Stockholm, Are You Listening?
April 2, 2020 2:26 AM   Subscribe

I was far too young when I read White Noise, maybe fifteen or sixteen, and it wasn't until an early-20s re-read that I realised how funny it actually was. I think as a teenager I'd internalised the idea that Serious Works of Art were meant to be serious, either that or I was too obliviously neurodivergent to pick up on the humour someone more than fifty years older than me was going for. I had the same experience recently re-watching some of the earlier Wes Anderson films - The Life Aquatic, for instance, was a serious film about pain when I was 20. It was much funnier to watch ten years on.

I'm too easily influenced by the critical pronouncements of others in some ways; I spent a good deal of time with this kind of writing when I was younger, then had a big "christ, what an asshole" rejection phase of the group of writers that I tend to label the great American male narcissists (primarily sparked by realising that no matter what DFW might have produced, he was almost certainly not the best guy; my partner is consistently baffled by how much I struggle with death of the author, and my inability to separate the standalone merits of any given work from the deeds and personhood of the creator), not to mention a phase where I felt mildly allergic to the artistic output of men in general and tended to avoid it in favour of other voices.

I'm at least somewhat prepared to bounce back on DeLillo if he's being critically rehabilitated (told you I was too easy to influence), though I need to be real with myself about the fact that Underworld will not be getting a second reading as I'm too British and uninterested in baseball to do that again.
posted by terretu at 3:20 AM on April 2, 2020 [5 favorites]

Direct link to the article in question, for those too undercaffeinated to grasp what's going on up top.
posted by Ten Cold Hot Dogs at 4:06 AM on April 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

I was introduced to DeLillo through Johan Grimonprez's fascinating film about airplane hijacking Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y, made somehow just a few years before 9/11.

I was struck by the idea that artists used to push and transform society, in ways subtle to violent, but that others (terrorists) have taken on that role by more directly interfacing with their public targets.

In some ways, even terrorists have been made redundant, to an extent, by the people behind mass media and surveillance companies (Zuckerberg, Page, Brin, Ton-That), who have even supplanted those individuals, insofar as they effect even greater control over more people — and do so while quietly making money for investors. I'm not sure DeLillo or Grimonprez could have seen them coming.
posted by They sucked his brains out! at 4:11 AM on April 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

Seems more like he should be eligible for some sort of top American prize, rather than a worldwide one, if he mostly writes about America. Nobel Prizes should be reserved for people who do something important to the entire world, not just one part of it.

I say this as an American who despises American Exemptionalism.
posted by drivingmenuts at 5:01 AM on April 2, 2020 [4 favorites]

Not before Ursula
posted by Caxton1476 at 5:33 AM on April 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

I'm afraid Le Guin might be disqualified.
posted by octothorpe at 5:54 AM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

I mean, sigh. Why the Nobel? Why DeLillo? I read the article. At a certain point in my life I liked his books a lot. But he's hardly lacking in recognition. And I just think I'm so over the writers in that particular tradition. And as I write that I get exasperated with myself because in some ways I'm not, but then actually I really am. Feh.
posted by frumiousb at 6:36 AM on April 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

If you're gonna give it to a white american male (and really, why, at this point), it oughta be Pynchon.
posted by OHenryPacey at 7:21 AM on April 2, 2020 [5 favorites]

Delillo's late turn towards cryptic, almost allegorical books, which are both gnomic and explicit is a difficult trick to pull off, but I am glad he does them. His Falling Man might be the best thing written about 9/11
posted by PinkMoose at 7:47 AM on April 2, 2020 [2 favorites]

I had the same experience recently re-watching some of the earlier Wes Anderson films - The Life Aquatic, for instance, was a serious film about pain when I was 20. It was much funnier to watch ten years on.

Funnily enough, I had the opposite experience.

The movie (and even more, the Mothersbaugh soundtrack) was a big touchstone in a very happy and carefree period of my life - I was young and well paid and living with friends on the Italian coast and it was summer - and it was only a decade later that I picked up on the sadness, nostalgia and thwarted ambition that runs through the film. More or less at the same time as sadness, nostalgia and thwarted ambition started to feature more heavily in my own life, by an odd stroke of coincidence...
posted by chappell, ambrose at 7:57 AM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

One occasionally encounters these critics/editors/lit professors/reviewers, always male, who are absolutely bonkers about the unimaginable greatness of some great male fiction writer or other: Nabokov, Melville, Updike (yeah, it happened), Pynchon, Mailer (ditto), Roth, Wallace, now Delillo. Their paeans all read the same. They are the last generation of readers who subscribe to the notion that great literature has somehow filled the space left empty by the decline of religion. That notion had a nice long run, about 120 years. I think it's pretty much over, now.
posted by Seaweed Shark at 8:23 AM on April 2, 2020 [7 favorites]

though I need to be real with myself about the fact that Underworld will not be getting a second reading as I'm too British and uninterested in baseball to do that again.

and the baseball part, the first chapter of a nine million chapter novel -- that's the best part. Not that I'd say the vast majority of Underworld is bad. The man's too good a prose-ist for that. What it is, is .... ... ... ? In musical terms, I'd say it's a triple album full of great guitar solos with all kinds of cool and inventive themes coming and going, but not really any complete songs. You end up getting angry at it.

If Mr. DeLillo should get himself a Nobel, I'll be very disappointed if he doesn't put the cash into a big monument somewhere that honors all the wasted hours readers spent reading it, assuming it was all going to somehow add up, be at least equal to the sum of its very very many parts ... not to mention all the wasted hours readers have since spend reading other writers who were influenced by it.

More than any other single book, I can thank Underworld for disabusing me of the notion that serious fiction was somehow more important than just a good two hundred page slice of so-called genre fiction. So maybe give him a prize for that.
posted by philip-random at 8:31 AM on April 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

On the other hand, I am still smitten with Underworld. I haven't read any other Delillo - my impression is that Underworld is kind of a representative sampling which it probably is not and I'm sure I'll get told so - but man that book despite it's shortcomings just resonated with me and still does. I think you can see it as being both less than the sum of its parts and more than, depending on your tolerance for its devolving into excessive shagginess. It might have been partly reading it in the decade aftermath of the end of the cold war, but it's stuck more than just about any work of fiction. I don't have a problem with a Nobel if all of his writing is that good, but yeah, too many old white men in general, many of them shitty...
posted by blue shadows at 9:14 AM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

I'm indifferent to the argument that anyone should be deserving of a prize, but I do think having this discussion now points to the value of time and critical distance. Over the past 20 years many people probably assumed a degree of inevitability of people like DFW and Frazen marching inexorably towards that sort of recognition, but thankfully that sort of thing seems to have permanently ebbed. In a world where we should be extra judicious the concept of Great Novels, at least White Noise seems to have sustained greater relevance than Infinite Jest or The Corrections. But like all of these discussions, a lot of that is probably just colored by my personal experience or bias. Embracing the idea that it's difficult to argue that any white (American) male writer in the past 40 years should be even examined at the level of culture-wide canon relevance, I do think DeLillo is one of the better candidates. I'd probably prefer someone like Padgett Powell or David Markson, but a necessary component should be accessibility, and outside of Edisto, I don't think Powell really is that. It's an interesting and pretty abstruse party game, but not much more. I would like to think that DeLillo's entire career would lead up to him saying 'thanks, but no' if he actually won, but people have the exceptional capacity to disappoint.
posted by 99_ at 11:41 AM on April 2, 2020 [1 favorite]

No opinion on the prize issue, but I did think of White Noise when I was hanging around outside the laundromat watching pedestrian after pedestrian after pedestrian after cyclist after pedestrian after scooter kid stop to take the same picture. The most photographed tree in Brooklyn.
posted by betweenthebars at 12:33 PM on April 2, 2020 [3 favorites]

I dunno. I like it when people I've never heard of win the Nobel Prize and then I get to discover them. Well, except for that time Bob Dylan won.

I liked "White Noise" when I read it decades ago. I barely remember "Ratner's Star; I wasn't a fan of "Underworld". However, I had just read Gerald Posner's "Case Closed" before reading "Libra" and with that fortunate priming, I thought it was brilliant.
posted by acrasis at 5:18 PM on April 2, 2020

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