You could spend weeks or even months inside this short novel.
It's as rewarding as it is challenging.
There are multiple chaAn Explosion Over the Desert
You could spend weeks or even months inside this short novel.
It's as rewarding as it is challenging.
There are multiple characters with multiple points of view. It's not clear whether any are supposed to represent DeLillo's reconciled or concluded views, or, rather, whether it's the debate that matters (and that that debate could and should continue).
The debate concerns reality, consciousness, identity, silence and language. Oh yeah, and war and football and weight loss and orange dresses (“You look like an explosion over the desert”).
Inside the Language of Logos
This is just as much a metaphysical novel as it is a metaphorical one.
Everything happens within language, not just within the language of the novel.
Silence seems to be the absence of language, or the exile from community and language. Without language, there is no society or discourse. As Wittgenstein remarked:
"Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent."
DeLillo's protagonist, Gary Harkness, says, "Of all the aspects of exile, silence pleased me least."
As David Foster Wallace inferred from his reading of the novel, "SILENCE = HORROR."
It's the horror of separation from and the destruction of society.
One way of viewing exile is that it is "the state of being separated from whatever is left of the center of one's own history."
Exile and silence, therefore, de-centre the individual consciousness.
The Complication of the Exile
Harkness is one of the exiles in (and from) the Logos College football team.
He's physically talented enough to earn a place, but he doesn't really fit in. He's not simple enough. As his coach says:
"You're more the complicated type."
As a result, he's regarded as an outcast or an exile. Most of the rest of the team are crazy. In a way, you can either be sane outside the team/crowd or insane within it.
The Simple Life of the Warrior
Harkness' coach urges him to become more simple, to "lead a simple life":
"Oneness was stressed - the oneness necessary for a winning team. It was a good concept, oneness, but I suggested that, to me at least, it could not be truly attractive unless it meant oneness with God or the universe or some equally redoubtable super-phenomenon. What he meant by oneness was in fact elevenness or twenty-oneness."
Harkness seems to crave oneness with something more than mere people or community or society.
At a previous college, he accidentally killed another player. Now, he "liked reading about the deaths of tens of millions of people. I liked dwelling on the destruction of great cities..."
This is one of the first connections between war and football:
"I felt that I was better for it [football], reduced in complexity, a warrior."
Between Silence and Violence
Harkness seems to inhabit the space between silence and violence (apologies for the rhyme!).
"I respect Tweego in a way. He thinks in one direction, straight ahead. He just aims and fires. He has ruthlessness of mind. That's something I respect. I think it's a distinctly modern characteristic. The systems planner. The management consultant. The nuclear strategist. It's a question of fantastic single-mindedness. That's something I genuinely respect."
For all his complexity, Harkness is still captivated by simplicity and single-mindedness, qualities that are often associated with the violence of both sport and war. Yet it's also fundamental to nature:
"The universe was born in violence. Stars die violently. Elements are created out of cosmic violence."
The mantra for their football team is:
"Hit somebody. Hit somebody. Hit somebody."
However, Harkness' problem is, in the words of his coach:
"You're just too damn nice...You people got a long way to go in meanness."
Still, football provides some comfort:
"Life was simplified by these afternoons of opposites and affinities."
Opposites being the opposition, and affinities being your own team.
War and Football
DeLillo equivocates over any possible analogy between war and football. He describes the action of the game in militaristic terms:
"The special teams collided, swarm and thud of interchangeable bodies, small wars commencing here and there, exaltation and firstblood, a helmet bouncing brightly on the splendid grass, the breathless impact of two destructive masses, quite pretty to watch."
On the other hand, one of his characters (Alan Zapalac) proclaims:
"I reject the notion of football as warfare. Warfare is warfare. We don't need substitutes because we've got the real thing."
Later, he describes some of the unique features of football:
"Football is discipline. It's team love. It's reason plus passion. The crowds are fantastic. They jump and scream."
Zapalac is less enthusiastic about wars between nations:
"A nation is never more ridiculous than in its patriotic manifestations."
Technology and Language
DeLillo does however explore some differences and likenesses between war and football.
On the one hand, "War is the ultimate realisation of modern technology.”
In a way, for all the noise, technology destroys language and creates silence. In a scene that preempts “Infinite Jest”, it’s this silence that causes Gary Harkness’ breakdown:
“In the end they had to carry me to the infirmary and feed me through plastic tubes.”
The Exemplary Spectator
On the other hand, DeLillo sees football in terms of organisation, language and spectators:
"The exemplary spectator is the person who understands that sport is a benign illusion, the illusion that order is possible. It's a form of society that is...organised so that everyone follows precisely the same rules; that is electronically controlled, thus reducing human error and benefitting industry; that roots out the inefficient and penalises the guilty; that tends always to move toward perfection.
"The exemplary spectator has his occasional lusts, but not for warfare, hardly at all for that. No, it's details he needs - impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols. Football, more than other sports, fulfils this need. It is the one sport guided by language, by the word signal, the snap number, the color code, the play name. The spectator's pleasure, when not derived from the action itself, evolves from a notion of the game's unique organic nature. Here it is not just order but civilisation. And part of the spectator's need is to sort the many levels of material: to allot, to compress, to catalogue."
Language is the vehicle within which the game operates:
"Each play must have a name. The naming of plays is important. All teams run the same plays. But each team uses an entirely different system of naming...No play begins until its name is called."
“End Zone” therefore appears to be the first of DeLillo’s novels in which his focus is the essence of language and names (names, for DeLillo, are the wording of the world), as it would continue to be for the rest of his writing career, hence the influence on more post-modernist authors like David Foster Wallace. ...more
Compere: Yes folks, welcome to Gym Combat, Nottingham’s premier gym and home to Saturday Night Fight Night. Tonight …what…what…
Spontaneous applause breaks out as former undefeated Commonwealth & IBO Welterweight World Champion, Jav Khalik, enters the ring.
Compere: Jav, why don’t you tell us…who’ve we got on tonight?
Jav: Tony, a very special friend of mine, local boy, Paul “Southpaw” Bryant…
Compere: Fresh from last month’s second round TKO of Brett “Western and Easton” Ellis…
Jav: Wasn’t that a fight, Tony?
Compere: I’ll say, Jav… Southpaw totally smashed that American Psycho.
Jav: Annihilated him.
Compere: Got what he deserved, ended up how he started, a bloody nihilist pornographer.
Jav laughs, but stops when Southpaw Bryant slides gracefully through the ropes into his corner. A woman in a Batgirl costume runs up to the ring and thrusts an autograph book at him.
Batgirl: Southpaw, write something for me.
Southpaw’s manager unscrews the top of an inkwell and hands him a quill. Southpaw dips his quill and writes down, Southpaw 909.
Batgirl: What’s this?
Southpaw: My room number.
Many women in the crowd wriggle, whoop and whistle excitedly. Batgirl swoons and drops the autograph book as Southpaw’s manager catches her in his arms. In the mayhem, the autograph book is passed hurriedly back from hand to hand towards the back of the crowd, until the last man to hold it feels a gloved hand wrench it from his clasp. He looks up and sees a slight, scowling grey-haired man in a metallic cape. He has just entered the gym from his limousine outside, followed by his manager and a sliver of twilight sun. The audience can see him too, on the screen. The compere senses the arrival of Southpaw’s opponent and looks nervously at Jav. He lifts the microphone to his lips…
Compere: Ladies and gentlemen, you might not know this man, but he is a true heavyweight, some say the heavyweight champion of the Word…
Jav: He’s no fall guy…
Compere: No mere falling man…
Jav: He doesn’t pull any punches…
Compere: He doesn’t push any rivers…
The audience looks around quizzically.
Jav: Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Southpaw’s nemesis, Deadly Don De Lillo.
The audience looks around quizzically again, still.
Southpaw (sensing their dilemma): “White Noise”.
Suddenly, there is a wave of recognition in the crowd.
The audience (as one): Wanker!
Batgirl (who has lifted herself up on one elbow): Post-modernist!
The audience (as one): Post-modernist wanker!
Deadly Don lifts one leg over the top rope and then another and then another, and suddenly the bell has rung and the fight has started.
Southpaw (bouncing around, poking his chin out): Give me your best, De Lillo, come on.
Deadly Don: Another postmodern sunset, rich in romantic imagery.
Southpaw: Describe it, paint me a picture!
Deadly Don: Why try to describe it?
Deadly Don feints at Southpaw with his scribbly left hand.
Deadly Don: It’s enough to say that everything in our field of vision seemed to exist in order to gather the light of this event.
Southpaw: In the dark, who can see his face?
Deadly Don (moving closer): What did you say?
Southpaw: In the dark, who can reach him?
Deadly Don: I can tell by the lines you’re reciting…
Southpaw: In the darkness, the shadows move.
Deadly Don: It’s not a movie…
Southpaw: In the darkness, the game is real.
Southpaw spots a patch of jaw between Deadly Don’s gloves and lands a left hook on it. Deadly Don falls pugilistically and slides back across the canvas.
Southpaw: Shoot out the lights.
Round One is awarded to Southpaw.
Southpaw: Ready for another blow against the empire, another shock to the system?
Deadly Don: Ha! The system is invisible, which makes it all the more impressive, all the more disquieting to deal with.
Southpaw: Nice prose…
He hits the side of Deadly Don’s face with a solid left hook. Deadly Don stumbles, but regains his footing.
Deadly Don: But we were in accord, at least for now.
Southpaw (determined to finish his assessment): …shame about the plot.
Deadly Don: All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots.
Southpaw: In that case, think of me as an incendiary plot device.
Southpaw swings carelessly, misses and receives a short, sharp jab to the right temple for his effort. Tears fill his eyes and a ringing fills an adjacent stinging ear, until his good ear senses the jingle jangle of a distant bell.
Deadly Don (speaking over his shoulder on the way to his corner): Can you hear them now? The networks, the circuits, the streams, the harmonies.
Round Two is awarded narrowly to Deadly Don.
Southpaw (cocky at the start of the last round): Prepare to die, De Lillo.
Southpaw takes a careless swing and misses.
Deadly Don (making a guffaw sound): Guffaw.
Southpaw (still staggering): You’re history, De Lillo, bloody history.
Deadly Don adjusts his gloves, makes to take them off, then thinks better of it.
Deadly Don: Man’s guilt in history and in the tides of his own blood has been complicated by technology, the daily seeping falsehearted death.
Deadly Don jabs at Southpaw’s good ear. Southpaw loses his sense of balance and falls sideways. He whispers something on his back that De Lillo can’t hear.
Deadly Don (leaning over the suffering Southpaw): What did you say?
Southpaw: What if death is nothing but sound?
Deadly Don (appreciative of the line of questioning): Electrical noise.
Southpaw: You hear it forever. Sound all around. How awful.
Deadly Don (reaching closer to the expiring man’s face, looking into his dullard eyes): Uniform, white.
Southpaw closes his eyes, Deadly Don twists his head in an attempt to detect Southpaw’s last breath, only the Englishman conjures up one last gasp of strength and head butts Deadly Don’s left eye socket, which still attached to the rest of his head, collapses on Southpaw’s chest. The referee kneels beside them, counting, before long deciding that the fight belongs to Southpaw.
While all are still low on the canvas, Jav joins them. He too kneels, and places his microphone on the canvas, where it starts to generate feedback. For a moment, it blends with the sound of the bell in Southpaw’s ear. Only as the bell dies, the feedback intensifies.
Southpaw (turns around groggily and demands): Turn off that fuckin' white noise, will ya? ...more
Have you ever got the impression that, when an author started a book, they had no idea where it would go or how it would end?
That th Designated Driver
Have you ever got the impression that, when an author started a book, they had no idea where it would go or how it would end?
That they would just slide into the front seat and let the book take over?
This is not such a book.
Instead, I got the impression that DeLillo was so firmly ensconced in the driver’s seat here that he wouldn’t have got out if a crew of firemen arrived to rescue him from his burning vehicle.
It was win or die, so he had to pull out all stops.
When he started, he had the finish line in sight, and when he arrived at the finish line, he made sure that he had come full circle back to where he had started.
“The Names” was DeLillo’s seventh novel.
His previous works had enjoyed modest critical success, but hadn’t really made any commercial impact.
This book is generally regarded as the one that launched his career.
Originally published in 1982, I first read it in 1987, when it was repackaged after the relative success of his next novel, “White Noise”.
It is still the DeLillo book by which I judge all others, but it’s also the one that I recommend as an entry point for anyone who hasn’t read him yet.
While it deals with later concerns like cults, terrorism, modernity, security and the plight of America in the world, it does so in a more overtly humanist manner.
These issues are the backdrop for the very personal frailties and stories of the protagonists.
First Among Protagonists
The narrator is an American, James Axton, who is based in Athens at the beginning of the 1980’s.
Someone who is quite capable of writing fiction and screenplays, he makes a living writing reports and memos about the economic, social and political situation in the Middle East for the North East Group, a corporation that issues insurance policies against the risk of terrorist activities.
He has to identify and assess the risk of terrorist activity, which brings him and his employer to the attention of the CIA.
At heart, he is a lonely sad expatriate, a man living apart.
He isn’t writing the works he is capable of.
He is estranged from his wife and nine year old son, his native America and the Greek society around him.
He survives in a world of similarly jaded expatriates who have made Athens a European base for business sorties into the Middle East.
Like his own, the other expatriate marriages are stressed and vulnerable to adulterous affairs.
This is very much a late twentieth century European version of “The Quiet American”.
The Poor Norseman and the Acropolis
At the beginning, James defines himself in relation to the Acropolis.
He is overawed and daunted by this renowned, exalted building perched on a somber rock and surrounded by tourists.
He rationalises that he prefers to wander in a modern city, even though it might be imperfect and blaring compared with the beauty, dignity, order and proportion of the Acropolis.
He personalises it as a monument to doomed expectations, as if its existence will confront him with his own inadequacy and the madness of the society around him.
Like his peers, James constructs an elaborate sense of self-importance around him that he uses to conceal his loneliness and unhappiness.
He is not the stuff of a typical fictional American hero, yet bit by bit he pulls down the construct around him and by the end seems to have seized control of his life.
In order to do so, he has to learn from the tumultuous people and events around him.
The Women in His Life
“The Names” is not a sexually explicit novel, but it does bounce around in a slyly erotic manner.
Over the course of the novel, James negotiates comfort from many of the women in his community, whether married or not.
Of the women he flirts with, some appear to be good long term friends, some appear to be content with a Platonic attraction and one, Janet Ruffing, a banker’s wife and freelance belly dancer, he imposes himself on so insistently that I can’t think of any better word for it than rape.
It is strange that this last relationship almost goes unremarked upon.
If it had occurred in a Romansbildung of a much younger character, perhaps his conduct would have been excusable in the name of fiction.
However, it is almost as if this rape is intended to symbolize a growing capacity to assert himself within his overall getting of wisdom.
This, for me, is the one major, but inexplicable, failure of tone and sensitivity in the novel.
Owen Brademas, Epigraphic Detective
Perhaps the most important mentor for James is his wife, Kathryn’s, employer, an archeologist and epigrapher.
In the twilight of his professional life, he is fascinated by language and its origins in marks, inscriptions, symbols, characters, letters and alphabets.
He examines how these systems developed, almost as attempts to make a mark or impression on life, then as a method of recording details of grain, livestock, possessions and wealth.
So language wasn’t just concerned with communication within a tribe, but was a major tool, a lingua franca, designed to facilitate trade and commerce between tribes.
The Significance of Language
To enable communication, alphabets and words had to have commonly accepted meanings and significance.
A sign must have a signifier and a signified.
An image must have a connection that is commonly recognised.
This recognition passes from person to person, but also from generation to generation.
Images and words convey the memories of one generation to another generation.
Language keeps alive memories and experiences and wisdom.
Therefore, language became an important repository for social and cultural meaning.
The Language of Power
Language has always been more than a vehicle for individual or personal expression.
Like the Acropolis, language is a social construct that has its own beauty, dignity, order and proportion.
Unlike the Acropolis, it is a vehicle for a dynamic relationship between people.
Just as language connects people and things or people and other people, it defines, manages and controls the relationship between the two.
It allows people to discover the world and, having done so, it allows them to relate to it.
However, inevitably, the relationship involves elements of power, control and persuasion.
Thus, it is the fundamental mechanism through which politics operates.
Which means that it can be abused.
Within mass society, language becomes an instrument of oppression.
The Language of Religion
This abuse extends beyond the civil sphere.
Starting with the crucible of the Middle East, there is inevitably a role for language within spirituality and religion.
It connects people and God. However, it also defines Good and Evil, and defines our relationship with them.
We cannot engage with Good and Evil, except though the vehicle of language.
It shapes and moulds our responses to moral issues, especially in emotional terms.
Owen tells Kathryn:
"Masses of people scare me. Religion. People driven by the same powerful emotion. All that reverence, awe and dread."
And, as if by explanation, he states:
"I’m a boy from the prairie."
Like James in awe of the Acropolis, he believes he has a simple worldview.
He’s self-contained and not given to surrendering his independence to the powers that be.
He believes that you can lose your individuality in a crowd:
"Was it a grace to be there, to lose oneself in the mortal crowd, surrendering, giving oneself over to mass awe, to disappearance in others?"
Later on, Frank Volterra, a filmmaker who is captivated by and interested in filming Owen’s story, says:
"It is religion that carries a language. The river of language is God."
Language is a facility granted to us by God.
By the same token, language is a container that holds and transmits that reverence, awe and dread.
So, ultimately, language has positive and negative aspects.
And “The Names” is DeLillo’s chosen vehicle for exploring them.
Reducing Language to Writing
Spoken language is just sounds. In order to speak or communicate, we must make a noise:
"I liked the noise, the need to talk loud, to lean into people’s faces and enunciate."
Yet, too much noise, too little order, too much randomness, and the noise becomes a cacophony of incomprehension.
Language must be “subdued and codified” (again, the concept uses the language of power and control).
DeLillo first uses this term when he reveals that Owen has been thinking of the English archaeologist Rawlinson, who wanted to copy and analyse the inscriptions on the Behistun Rock, which contained three separate languages, Old Persian, Elamite and Babylonian.
This enterprise allows him to work at the level of meta-language.
Until the stone is deciphered, until the code is broken, it is just a riddle.
Rawlinson must apply intelligence to the task, in order to discover the intelligence within or at least on the surface of the rock.
He cannot establish a connection with the past, he cannot create a community, until he has managed to decipher the code.
Ironically, DeLillo ensures that all the time Owen is being watched by an intelligence community of one description or another, whether it is James or the CIA or the local security forces.
"All the noise and babble and spit of three spoken languages had been subdued and codified, broken down to these wedge-shaped marks. With his grids and lists the decipherer searches out relationships, parallel structures. What are the sign frequencies, the phonetic values? He wants a design that will make this array of characters speak to him."
An Array of Characters
Earlier, Owen mentions that the word “character” comes from a Greek word, which means “to brand or to sharpen” or in the case of the noun “an engraving or branding instrument”.
In English, he points out that the same word is used not just for a mark or symbol (like a letter in the alphabet), but a person in a story.
You could extrapolate that those original marks or symbols might actually have represented real people.
Interestingly, the same English word is used to describe the quality or characteristics of a person, their “character” and the “mark” they will make on the world.
So language is a tool that enables us to tell stories, to create our own worlds and to populate them with people.
In more advanced societies, story-telling takes the form of novels and film.
Just as Rawlinson and Owen are trying to decipher riddles, the challenge for an author like DeLillo is to create “a design that will make this array of characters speak to him”.
Frank Volterra follows in Owen’s footsteps, trying to make a film that will capture and describe the story.
Fiction and film are designed to make a lasting impression, they are the wedge-shaped marks scratched out by this generation that future generations will examine to learn about us and themselves.
At the simplest level, the concept of the “Names” is that language consists of giving “names” to things or images or signs.
But we need codes to understand the allocation of a name to a sign.
Many of these codes were carved in stone, intended to last a thousand years.
Just as these codes, when broken, reveal their meaning, we also learn that many of the inscriptions were codifications or codes of law and usage that were intended to regulate and manage trade and commerce.
They supply guidance, directions and commandments as to how things should and must be done.
Originally, they were primarily intended to work for the benefit of merchants and consumers.
However, language took on a life of its own as a tool of power and control.
You could even speculate that language is the power and control and that people are the vehicle it uses to achieve its purpose.
The risk in all codes and laws is that they become too prescriptive and inflexible.
They can ossify or, ironically given their origin, turn to stone.
So there comes a point when the code attracts not awe, but resistance.
A Cult Defying Language
In DeLillo’s hands, the resistance comes from a cult of fundamentalists.
They see language as an instrument of oppression and they begin to attack it by killing people.
Obviously, most people are the carriers of language, so if you murder someone you destroy their capacity to use language.
Yet, this seems so arbitrary. It makes an enemy of everyone.
Owen sets out to find “a pattern, order, some sort of unifying light” to explain their conduct.
Owen and James discover that all of the victims are old and infirm, (almost) ready to die, some having lost their memory and therefore their connection with the past, themselves and those around them.
Kathryn even speculates that the cult is sacrificing these people to God as a plea for divine intercession in a world that they believe has gone wrong.
Perhaps, they are a doomsday cult trying to forestall doomsday?
Owen questions it, because he has met them and doubts whether they worship a divine being:
"They weren’t a god-haunted people."
They are interested in “letters, written symbols, fixed in sequence”.
He suspects that they want to return to a simpler world, where symbols are purely derived from nature, where letters are mere pictographs representing only “everyday objects, animals, parts of the body”.
Frank learns that they oppose the order of language, the way it has become both law and order:
"The alphabet is male and female. If you know the correct order of letters, you make a world, you make creation. This is why they will hide the order. If you will know the combinations, you make all life and death."
Take Your Name and Place
James learns that the cult chooses victims whose initials match the first letter of each word in a place-name.
"The letters match...Name. Place-name."
They are placing people in the real world. Then killing them.
The act of murder silences the victim.
Owen learns from a former cult member:
"When we came into the Mani [peninsula], we knew we would stay. What is here? This is the strength of the Mani. It does not suggest things to us. No gods, no history. The rest of the Peloponnese is full of associations. The Deep Mani, no. Only what is here. The rocks, the towers. A dead silence. A place where it is possible for men to stop making history. We are inventing a way out."
A Cult with No Names
The cult appears to be a genuine cult with no name. They will not reveal it to anyone.
Ironically, James finds one incidence of where they have created their own marking.
It’s a rock inscribed with the words “Ta Onomata”, which he suspects might be the name of the cult.
"Do you know what it means? “The Names”."
They define themselves by the name of their enemy.
By marking the name of the enemy on pottery and smashing it, they will bring about their enemy’s death. And perhaps their own.
"You...want to hurt your enemy, it is in history to destroy his name…the same harm [as if] you cut his throat."
The Politics of Empire
DeLillo treats language as a symbol of a process that subdues and codifies people.
It can also have a special place in the subjugation of peoples, the politics of empire:
"We can say of the Persians that they were enlightened conquerors…they preserved the language of the subjugated people. Is this the scientific face of imperialism? The humane face? Subdue and codify?"
In the contemporary world, DeLillo’s subjects include “money, politics and force”, the topics of James’ reports and memos.
"For a long time, [Greek] politics have been determined by the interest of great powers. Now it is just the Americans who determine."
Americans “learn comparative religion, economics of the Third World, the politics of oil, the politics of race and hunger”.
They have learned that “power works best when it doesn’t distinguish friends from enemies.”
Like language, this imperial approach is destined to attract resistance, in the form of terrorism.
“The Names” was written at the time of the Iran hostage crisis in 1980.
Terrorism has become more powerful and refined since then, but there is much in DeLillo’s novel that preempts both real world politics and the concerns of his future novels.
Even James realises that, "If America is the world’s living myth, then the CIA is America’s myth."
Ultimately, "The final enemy is government."
The Coded Matters of Intimacy
If the novel was just concerned with global politics, it would be enough.
However, DeLillo extends his gaze to personal and family relationships.
James is no hero, but he does embark on a hero’s journey, learning from others and his own discoveries.
It’s a collective effort that reconnects him to his family.
When we first meet him, he is alienated, although nowadays we would probably diagnose him as depressed.
Deep down he seems like quite a charmer, but he is a “reluctant adulterer” who has “an eye for his friends’ wives and his wife’s friends”, just two of “27 Depravities” he lists about himself.
He has failed to pay attention, failed to concentrate, failed to focus, failed to treat his family seriously, he has lost the words needed to make a family life happen.
Ultimately, as he learns about language, he rediscovers the language of love.
But first he must acknowledge that he has made a mistake.
Kathryn’s “every dissatisfaction, mild complaint, bitter grievance” was right, although it is amusing that he can only see this retrospectively.
He can only acknowledge that Kathryn was “retroactively correct” (i.e., “she is right now, but I was right at the time.” I must try this out on my wife, F.M. Sushi, next time I apologise).
Memorising the Future
This retroactivity involves memory.
Once again, James is influenced by Owen, who believes that memory is:
"... the faculty of absolution. Men developed memories to ease their disquiet over things they did as men. The deep past is the only innocence and therefore necessary to retain."
It is a reminder that we have been good and that we can be good again.
Language is the beginning of doing good:
"This is what love comes down to, things that happen and what we say about them."
It’s not enough to be awestruck by the wonders of the world, because we will sometimes encounter what his nine-year old son, Tap, describes as something “worse than a retched nightmare. It was the nightmare of real things, the fallen wonder of the world.”
James finds Tap’s mangled words exhilarating:
"He made me see them new again, made me see how they worked, what they really were. They were ancient things, secret", [but most importantly] "reshapable".
We have to add some love, some light, some colour of our own.
When James finally conquers his fear of the Acropolis, this is what he has come to realise.
There are crowds, tourists, families, none of them alone, making a noise, all speaking their own language, "one language after another, rich, harsh, mysterious, strong".
"This is what we bring to the temple, not prayer or chant or slaughtered rams. Our offering is language."
Ultimately, this is DeLillo's offering to us: language that is rich, harsh, mysterious, strong. ...more
My first experience of the DeLillo-Rama was "The Names" and until now I had only read one of the earlier novels - "Great JoA Polished Set of Pieties
My first experience of the DeLillo-Rama was "The Names" and until now I had only read one of the earlier novels - "Great Jones Street" - though I was trying to keep up with the later novels.
Little did I realise what a gem was waiting for me in "Americana", DeLillo's first novel.
It's 377 pages long, divided into four parts and 12 chapters, but it reads as fluently as a novel two-thirds its size.
Its relative brevity doesn't detract from its ability to explore or dramatise profound concerns. As the narrator, David Bell says of his own writing in a film script:
"Large issues will begin to manifest themselves out of the dull set of pieties I've been constructing here. This is not easy work for me."
It took DeLillo four years to write this novel. I'd say his reservations must have been more formal than stylistic, because the quality of the sentences is never less than exemplary.
While DeLillo is regarded as a Post-Modernist author, in this case it's more overtly because of his subject matter than his structural approach.
The four parts of the novel do however let in some scope for metafictional play:
Part One paints a self-portrait of David Bell as a vain (“I was an extremely handsome young man”) 28 year old producer for a New York based television network. There's plenty of corporate rivalry, sexual flirtation, prurient gossip and mutual suspicion. DeLillo totally nails the speech patterns of this subculture.
Part Two returns to Bell's childhood, and his relationship with his legendary advertising exec father, his socialite mother, and his two sisters, Mary and Jane.
In Part Three David absconds from work to make a semi-documentary, semi-autobiographical film in the Mid-West, which causes him to miss his engagement on a documentary project about the Navaho people in Arizona for his network.
Part Four sees David continue his road trip westward to California, after which much later (possibly 1999) he is living in isolation on an island (rather than the continent of North America) where he finishes an autobiographical novel (possibly this novel?).
Part Dream, Part Fiction, Part Movies
The film script gives David an opportunity to write about himself in dialogue form. So DeLillo creates the narrator David Bell, who then uses fictional friends, colleagues and actors to dramatise his own life and elaborate on the issues that preoccupy both himself and DeLillo. It's a nice touch of metafiction that doesn't distract or detract from the psychological realism of the novel as a whole:
“I'm thinking of making a long messy autobiographical-type film, part of which I'd like to do out here in the Midwest, if that's where we are - 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 and only a minutely small part of which I'd like to do out here. Pick out some sleepy town and shoot some film.”
After a while, the novel takes the form of the film, the movie’s style influences the structure and style of the novel. Maybe the book is the real motion picture:
“The illusion of motion was barely relevant. Perhaps it wasn't a movie I was making so much as a scroll, a delicate bit of papyrus that feared discovery...It takes centuries to invent the primitive.”
Bell describes the film in terms that apply equally to the novel:
“What I'm doing is kind of hard to talk about. It's a sort of first-person thing but without me in it in any physical sense, except fleetingly. It'll be part dream, part fiction, part movies. An attempt to explore parts of my consciousness.”
The Rumble of Public Opinion
The network places Bell at the heart of mass culture as at 1971. He regards television as "an electronic form of packaging" for the products that the network’s sponsors are advertising. He and his colleagues depend on sponsorship and advertising sales for the continuity of their programs and their status within the organisation. They have "orchestrated their lives to the rumble of public opinion," the emotional response of the crowd.
David's independent film is both an escape from the corporate crowd and a rebellion against mass culture, “the larger madness”. In contrast to television:
"The film is a sort of sub-species of the underground."
Modernist Literary and Filmic Precursors
The novel is shot through with references to modernists like James Joyce, Antonioni, Samuel Beckett and Godard, especially “Ulysses”:
“Mollycuddling my bloomless bride”; and
“I've got the Stephen Dedalus Blues and it's a long way to Leopoldville.”
A Leap Too Far
In Part Four, David encounters a community of hippies who are sharing accommodation with some self-exiled Apache Indians who have refused to embrace the life of ranchers.
Their leader believes in aliens and flying saucers, which proves to be a leap too far for David, and he moves on. He’s not yet ready to surrender to all aspects of the American counter-culture. His is a more individual and personal journey. It’s religious, almost sacred to him.
Westward to the Wilderness Dream
It’s hinted at the end of the novel that David returns to New York City to resume his participation in mainstream culture, even though his absence during the film project means that he has lost his job.
Only later does he end up on the island, where he wrote his book.
It’s hard to tell just how ingrained the mainstream is in his consciousness. The individual is overwhelmed by the multifarious images and dreams of commercial culture and advertising:
“...the mightiest of the visionaries [were] those strong enough to confront the larger madness. For the rest of us, the true sons of the dream, there was only complexity. The dream made no allowance for the truth beneath the symbols, for the interlinear notes, the presence of something black (and somehow very funny) at the mirror rim of one's awareness...but as a boy, and even later, all the impulses of all the media were fed into the circuitry of my dreams. One thinks of echoes. One thinks of an image made in the image and likeness of images. It was that complex.”
It was so complex that David had to escape from his reality by heading into the west, ironically a source of new and different dreams (“westward to the wilderness dream... to match the shadows of my image and my self”):
“I'm trying to outrun myself.”
“I've spent twenty-eight years in the movies...”
“It is so much simpler to bury reality than it is to dispose of dreams.”
DeLillo seems to be arguing that the dreams of the crowd cause the death of individuals, their reality and their possibilities. Society had become a "death machine" and television had become its “festival of death”, a “death circus”.
The world might remain a mystery, but DeLillo’s fiction has become a guidebook of sorts that directs us to pockets of life and individuality, and just perhaps a mirror that reflects our own....more
I re-read this novel, before seeing David Cronenberg’s film (see Post 21).
This review reveals what I think about the fate of thPre-Film Review
I re-read this novel, before seeing David Cronenberg’s film (see Post 21).
This review reveals what I think about the fate of the protagonist at the end of the novel.
My views are based on my interpretation of material that starts at page 55 of the 209 page novel.
If this material or my interpretation is incorrect, then the novel leaves you hanging at the end.
As my views on the novel as a whole depend on an interpretation of the protagonist’s fate, please don’t read my review if you want to form your own views in isolation.
In 1992, Paul Auster dediciated “Leviathan” to Don DeLillo.
In 2003, DeLillo repaid the favour by dedicating “Cosmopolis” to Auster.
Here is a photo of the two of them [on the left] taken at the baseball with two employees of the Gotham Book Mart by the store’s owner:
The Name “Cosmopolis”
We are all used to the word “cosmopolitan”, but “cosmopolis” is less commonly used.
To the extent that the prefix “cosmo” suggests the world or the universe, it implies that the city is representative of the diversity of the world or the universe.
We can probably infer that the city is sophisticated and worldly, has an international rather than provincial character, and is home to many cosmopolitan people.
If so, the term would be a perfect description for New York City, where the novel is set.
It also applies to ancient Athens and Rome, perhaps the original “world-cities”.
The novel is largely set in a long white limo that drives its protagonist, 28 year old billionaire and hedge-fund manager Eric Packer, across Manhattan.
Most plot summaries describe the purpose of the journey as to enable Eric to get a haircut.
However, this misses much of the narrative and metaphorical significance of the journey, not to mention the haircut.
The journey is more or less the whole of the length of 47th Street, which runs one-way between 1st Ave and the West Side Highway (called the Joe DiMaggio Highway since just before the publication of the novel).
Climbing Down from A Cosmopolitan Triplex in the Heavens...
At the 1st Ave end, you’ll find the United Nations Headquarters, perhaps the centre of cosmopolitanism.
Eric lives in a triplex close to 1st Ave. The building is not named, but the triplex supposedly cost Eric $104M.
At the corner of 47th and 1st is the Trump World Tower, which was completed in 2001.
The duplex penthouse in this building failed to sell for $58M, and was eventually split into four units.
However, as at 2003, the highest price for an apartment in Manhattan was the $70M paid by hedge-fund manager Martin Zweig for a triplex at the Pierre Hotel owned by Lady Mary Fairfax (of the Australian family that published the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspapers).
Eric’s purchase price represents a 50% increase on the highest price ever paid at the time. You can do that if you're a billionaire.
As you drive along 47th Street, you pass the Diamond District, a number of Broadway Theatres and Times Square.
Between 1963 and 1968, Andy Warhol’s Factory was on 47th Street between Second and Third Aves.
...and Descending into Hell’s Kitchen
On the West Side, the Street passes into Hell’s Kitchen, also known as Clinton (not named after Bill) or Midtown West (not named after Mae), the original home of Damon Runyon’s stories, Marvel Comics' "Daredevil", gang wars between migrants, and the musical "West Side Story".
The Wiki article on Hell’s Kitchen recounts a number of versions of the origin of the area’s name:
“…the most common version traces it to the story of Dutch Fred The Cop, a veteran policeman, who with his rookie partner, was watching a small riot on West 39th Street near 10th Avenue.
"The rookie is supposed to have said, ‘This place is hell itself,’ to which Fred replied, ‘Hell's a mild climate. This is Hell's Kitchen.’ "
Gail Wynand, the newspaper proprietor in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”, came from Hell’s Kitchen and in Rand’s novel is described as “Petronius from Hell’s Kitchen”, a description that might also apply to Eric Packer (except that he ends there, rather than originates from there).
Interestingly, the original Petronius, believed to be the author of “The Satyricon”, was described as the “elegantiae arbiter” (or the “arbiter elegantiarum”), "the judge of elegance" in the court of the Roman Emperor Nero.
West 47th Street has yet to be developed and still contains relatively disused and derelict buildings (including the building that features in the end of “Cosmopolis”), not to mention the homeless and mentally ill treated at “Fountain House” who featured in the documentary “West 47th Street”.
Mapping Eric’s Progress
I have included all of this detail (thanks, Wiki), so that I can argue that this journey isn’t just some trip to the barber.
It represents a journey along a street that defines the extremes of Manhattan, from the cosmopolitan East Side to the Hellish West Side.
Just to help you map Eric’s progress, here are the pages at which his limo passes each Avenue crossing 47th:
1st: 9 2nd: 13 3rd: 23 Lexington: 34 (the hair salon Filles et Garcon actually seems to be at 51st) Park: 38 Madison: 41 5th: 45 (The Presidential Cavalcade) 6th: 75 7th/Broadway: 87 8th: 129 9th: 130 (the Sufi rap artist Brutha Fez's Funeral) 10th 158 (the barbershop) 11th: 170 12th: 179 (the derelict tenement)
This is no mere haircut, this is a low-key to subtle homage to James Joyce’s “Ulysses”, in which our hero leaves the Heaven of his triplex, heads west (young man) and confronts his destiny in a derelict building in Hell’s Kitchen.
Perhaps, our hero even meets his anti-hero.
Upstairs at Eric’s
Eric is 28 and has been married to Elise Schifrin for just 22 days.
The marriage, so far, is loveless and apparently unconsummated. It represents a symbolic marriage of new American money and traditional European wealth and style, though Elise (“Swiss or something”) is worth a cool $730M herself.
Eric has made his money gambling on movements in currencies. He takes immense risks with vast amounts of money and has generated commensurate profits.
He is so rich, beyond normal moral or mortal contemplation, some would think it’s indecent and obscene. In the words of his nemesis, Eric is “foully and berserkly rich”.
Yet, until recently, Eric has seen his ability as just an example of what the Greeks call “Chrimatistikos”, the art of money-making.
He has had talent and drive, which he has "utilised...consistently put to good use."
His reward is to live in "a tower that soars to heaven and goes unpunished by God", something that aspires to scraping the sky and meeting God, but now in a Godless era seems only to defy the very idea of God and moral virtue or goodness.
He contemplates the word "skyscraper":
"No recent structure ought to bear this word. It belonged to the olden soul of awe, to the arrowed towers that were a narrative long before he was born."
Just as skyscrapers have lost their narrative drive, so too have money and the art of money-making:
"...because money has taken a turn. All wealth has become wealth for its own sake. There's no other kind of enormous wealth. Money has lost its narrative quality the way painting did once upon a time. Money is talking to itself."
Money has turned in on itself, become introverted and meaningless. It no longer tells a story about something else, it does not relate to or measure some other achievement. [The novel echoes some of the concerns of William Gaddis' "The Recognitions", but then DeLillo has always mined similar veins.]
There’s a point at which you can have so much money that it becomes senseless, there are just no more narratives or stories you can spin with it, without repeating yourself. [I haven’t reached this point yet.]
Checking Eric’s Balance
Eric’s life so far has been dictated by balance.
He lives in a world “in which every force is balanced by another”. When there is another force, he is the equal and opposite reaction.
He takes positions and then waits for corrections to occur. The balancing process improves his bank balance.
It also dictates his aesthetic judgments.
Two private elevators rise to his triplex: in one the music is Satie, in the other Brutha Fez.
He gets artistic advice from 47-year old Didi Francher, an art consultant and one of his mistresses.
She’s "taught him how to look, how to feel enchantment damp on his face, the melt of pleasure inside a brushstroke or band of color."
In a way, she has created a balance to the crudeness and brutality of his occupation.
She has taught him how to reckon outside the world of money.
He now looks, he notices things, he gazes, he observes, he assesses, he judges.
Like Petronius, he has become an "arbiter elegantiarum", a "judge of elegance".
He is obsessed with acquiring a collection of 14 Rothko works housed in the Rothko Chapel:
He genuinely appreciates Rothko's art, but his principal motivation for the purchase is the fact that he can afford to.
Such is the power of money.
Consciously or not, Didi has also taught Eric how to flirt in an intellectually informed way.
In his limo, he metaphorically seduces his chief of finance, Jane Melman:
"My mood shifts and bends. But when I'm alive and heightened, I'm super-acute. Do you know what I see when I look at you? I see a woman who wants to live shamelessly in her body. Tell me this is not the truth. You want to follow your body into idleness and fleshiness. That's why you have to run, to escape the drift of your basic nature. ...What do I see? Something lazy, sexy and insatiable."
They "[reach] completion more or less together, touching neither each other nor themselves."
When she leaves the limo, Jane tells Eric that she “is a woman who would still be married to her husbands if they had looked at her the way you have looked at me here today."”
Catching Eric Off Balance
Despite, possibly because of, this transformation, Didi has noticed doubt creeping into Eric’s worldview.
"You're beginning to think it's more interesting to doubt than to act. It takes more courage to doubt."
When we meet Eric, he has gambled everything on the possibility that the Japanese Yen will fall.
He has also just been told that he has an asymmetrical prostate.
Without asking or knowing more about the medical significance of his diagnosis, he assumes the worst, that the cancer will soon take his life.
Even if it isn’t fatal, his prostate’s asymmetry challenges his idealization of balance.
He suffers pain. The pain undermines the foundations of his worldview. He starts to doubt both balance and himself. He starts to realise there is something in life apart from himself. He starts to recognise his own mortality.
Jane addresses him in the third person:
"He could think and speak of other things but only within the pain. He was living in the gland, in the scalding fact of his biology.
"Does he love himself or hate himself. I don’t think he knows. Or it changes minute by minute. Or the question is so implicit in everything he does that he can’t get outside it to answer."
Eric’s nemesis (who also happens to have an asymmetrical prostate) has worked for him before and has some insight into his personality:
"You should have listened to your prostate...You tried to predict movements in the yen by drawing on patterns from nature...You made this form of analysis horribly and sadistically precise.
"But you forgot something along the way...The importance of the lopsided, the thing that's skewed a little. You were looking for balance, beautiful balance, equal parts, equal sides...
"But you should have been tracking the yen in its tics and quirks. The little quirk. The mis-shape...
"That's where the answer was, in your body, in your prostate."
Living in the Shadow of a Doubt
So I argue that the purpose of Eric’s journey is to confront his own mortality, to deal with his doubt, not just to get a haircut.
Until today, he’s pursued business and wealth as a vehicle for achieving immortality.
Vija Kinski, his chief of theory, explains:
"Men think about immortality. Never mind what women think. We're too small and real to matter here…Great men historically expected to live forever even as they supervised construction of their monumental tombs on the far bank of the river, the west bank, where the sun goes down.
"There you sit, of large visions and prideful acts. Why die when you can live on disk? A disk, not a tomb. An idea beyond the body. A mind that's everything you ever were and will be, but never weary or confused or impaired.
"It's a mystery to me, how such a thing might happen. Will it happen someday? Sooner than we think because everything happens sooner than we think. Later today perhaps. Maybe today is the day when everything happens, for better or worse, ka-boom, like that."
However, having achieved as much as one man could ever achieve in a lifetime, Eric is not interested in trying to create an immortal digital replica of himself.
He is interested in his own death, because sooner or later, inevitably, we all have to accept our own mortality:
"He was alert, eager for action, for resolution. Something had to happen soon, a dispelling of doubt and the emergence of some design, the subject's plan of action, visible and distinct."
Ironically, on the way, Eric embraces the lopsided.
When he finally gets his haircut, it is asymmetrical.
However, it’s not the end of the journey. He resumes his trip before his haircut is finished.
His goal is beyond the haircut. It’s somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen. On the west bank, where the sun goes down.
The Threat of Death
Eric knows that somewhere on his trip, sometime today, he will die.
All along, he has been receiving death threats.
His journey across Manhattan is the date of reckoning with his own death, the date when death achieves a balance with life or knocks it off its axis.
He equips himself with a gun and abandons his security to deal with his nemesis Benno Levin single-handedly in a dilapidated building in Hell’s Kitchen.
By the time he arrives, he’s realised that even business embraces death and destruction:
"This is also the hallmark of capitalist thought. Enforced destruction. Old industries have to be harshly eliminated. New markets have to be forcibly claimed…Old markets have to be re-exploited. Destroy the past, make the future...The urge to destroy is a creative urge…The logical extension of business is murder."
Death is a natural part of life. He has to endure one last arm wrestle with fate, until he knows that he has died appropriately:
"...it was the threat of death at the brink of night that spoke to him most surely about some principle of fate he'd always known would come clear in time. Now he could begin the business of living."
He must know and embrace his fate. It does not matter that he might die on the same day. He has already lived life to the fullest:
"This was the day, was it not, for influential men to come to sudden messy ends."
There is also a sense in which his wealth might come to an end, that his investments will get their own haircut or at the very least, a trim.
In his time of dying, the whole of Eric's empire might return, not home, but to nothing.
Money might have resumed its narrative drive towards nothingness.
Ironically, as the Global Financial Crisis has shown, even billionaires can die with nothing.
Frames of Reference
“Cosmopolis” is short and easy to read. It occupies a discrete time and space.
Rather than being DeLillo-lite or a disappointment, it’s a precisely structured novel that lends itself to being filmed.
As with much of DeLillo’s work, it’s concerned with ways of looking and seeing and understanding.
If anything, I would call it a highly polished example of "abstracted realism".
It is especially informed by Art and Film.
Eric finds in Art a pathway into life’s mysteries, one of them being himself:
"Don't you see yourself in every picture you love? You feel a radiance wash through you. It's something you can't analyze or speak about clearly. What are you doing at that moment? You're looking at a picture on a wall. That's all. But it makes you feel alive in the world. It tells you yes, you're here. And yes, you have a range of being that's deeper and sweeter than you knew."
To the extent that a painting is one framed work, Film consists of multiple frames.
It allows us to explore the situations that we might one day find ourselves in, it creates a frame of reference, it creates frames of reference within which to express ourselves:
"I've seen a hundred situations like this. A man and a gun and a locked door. My mother used to take me to the movies."
"Cosmopolis" is best construed as a gallery of images or a film.
It is highly visual and filmic, even though it's effectively set within the confines of a limo.
As Eric passes along 47th Street, he witnesses a gallery of events and images and women and must gaze at and judge and react to them, so that ultimately he can determine his own importance in the true scheme of things.
My only concern with respect to the film is how the dialogue will come across.
How will it convey the abstracted, conceptual precision of DeLillo's language?
Will it sound natural?
In My State of Grace
The result of Eric's movie-going is that, when he is confronted by the situation ("a man and a gun and a locked door", but also his mortality, his death), he knows how to deal with it.
This comforts him. In his hour of need.
While some of his apparent attempts at self-defence are clumsy, they seem to be designed to fail.
Ultimately, what really matters is that he submits gracefully to the inevitability of his own death.
It is perhaps the most graceful act of his life. And the last day of his life might equally be the most complete.
There is something perfect and satisfying in this grace and completeness, even if it's a little perverse, even if it lacks symmetry, even if (unlike Leopold Bloom) Eric fails to return home to his triplex at the end of the day.
P.S. Lapse or Claps, Chaps?
While I love this novel, there are passages that I recognise will annoy or vindicate those who question DeLillo's talent or consistency.
I choose to excuse them or to laugh instead.
Here are a few examples for your reading pleasure:
"Hoisting his genitals in his hand."
"The minute you sat there in that whole tragic regalia of running. That whole sad business of Judeo-Christian jogging."
"I want to bottle-fuck you slowly with my sunglasses on."
"Her feet flew out from under her. She uttered a thing, a sound, herself, her soul in rapid rising inflection."
"Eric decided to admire this."
"The rain was fine. The rain was dramatically right."
"The rain had stopped. This was good. This was clearly what it should have done."
"It was the last techno-rave, the end of whatever it was the end of."
"He stood in the street. There was nothing to do. He hadn't realized this could happen to him."