The more you read both Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, the more it becomes apparent that, for all their similarities, PynchonOver, Under, Outside, In
The more you read both Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo, the more it becomes apparent that, for all their similarities, Pynchon defines his world in terms of underground versus over- (or above-)ground, while DeLillo defines his in terms of outside versus inside. They are not big substantive differences, they are more differences of nuance.
La Pufferie de L’Éclair
I wonder whether, when the well-meaning literary critic Tom LeClair coined the term "systems novel" (to kickstart his Ph. D. thesis and his subsequent academic career), he realised that he would send dozens of cultish mega-brow postgraduate touch typists, editors and readers down the post-modern rabbit hole in search of 800-odd page maximalist novels for the next thirty years.
I'm not sufficiently "in the loop" (LeClair's book of that name is hard to get at a reasonable price) to know whether the neologism was inspired in part by DeLillo's "Players". Of DeLillo's five earliest novels, it seems the one most overtly concerned with systems. However, the irony is that it is a mere 212 pages short. Thus, it is ample proof that you don't need 800 plus pages to constitute a systems novel. You can deconstruct a system by focussing on a microcosm of it. You don't need to bulk out the book with acutely attentive helmet cam detail or repetition. The one can stand for the many. "E pluribus unum", after all is said and done. You don't have to keep all of your research a la Vollmann.
Equally, LeClair recognises that even protesters have to take a leak and, out of necessity, one might sometimes have to stand (or sit) on a pedestal meant for the few:
"I fold my sign into my bag and enter to use the [Trump] Tower’s underground marble toilet."
Tom LeClair protesting outside Trump Tower by way of tribute to a character in Don Delillo's novel, who spent over 18 years, professing clearly his opposition, trying to forge a counter-narrative against the system.
The Man and His Sign
"The man was often there, standing outside Federal Hall, corner of Wall and Nassau. Lean and gray-stubbled, maybe seventy, sweating brightly in a frayed shirt and slightly overused suit, he held a homemade sign over his head, sometimes for whole afternoons, lowering his arms only long enough to allow blood to recirculate. The sign was two by three feet, hand-lettered on both sides, political in nature. Loungers at this hour, most of them sitting on the steps outside the Hall, were too distracted by the passers-by to give the man and his sign - familiar sights, after all - more than a cursory glance. Down here, in the district, men still assembled solemnly to gape at females. Working in a roar of money, they felt, gave them that vestigial right." - Don DeLillo
The Global Financial System
DeLillo set this novel in the heart of the Global Financial System, which Wiki defines here.
The symbol of the system is the floor of the New York Stock Exchange located at 11 Wall Street. However, DeLillo defines the System as more than this physical space where trading occurs. It is more abstract, a concept. It is the “mazes and intricate techniques” which facilitate the circulation of money around the world. It incorporates and uses people, who are “nurtured on realities, the limitations of things”. Each of these people is “a tiny human hankering for something, and it becomes a way of life, the obsession of the ages.” People work inside this space, but live outside it. DeLillo describes this in terms of “the suggestions of a double life” or a clandestine life "enmeshed in a psychology of stealth", although it’s apparent that the life is more like a death.
The two main characters, husband Lyle Wynant and wife Pammy, he the youngest ever partner in a broking firm, she a grief counsellor working on the 83rd floor of the north tower of the World Trade Centre (the book was first published in 1977), despite being a relatively affluent middle class couple (“we sound like a pompom girl and a physics major”), live a relatively dehumanised life in which they have become detached from their friends and peers (as well as each other), and now suffer a “reduced sensibility” (even though they share a history of going to restaurants and frequenting “clubs where new talent auditioned and comic troupes improvised”). “Gradually their range diminished...What seemed missing was the desire to compile.”
Their past experiences had almost become something they named, numbered and stored, in order to preserve. Despite the apparent vitality of the financial system, the outside world is approaching total decay. As in the fiction of Thomas Pynchon, entropy is at play, if not necessarily at work:
“Is it still there? I thought we’d effectively negated it. I thought that was the upshot.”
“It’s so modern-stupid. It’s this thing that people are robots that scares me. And the environment.”
“He imagined the district never visited, empty of human transaction, and how buildings such as these would seem to hold untouchable matter, enormous codifications of organic decay. He tried to examine the immense complexity of going home.”
However, on the outside is now only “unmemorised faces and uniform cubes of being.”
The language that Lyle and Pammy use with each other is abbreviated and coded, shorthand and short shrift, not necessarily comprehensible to us outsiders. The instruments of intimate communication have decayed as well. People have plunged into sullen entropy (see the soundtrack below).
The Glamour of Revolutionary Violence
DeLillo introduces two counter-narratives, one involving terrorism, the other sex.
The floor of the Stock Exchange has already experienced one attempted terrorist attack, in which a colleague of Lyle’s (George Sedbauer) was shot and killed. Through a mutual work colleague, Rosemary Moore, Lyle meets some of the people responsible for the attack. He learns that they “still have the intent to hit Eleven Wall.” Gradually, Lyle is lured into their plans (although it’s not clear whether the attack ever eventuates).
The participants include double agents, notwithstanding the fact that Lyle attempts to pass on information to a third party, supposedly from the FBI. The plot of the novel is clearly secondary. However, there is enough to constitute a thriller, once you compile it and work it into a coherent narrative. The following comments could almost apply to the novel as a whole:
“He summarised what had happened in short declarative sentences. This seemed to help, breaking the story into coherent segments. It eased the surreal torment, the sense of aberration. To hear the sequence restated intelligibly was at that moment more than a small comfort to her. It supplied a focus, a distinct point into which things might conceivably vanish after a while, chaos and divergences, foes of God.”
The terrorists belong to a radical, revolutionary movement that wants to destabilise and undermine the system with acts of violence. They seem to be home-grown, although they are described (not always reliably) as from a Swedish or Spanish background.
DeLillo refers to “the glamour of revolutionary violence, to the secret longing it evokes in the most docile soul”, which we may infer includes Lyle, to the extent that he is ever more than a mere informant or witness. It seems that it definitely included his predecessor, George Sedbauer, who had become “involved with terrorists, these total crazies from the straight world’s point of view…[George] was hanging around with wide-eyed radicals, with the bomb-throwers. He was doing business with the other side. A white collar.”
Effete Diversion or Calculated Madness?
There are two conflicting motives for the movement to which the terrorists belong:
“Rafael [Vilar] wanted to disrupt their system, the idea of worldwide money. It’s this system that we believe is their secret power. It all goes floating across that floor. Currents of invisible life. This is the centre of their existence. The electronic system. The waves and charges. The green numbers on the board. This is what my brother [Luis Ramirez] calls their way of continuing on through rotting flesh, their closest taste of immortality. Not the bulk of all that money. The system itself, the current...It was this secret of theirs that he wanted to destroy, this invisible power. It’s all in that system, bip-bip-bip-bip, the flow of electric current that unites moneys, plural, from all over the world. Their greatest strength, no doubt of that. They have money. We have destruction.”
“I operate on basic, really visceral levels. Terror is purification. When you set out to rid society of repressive elements, you immediately become a target yourself, for all sorts of people. There’s nobody who mightn’t conceivably stick it to you. Being killed, or betrayed, sometimes seems the point of it all.”
On the other hand, J. Kinnear has different views:
“J. is all theory. He’s waiting for the instruments of world repression to fall apart on their own. It will happen mystically in a pink light. The people will step in and that will be that. One way of betraying the revolution is to advance theories about it. We don’t only make doctrines, my brother and I. We’re here to destroy. When we did the dynamite in Brussels, the embassy, it was beautiful because we were technicians completing an operation. In and out. The cleanest piece of work imaginable. Theory is an effete diversion. Its purpose is to increase the self-esteem of the theorists. The only worthwhile doctrine is calculated madness.”
The FBI thinks it understands Vilar:
“Vilar in his revolutionary fervour decides it’s time for the ultimate gesture. He will give his life for the cause. Perfectly in keeping. Vilar has always had tendencies. The rightist kills his own leader. The leftist kills himself. Taking as many people with him as can be accommodated in a given era. In this case a superb sadomasochistic coup. Half the Exchange goes with him.”
This is the point at which Lyle gets involved, sympathetic to their social justice aspirations:
“Marina would be the type who dedicated herself to exacting satisfaction for some wrong. She would work on personal levels, despite the sweeping references to movements and systems. It was possibly at the centre of her life, the will to settle things, starkly. Coercive passions sometimes had a steadying element in their midst. To avenge, in a sense, was simply to equalise, to seek a requisite balance. There was forethought involved, precision of scale...Lyle had never felt so intelligent before. His involvement was beginning to elicit an acute response. They had no visible organisation or leadership.. they had no apparent plan. They came from nowhere and might be gone tomorrow. Lyle believed it was these free-form currents that he found so stimulating, mentally. They gave no indication of membership in anything. They didn’t even have a nationality, really.”
What Sweet Vistas and Sweeter Mediations
Lyle’s introduction to the movement comes from two women, Rosemary and Marina:
“Not all agendas called for rigid adherence to codes. There were other exchanges possible, sweeter mediations.”
“Was he coming to understand the motivating concepts that led to obsession, despair, crimes of passion? Haw haw haw. Denial and assertion. The trap of wanting. The blessedness of being wronged. What sweet vistas it opens, huge neurotic landscapes, what exemptions.”
However, he realises that both sides are just as bad as each other:
“Our big problem in the past, as a nation, was that we didn’t give our government credit for being the totally entangling force that it was. They were even more evil than we imagined. More evil and much more interesting. Assassination, blackmail, torture, enormous improbable intrigues. All these convolutions and relationships. Assorted sexual episodes...”
Which pretty much summarises DeLillo’s novel, one in which the system seems to need and deserve a counter-narrative (even if it has fatal consequences).
Faithlessness and Desire: The Touch of Love
Speaking of assorted sexual episodes, there are several sex scenes, some involving Lyle, some Pammy, and some both, that contain some of DeLillo’s best writing. In order to avoid spoilers, I’ll assemble some of them into one representative passage:
"She was at her desk, sorting mail. These surroundings no longer made sense. He’d seen her in a half slip, in panties, naked. He’d stood in the toilet doorway and watched her dress, an itemising of erotic truths, until she’d spotted him and turned, off-balance, to elbow the door. At her desk, passing time, he marvelled at the ease with which they fitted into slots of decorum. People must be natural spies.
The instant she glanced at his genitals he felt an erection commence.
She was obviously aware of the contemplative interest she’d aroused in him...Her body would never be wrong, inexplicable as it was, a body that assimilated his failure to understand it. He nourished her by negative increments. A trick of existence.
Her flesh, her overample thighs, the contact chill of her body were the preoccupations of his detachment from common bonds.
She sought release in long tolling strokes. What she felt, the untellable ordeal of this pleasure, would evolve without intervention, a transporting sequence of falling behind and catching up to her own body, its pre-emptive course, its exalted violence of feeling, the replenishments that overwhelm the mortal work of the senses, drenching them in the mysteries of muscles and blood. This ending segment then was ‘factual’, ‘one-track’, and she would close, slaked.
He pressed onto her constantly, all his body, ravenous for flesh, his hands mixing and working her into a mass of mild discolouration. She never approached orgasm. He accepted this not as a deficiency he might correct (as people often interpret the matter), using patience and skill, the bed mechanic’s experience; nor as a deeper exhaustion, a failure of the spirit. It was simply part of their dynamics, the condition of being together, and he had no intention of altering the elements of the spell or even of wishing them otherwise. One kind of sex or another was not the question. The triteness that pervaded their meetings supplied what he wanted of eroticism and made ‘one’ or ‘the other’ a question of recondite semantics. He gripped her fiercely. There was never any point at which he guided himself past a certain stage or prepared to approach a culmination. It was too disorganised, the moments of intensity only loosely foreseen. He would climax unexpectedly, barely aware, feeling both criminal and naive.
Her eyes were instruments of incredibly knowing softness. At her imperceptible urging he felt himself occupy his body. It made such sense, every pelvic stress, the slightest readjustment of some fraction of an inch of flesh...when it ended, massively, in a great shoaling transit, a leap of decompressing force, they whispered in each other’s ear, wordlessly, breathing odours and raw heat, small gusts of love.
He held her hand, occasionally putting his lips to the ends of her fingers. He realised this was an endearment.
It became for a time a set of game-playing moods. They scribbled on each other’s body. They touched reverently. They investigated with the thoroughness of people trying to offset years of sensory and emotional deprivation. At last, they seemed to be saying, we are allowed to solve this mystery. This was part of the principle of childlikeness that she had sought to establish as their recognised level of perception. With slightly pious curiosity they handled and planed. It was the working-out of a common notion, the make-believe lover. They were deliberate, trying to match the tempo of their mental inventions, hands seeking a plastic consistency.
This crossing over. The recomposition of random parts into something self-made. For a time it seemed the essential factors were placement, weight and balance. The meaning of left and right. The transpositions.
The aspect and character of these body parts, the names, the liquid friction. Dimly she sought phrases for these configurations.
This, their sweet and mercenary space, was self-enchantment.
This interval would pass, these midafternoon abstractions, the mild loving by touch, the surface contact."
All the Men and Women Are Merely Players in a Drama
In "Players", DeLillo has created a systematic and systemic drama in which the characters are the players, even though they are oppressed and repressed by the system they find themselves either inside or outside. Fortunately, some of them find comfort and pleasure in touch and play. We readers, given less choice, can find much pleasure in the language, construction and enchantment of the drama.
I wish I had been tempted to read this novel much earlier. I hope I've convinced you that something in it might appeal to you, especially in this pre-post-Trump era. It should definitely not be dismissed as a lesser DeLillo novel. In it, you can find both a demonstration and a foreshadowing of the themes and styles he would develop in his mid- to later-works. And it's 212 pages long.
SOUNDTRACK: (view spoiler)[ Lord Buckley (A Most Immaculately Hip Aristocrat) - "The Naz(z)"
"The cat put it down the first time...and the cat dug it!...I dig what the man's putting down...Yeah - here I is again. There's me - and there's you...You put it down and they'll pick it up!!! And they dug it!!!...You dug him before - dig him now!"
"Yesterday it seemed so cool and everything was fabulous, Built of brick and made for an eternity; Give an inch and take an inch and what you've got is where you were, The universe is based on sullen entropy - It falls apart as it goes on."