Libra (1988) is a fantasticated rendering of the assassination of John F Kennedy; and Underworld (1997) is a Tale of Circulation structured around the peregrinations of a literal baseball through the vast text, whose surreally intense rendering of the cultural implications of Baseball evokes though it does not literally enter the fantastic.

The newly widowed protagonist of The Body Artist (2001) discovers a Mysterious Stranger squatting in her home; his powers of Precognition are associated with a deranging ability to dislodge the flow of time; she must recover that "flow of time", or abandon her human life. In Cosmopolis (2003) a billionaire money manager about to lose everything travels by limousine across 47th Street in Manhattan (see New York) in order to get a haircut; the journey comprises a highly charged mapping of the kind of City that we will inhabit from now on, intensifying this vision into genuine Fantastika through the use of two Time Distortions: the daylong passage of the limousine telescopes the whole of the meaning of the protagonist's life into that day, in a conscious evocation of James Joyce's Ulysses (1922); and partway through he observes that on his Computer spycam – in an uncanny anticipation of the Singularity, when the realities humans can perceive may be described as obedient to instructions – his movements are happening instants before they do in what remains of real life. This novel was filmed by David Cronenberg as Cosmopolis (2012). Of the exceedingly various tales from 1979 to 2011 assembled in The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories (coll 2011), of particular sf interest is "Human Moments in World War Three" (July 1983 Esquire) (see World War Three), which is set in an orbiting satellite as the astronauts aboard gather information about the fate of the planet. Falling Man (2007) and Point Omega (2010), though neither are explicitly fantastic, present the twenty-first century world as a metaphysical vacancy: the falling man in the first of these falls off the Twin Towers into exactly a vacancy, "arms waving like nothing in this life"; and the heart of the protagonist of the second is a cenotaph. Zero K (2016) hovers ominously and explicitly in a world permeated by science-fictional Memes and postures, centring on a mysterious research Asian Keep called the Convergence, where the usual solipsistic Libertarian SF techno-utopianism wars against an Eschatological sense that the planet has entered endzone; in the course of this, Cybernetics is applied to the creation of Cyborgs who, via Cryonic suspension and other devices, are intended to become our Posthuman inheritors: "Everybody", as the Zero K's opening sentence states, "wants to own the end of the world." The Silence (2020), a novella set in very Near Future 2022, traces with extreme terseness, over a period of six hours, the consequences of a sudden planetary Computer outage; after suffering near death on a plane landing without instruments in Newark (ie New York), the main protagonists join others in a kind of near-automaton stasis: caught in "the vast insomnia of this inconceivable time". But what cannot be conceived must be uttered: World War Three may have started. The tale, and more conclusively the previous Zero K, marks Delillo's continued exposure to the edge of things, as the most significant author of his generation not conventionally associated with Fantastika to continue, along with Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon, to recognize the new century. [JC]

Donald Richard DeLillo

born New York: 20 November 1936


collections, plays and stories

about the author


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