Greatness is something that happens to other people. When the critics began to hail Don DeLillo as one of the most significant American novelists — when, correctly, they positioned his postmodern masterpieces White Noise and Underworld among the great books of the 20th century — he noticed only passingly. On winning the National Book Award in 1985, for White Noise, he simply rose and said “I’m sorry I couldn’t be here tonight, but I thank you all for coming”, then sat down.
The acceptance-speech story is characteristically funny — DeLillo has bone-dry wit on tap when we meet at his agent’s office on the Upper East Side — but it is also instructive. The author is 73, with a pinched face, grey hair and oval glasses. He grew up in a working-class Italian Catholic family in the Bronx. Every once in a while, he revisits “the old neighbourhood” with a group of his childhood friends. None of that gang “got much beyond high school”, except for DeLillo, who studied at Fordham University, where he fell in love with Hemingway and Joyce before joining an advertising agency on graduation. He quit in 1964 and began writing seriously, going on to produce 16 novels, four plays, one screenplay and a catalogue of short stories and essays.
DeLillo now lives in the suburb of Bronxville, where he writes on an Olympia typewriter, shuns email, watches old movies with his wife and gives as few interviews as is polite. He is not, as newspapers have often suggested, a recluse (he is far too sociable, for one thing), but he prefers not to think of himself in the third person. Indeed, DeLillo used to carry a business card that read “I don’t want to talk about it” — again funny, again instructive. “Did Saul Bellow walk around thinking, ‘I’m Saul Bellow’?” he asks, the Bronx still in his vowels. “I don’t think so. No, he went around getting in trouble with his wife, having arguments with his colleagues and so on. You can’t separate yourself. You just are who you are beyond whatever your line of work is.”
DeLillo’s line of work is the postmodern American novel. His concerns are terrorism, consumerism, violence, fractured consciousness, academia: what he once called “the dusty hum” of being alive. His great books have an epic, jazzy sweep to them, but since the publication, in 1997, of Underworld — an 832-page novel that spans 41 years of American life and incorporates baseball, Lenny Bruce, J Edgar Hoover, nuclear-test sites and Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball — he has stopped writing big. The Body Artist, Cosmo polis, Falling Man and his latest, Point Omega, are all short, spare books. He promises he’s not doing it on purpose.
“If a longer novel announces itself, I’ll write it,” he says.
“A novel creates its own structure and develops its own terms. I tend to follow. And I never try to stretch what I sense is a compact book.”
DeLillo’s claim that he follows his work — that the books write him, rather than the other way around — recurs frequently. His friend Colum McCann, the novelist, tells a story about DeLillo conducting a creative-writing masterclass at Hunter College. The students bombarded him with questions, and DeLillo discussed the problem of not knowing where his fiction comes from. At a certain point, he dipped his baseball cap and admitted, bashfully: “I seem to be the benefactor of an occasional revelation.”
There is a prevailing critical opinion that DeLillo’s revelations have dried up, or at least that he has lost his way since Underworld. The great poet of doom, they say, was “out-imagined” by the real events of 9/11. He is unfussed by the critics — “F*** ’em” is his considered response — and remains productive. Indeed, of all his post-Underworld novels, Point Omega is the most interesting. It begins with unnamed characters watching a modern-art installation entitled 24 Hour Psycho, a video work by the Scottish artist Douglas Gordon in which the original Alfred Hitchcock film is slowed to span 24 hours. The action then moves to the desert, where an academic named Elster, who was part of the brains trust behind the invasion of Iraq, meets a documentary-maker and loses his daughter. Then we’re back in the art installation. One hundred and twenty-eight pages of theatrical, uncanny prose and it’s over.
DeLillo saw the 24 Hour Psycho exhibition three times, and was fascinated by it. “I became interested by the glacial pace of the film, because you get a sense of how we fail to see what is right there under normal circumstances,” he remembers. “By my third visit, I was pretty sure it was something I wanted to write about. But I’m not a physicist or a philosopher or a cosmologist. So, when I sat down to work, I placed a character in that dark, chilled room and proceeded from there.”
DeLillo’s novels start this way. One situation or image is considered interesting; he proceeds from there. With Falling Man, his poorly received novel about the aftermath of 9/11, the original idea was an image of a businessman carrying a briefcase away from the crumbled World Trade Center. DeLillo realised he didn’t know what was in the briefcase, and that maybe the briefcase did not belong to the man in the photograph, then proceeded.
With Underworld, famously, it was the 1951 Giants-Dodgers baseball game — described in the bravura opening 60 pages of the novel — that set DeLillo off. More specifically, it was the synchronicity of the sporting contest and the Soviet nuclear tests on the same day that sparked his interest. The front page of the New York Times on October 4, 1951, gave both stories equal weight. On one side is the headline GIANTS CAPTURE PENNANT; on the other, SOVIET’S [sic] SECOND ATOM BLAST IN 2 YEARS REVEALED.
Point Omega and Underworld do not read like the work of the same author. One is a carnival, the other a chess game. DeLillo, interestingly, feels the same way. He has recently reread Underworld, to answer questions from foreign-language translators. It was, he says, a sobering experience.“In truth, it made me wonder whether I would be capable of that kind of writing now — the range and scope of it. There are certain parts of the book where the exuberance, the extravagance, I don’t know, the overindulgence… There are city scenes in New York that seem to transcend reality in a certain way.”
There is no bitterness in his voice. “In the 1970s, when I started writing novels,” he explains, “I was a figure in the margins, and that’s where I belonged. If I’m headed back that way, that’s fine with me, because that’s always where I felt I belonged. Things changed for me in the 1980s and 1990s, but I’ve always preferred to be somewhere in the corner of a room, observing.”
What’s extraordinary about DeLillo’s fiction is how many of its concerns — his preoccupation with the Twin Towers and terrorist spectaculars, for example — have coalesced into painful reality. It’s also interesting to see how many of his more benign imaginings have seeped into the culture. There is, of course, the knowing stuff: the rock band Airborne Toxic Event, for instance, named themselves after the chemical cloud that forms the centrepiece of White Noise (DeLillo was sent a CD, but found it “a little mainstream” for his tastes). There is also a sense in which DeLillo’s best novels capture what will become appealing to us. In Underworld, for instance, there is a chapter describ ing an advertising executive named Charlie Wainwright, working on Madison Avenue in 1961, that is almost a word-for-word treatment of the television show Mad Men. “The married copywriters met their secretaries,” DeLillo writes, “or the secretaries of other writers, or the tall and lissome secretaries of account executives, white-shod and well-spoken, and went about their tender regimen of lunchtime love…”
DeLillo worked as a copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather in the 1960s. He hasn’t seen Mad Men, because he only watches “sports, documentaries and movies, never continuing series”. He will say: “It’s pretty interesting that a show about that era should become popular now” — a programme about the formation of the branded consumer universe. But that’s all he has to say on the matter.
DeLillo would prefer to talk about how he works. His writerly tics — particularly his habit of writing only one paragraph per page on his typewriter — are revealing. DeLillo says he began writing in this fashion when he was living in Greece in the 1970s, working on The Names. He saw that the Greek alphabet was not just a tool, but a work of art. By using only one sheet of paper per paragraph, he could see his work more clearly.
“The shapes of letters began to attract me,” he says.
“I began to notice the shapes of words and letters within words — not only the sound and the meaning it created, but the look of a particular set of words. A phrase like ‘the raw sprawl of the city’, which I used towards the end of Underworld — I see the word ‘raw’ inside the word ‘sprawl’ and I like this, it seems right. And I get a certain pleasure when that correspondence develops.”
This period, when writing The Names, was also when DeLillo “rededicated himself” to writing novels seriously. He began to rediscover the “great pleasure” he had in collecting material for his work. DeLillo has been dedicated ever since. He says he has had “the luckiest life” as a novelist, and has always been able to do “pretty much what I wanted”. And, despite the advance of technology and a dwindling serious readership, he continues to believe utterly in what he does.
Before he leaves, DeLillo makes an impassioned case for the continuing significance of the novel. “It is the form that allows a writer the greatest opportunity to explore human experience,” he says. “For that reason, reading a novel is potentially a significant act. Because there are so many varieties of human experience, so many kinds of interaction between humans, and so many ways of creating patterns in the novel that can’t be created in a short story, a play, a poem or a movie. The novel, simply, offers more opportunities for a reader to understand the world better, including the world of artistic creation. That sounds pretty grand, but I think it’s true.”
With that, he’s done. DeLillo has stopped wanting to talk about it. He is back to work, one paragraph at a time.