Interview of Don DeLillo by Jörg Burger

"Mr. Paranoia" published in Die ZEIT, Hamburg, ZEIT magazin Nr. 42, 8 Oct. 1998. Translated back by Tilo Zimmermann.

Mr. Paranoia

The books of the American writer Don DeLillo are filled with conspiracy theories. His new novel "Underworld" is a bestseller in the U.S. By Jörg Burger

ZEIT: Mr. DeLillo, your books are filled with bizarre theories. You are presenting your readers with a world they have never seen like this before. Younger readers think your attitude is pretty cool. Do you care about your image?
DeLillo: I do not care what others think of me. However, I have noticed lately that more and more people want to talk with me. Since my new novel was published in the U.S., this has become even worse. Luckily, nobody recognizes me on the streets in New York.
ZEIT: You rarely give interviews, and if you do never on television. Thus you made it into the list of reclusive authors published recently by Entertainment Weekly - ranking third, trailing only Thomas Pynchon and J. D. Salinger. What are you scared of?
DeLillo: Of nothing. I just want to keep a little bit of anonymity. Television consumes the things it shows. It replaces reality.
ZEIT: An audience of almost a thousand attended one of your rare readings in San Francisco recently, wanting to hear you explain your new novel "Underworld" - a book of more than 900 pages with a sprawling plot. Where exactly is this underworld located?
DeLillo: In graffiti-covered New York subway tunnels, in a secret military site in the desert, and everywhere where there is nuclear waste. The basement room in which my main character Nick Shay shoots a friend is an underworld. When I realized that the word Plutonium is derived from Pluto, god of the dead and master of the underworld, I knew which title to give to my book. The atom bomb plays a major role in the novel. It is a secret history of America in the Cold War.
ZEIT: The novel starts with the famous baseball game of the New York Giants vs. the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 3rd 1951, and it ends with atom bomb explosions. Where is the connection between sports and the bomb?
DeLillo: The power of history. I found it in an old issue of the New York Times, where I was looking for an article about the game, and came upon another article about the explosion of a Russian atom bomb - the two articles were next to each other on the frontpage. I felt this game to be one of the last celebrated events all Americans share in their memory. Later, catastrophes came to dominate the public mind.
ZEIT: What was so historic about this game?
DeLillo: Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants batted a home run and thus won the Baseball World Series for his team. It was electrifying: in a split second it was over, history contained in a tiny moment. I met Bobby Thomson recently, he is now 74 years old, and people still approach him about this event. They even remember which clothes they wore when they heard of the outcome of the game. Today, events like this are shown on television over and over again, until they lose their power only hours later. But this game has been burned into our memory like the picture of the mushroom cloud.
ZEIT: A film of the Russian director Sergej Eisenstein is mentioned in the novel as well, which supposedly lent its title to your book. Did the film Underworld really exist?
DeLillo: No, but during writing I felt there should be a Russian presence in the book. Don't ask me why. There were just more and more underworlds opening up and pushing into the book on their own accord.
ZEIT: History seems to be merely a game for you. The reader never knows what is true and what is false.
DeLillo: A writer has to be able to fill in the gaps of history. In my novel Libra members of a conspiracy kill John F. Kennedy. Noneless I do not believe that this was actually the case.
ZEIT: Murder plays a role in Underworld as well. The film shot by an amateur during the assassination of Kennedy is being admired like the idol of a cult.
DeLillo: Many people believe that technology can bring light to dark corners of the past. A private company recently bought the rights to the Zapruder film, and experts have examined the punched margins of it for traces of information.
ZEIT: Is there a film of the baseball game on October 3rd in 1951?
DeLillo: Only a newsreel in coarse black and white, which makes it more precious. It has not been shown as many times as todays news footage, which is much more perishable because of this. Our culture is all about consuming, and a second later everything is turned into garbage. That may be the reason why so many of todays writers work on the past. The present is too fleeting.
ZEIT: Your readers love this type of analysis. In Underworld you claim the sorting of garbage is a ritual of modern people to overcome their fears.
DeLillo: I pick up these things, which then go into my books through the voice of the characters. I hope this way it does not sound too academic.
ZEIT: Maybe you can explain another one of your sentences: "All technology refers to the bomb."
DeLillo: What I meant was this: The bomb, and the enormous power associated with it, is the spiritual god of technology. There is a scene in Underworld where household goods from the fifties are described, which have endured over time with yellowed and brittle labels. You sense danger emanating from these innocent objects. Everything in our world seems to be related to the bomb. There is a metaphysics of technology, which I am only slowly starting to understand.
ZEIT: At one of your recent readings a member of the audience stated that he was using Underworld as a book of history. Isn't this dangerous?
DeLillo: You can use the book as a cultural history. I have put in street slang of the fifties and sixties, which nobody speaks anymore, and the rhythm of Italian-American speech from my family, with whom I was living in the Bronx.
ZEIT: There is a heated discussion among your readers about your conspiracy theories. In Underworld you are claiming that the U.S. Army used soldiers for experiments which exposed them to radiation without their knowledge or consent. Furthermore, the government is supposed to run training camps for people with paranormal abilities somewhere in the desert. Are you not worried that people will take these statements at face value?
DeLillo: That would be O.K. Readers can do what they want with works of fiction. Besides, these statements are actually true. The U.S. Army has conducted radiation experiments with soldiers. And I believe the Pentagon is funding trials with people supposed to have paranormal abilities.
ZEIT: "History is the sum of all things they don't tell us", you wrote in Libra. This sounds rather paranoid.
DeLillo: Many completely normal people believe this. Every government is hiding secrets from their citizens. The Kennedy assassination brought strange connections to light, things nobody had even dreamed of. This has made many citizens suspicious. Since 1963 paranoia is part of the American psyche. The paranoia diminished somewhat in between, but today it is very strong again. One of its sources is the internet - technology always being suspicious.
ZEIT: Now you sound like one of those weirdos from the X-Files.
DeLillo: I am merely employing cultural trends surrounding me. It is impossible to write a novel about America in the Cold War without using an element of paranoia and conspiracy. Today militias are holing up in the South of the U.S., because they are afraid of UN-troops taking over the government. Members of a cult commit collective suicide because they believe a comet is coming to reclaim their souls. Writers do not make this up. It just happens.
ZEIT: In Underworld you are describing stores where customers can buy frozen garbage of celebrities. Is this your vision of America in the next millennium?
DeLillo: I believe it is a logical conclusion of forces at work in this culture. I have thought up another store as well, offering tapes of illegally recorded telephone conversations. You can get this already on the internet today.
ZEIT: What are you working on currently?
DeLillo: A piece for the theater.
ZEIT: It probably deals with Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky - and the conspiracy leading to the impeachment of the president.
DeLillo: I won't comment on this. I have newspapers calling me all the time, wanting to know my opinion on such matters. I do not reply. I am not an expert on reality.

Copyright 1998 Die ZEIT/Jörg Burger