Don DeLillo, Americana

April 15th, 2012 § 2 comments

What we really want to do, he said, deep in the secret recesses of our heart, all of us, is to destroy the forests, white saltbox houses, covered bridges, brownstones, azalea gardens, big red barns, colonial inns, riverboats, whaling villages, cider mills, waterwheels, antebellum mansions, log cabins, lovely old churches and snug little railroad depots. All of use secretly favour this destruction, even conservationists, even those embattled individuals who make a career out of picketing graceful and historic old buildings to protest their demolition. It’s what we are. Straight lines and right angles. We feel a private thrill, admit it, at the sight of beauty in flames. We wish to blast all these fine old things to oblivion and replace them with tasteless identical structures. Boxes of cancer cells. Neat gray chambers for meditation and the reading of advertisements. Imagine the fantastic prairie motels we could build if we would only give in completely to the demons of our true nature; imagine the automobiles that might take us from motel to motel; imagine the monolithic fifty-story machines for disposing of the victims of automobile accidents without the bother of funerals and the waste of tombstones or sepulchres. Let the police run wild. Let the mad leaders of our nation destroy whomever they choose. That’s what we really want, Black Knife told me. We want to be totally engulfed by all the so-called worst elements of our national life and character. We want to wallow in the terrible gleaming mudcunt of Mother America. (That’s what he said). We want to come to terms with the false anger we so often display at the increasing signs of sterility and violence in our culture. Kill the old brownstones and ornate railroad terminals. Kill the rotten stinking smalltown courthouses. Blow up the Brooklyn Bridge. Blow up Nantucket. Blow up the Blue Ridge Parkway. We must realize that we are living in Megamerica. Neon, fiber glass, Plexiglass, polyu-rethane, Mylar, Acrylite.

In 1971, Don DeLillo published his first novel, a novel he has said came to him in a “moment in which nothing happened, nothing ostensibly changed, a moment in which I didn’t see anything I hadn’t seen before. But there was a pause in time, and I knew I had to write about a man who comes to a street like this or lives on a street like this. And whatever roads the novel eventually followed, I believe I maintained the idea of that quiet street if only as counterpoint, as lost innocence.[1]” The protagonist Dave Bell is a Madison Avenue network exec who spends his days not unlike Mad Men’s Don Draper, drinking, napping, and engaging in a power struggle with the other people who work at the firm. At 28, he is the youngest person in a position of power, something he takes very seriously, and his project, a person of interest documentary titled Soliloquy, is a critical, although not commercial success. In a dangerous time at the office, his star seems to be on the rise and he about to undertake a project that he has been pushing for, a documentary on a Navajo reservation in Arizona. Despite his success at work, he begins to suffer from existential angst as he finds himself at parties that he doesn’t want to be with, sleeping around with women his doesn’t particularly care for, unable to make sense of his place in the world as he undergoes the disintegration of self that so often occurs in the face of capitalism. Despite his young age, he has already been divorced for a few years, having cheated on his wife when the relationship lost its spark. He withdraws from the marriage, and even though he knows that he is hurting the women he is having an affair with, also purposely refuses to give her anything of himself either. He retreats inside himself as it is easier for him to not have any responsibilities towards other people, as DeLillo writes,

I wanted to wake up alone; it was a characteristic of mine, which women learned to despise down through the years. My apartment welcomed me, dim and silent, the red-wine flavor of paintings and rugs, the fireplace and oak paneling, the black leather upholstery, old and comfortably cracked, the dull copper mugs on the mantelpiece and the burnished ale tone of the desk lamp-all warm and familiar and needing no acknowledgement, all reminding me that solitude asks no pledges of anyone.

In order to escape his life in New York, he embarks on a road trip across America with a group of artistic friends to film his Navajo documentary (it has to be by road because to America cars are religious, planes have not yet become religious), but he never makes it there, lost among the small towns of backwoods America.

On the way to Arizona, Dave decides he wants to make a film to piece together his shattered past. Putting to use his filmmaking skills gained from his years at a small liberal arts college, he asks the locals to act out scenes from his life, some factual and some imagined. Throughout the novel, Dave talks about how he associated with Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster, but his own film is very different from the usual Hollywood fare. Film is a constant in the work of DeLillo, and Dave becomes obsessed with his film, believing that if he can create a transcendental work of art, he might be able to understand what has gone wrong in his life. For inspiration he cribs from the finest filmmakers, Yasujirō Ozu, Ingmar Bergman and Robert Bresson, and even attempts to recreate the memorable snow scene from Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru. In his film he deconstructs the major events of his life: the sister he no longer sees because she ran off with a criminal, the effect it had on his delicate mother and her later death from cancer, and the withdrawal of his advertising exec father as a result. His father’s job has given him some insight into the personal nature of consumerism, quoting,

“In this country there is a universal third person, the man we all want to be. Advertising has discovered this man. It uses him to express the possibilities open to the consumer. To consume in America is not to buy; it is to dream. Advertising is the suggestion that the dream of entering the third person singular might possibly be fulfilled.”

In one particular passage, Dave has an actor read a harrowing account of what he believes his father saw on the Bataan death march during World War II, something his father has always refused to talk about. In this scene he imagines the very worst that humans are capable of, cruelty and torture, amidst the rotting corpses and dysentery. In attempting to understand what his father saw, and the impossibility of not being affected by it, it isn’t hard to see why his father was always somewhat distant with his son.

Two characters in the novel in particular foreshadow the absurdity and paranoia that DeLillo would later be identified by. The first is Warburton, an older man who works at the firm, and is kept around mostly because he is seen as their moral compass (although they always ignore him anyway). In secret he is the man that Dave calls Trotsky, an anonymous individual who has been sending out memos in secret quoting from political theory, theology, and philosophy. Dave begins to suspect him when he quotes Kafka discussing China in a meeting, and when he confronts Warburton about the most recent memo, quoting St Augustine, he denies it before replying,

“We are endlessly dying… We begin dying when we are born. A short time later we die. By universal consent, more or less, this is known as death. In time the so-called resurrection of the body takes place. Soul and body become joined in what we already defined as the state of death. But although we are in the state of death we are not dead because body and soul are intact once again and there is no recourse but to resume the process of dying. Or, if you will, the process of living-the words are interchangeable really. And since the process of dying goes on for all eternity we cannot be said to be waiting for death. Nor are we looking back on something which is not there but here. In this paradoxical, redundant and somewhat comical passage, what Augustine is getting at beyond all the gibberish is that death never dies and man shall remain forever in the state of death. There is always the chance, of course, that I have misunderstood every word. I managed to obtain a key to the multilith room. I run off the copies after midnight and then distribute then, If I’m not able to get it all done before daybreak, I distribute the remaining copies during lunchtime, as was the case yesterday. I work quickly and stealthily. Naturally, I am above suspicion.”

The other character is a late night/early morning radio DJ, Warren Beadsley, who’s show, “Death is Just Around the Corner” consists solely of his monologues, as he waxes lyrical about cults, conspiracies, the CIA, revolution and all sorts of outsider culture. While the novel contains many precursors to later themes in the work of DeLillo, Beardsley is arguably the genesis of what defines his work; the paranoia andt he conspiracy theories. Even the seemingly inexhaustible Beadsley is beginning to show cracks like Dave though, as he admits he has had to switch from live to pre-recorded towards the end of the novel, finding that it is becoming too difficult.

As a debut novel, Americana, is not without its flaws. DeLillo had yet to master his own chaotic prose, and it gets away from him, sometimes running on too long, and at times becoming overly purple. It remains important though because DeLillo is an important writer, and through the ideas that populate the novel we see the evolution of a writer who has become one of the finest in the world. Dave Bell is a man destroyed by modern American life, and is forced to try and find some meaning in the core of his own wrecked self. The novel ends in the mid-west, as Dave abandons his friends to continue west into mythical America. Avoiding the Navajo reservation where he is still expected, he spends the night with a group of hippies who have left their normal lives behind to live with Apaches. Even the anti-thesis of his New York life cannot cure his malaise, and he leaves in the morning and the novel descends into chaos. At the workplace of the Samaritan giving him a ride, a Cadillac driving, loud mouthed Texan, he engages in a bacchanalian orgy of sex and violence, and, having bathed himself in essence of real America, he does the only thing that he can do; he cleans himself up, and books himself a flight back to New York.

[1] Paris Review – Don DeLillo, The Art of Fiction No. 135, Interviewed by Adam Begley

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