Interview of Don DeLillo (DD) by Bo Green Jensen (BGJ)
© Copyright Weekendavisen, November 13, 1998
Translated back by Jakob Schelander, 2003.
The Master of Alienation, Don DeLillo, has written what could become the great American novel of the 90's. We met the author in Copenhagen.
By Bo Green Jensen
It begins innocently with a boy who's going to a ball game. "He speaks in your voice", it says, "American, and there's a shine to his eye that's halfway hopeful." His name is Cotter Martin, and for the first time, he's going to sneak his way into the stadium, New York Polo Grounds, in the city where so many central scenes in the works of Don DeLillo take place. We're in 1951, October 3, and it is the crucial game between The Giants and the Dodgers that the boy wants to see. We understand him, because the air itself is electrified on this day of expectations. It is not just a game, that's played. It is the future, which begins.
The boy with the greedy look is not alone. In the private luxury box behind the Giants' players are celebrities such as Frank Sinatra, the reporter Walter Winchell and the TV-actor Jackie Gleason. A fourth celebrity is FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, "a well dressed man with the face of a bulldog." It is he, who, during the game, receives the message that the Soviet Union has successfully carried out their first atomic explosion. It is not for nothing that the sublime prologue, which Don DeLillo's great novel Underworld grows out of, bears the title "The Triumph of Death".
Don DeLillo, who is now 62, was for a long time a so-called cult author, who was received with the utmost skepticism by the mainstream reading audience. His debut was in 1971 with a novel which was, very suitably, called Americana, and with The Names, in 1982, he wrote his first truly forceful and "complete" novel. From White Noise, his eighth novel from 1985, the American critics have on a large scale agreed, that here was something special going on.
With Libra in 1988, an angry and remarkably obsessed novel about Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who, maybe, shot John F. Kennedy, it seemed like DeLillo's commercial breakthrough was near, but apparently the novel confused its readers. Mao II from 1991 was the author's Danish debut. The novel begins with an image of 6,500 couples getting married by a guru at Yankee Stadium in New York. The novel is obsessed with the mass as a phenomenon and contemplates sectarian suicides and mass weddings, altogether everything that is collective and denies the private ego, the personal identity, as an emblem of the time-spirit in the next century.
All of DeLillo's motives are at last positioned in Underworld. Still, the novel about the history of the last 50 years, about The Cold War in the global arena and the many smaller incidents in famous and unknown people's lives, is very different from his earlier works. This time, there is a warmth and depth, an anchor in humanity, which the coldness in his earlier novels almost by definition prevented. It is the baseball in the beginning, which almost like a talismanic carrier of the story, is brought home by the boy Cotter Martin and years later bought by the man Nick Shay, who lost his father during the game and is sort of a main character in the swarming picture. The novel is zapping and zigzagging, cross-clipping backwards and forwards between half a score of persons, from the 50's to the 90's and back, until the epilogue "Das Kapital" leads the journey through time out, or into, cyberspace, the virtual arena of the world. But Nick makes the complete journey, and his searching memory gives the historic main currents direction and meaning. With Underworld Don DeLillo has written one of the 90's great novels and undoubtedly his best novel ever. Imagine if a Danish writer would let go and let himself fall through history like that.
The author carefully answers the questions, he must have heard to the rawness of the skin. His eyes are less burning than in the pictures and he has a tweed cap in his hand, because afterwards, he is going for a walk in the city. He takes long thoughtful pauses and has a mildly irritating habit of asking rhetorical questions.
BGJ - Seven years ago, in Mao II, you wrote that the future belong to the masses. Do you still believe that is the case?
DD - I haven't thought much about that since I wrote it, since my head has been in Underworld, which is another kind of novel. It seems there is less hectic activity around certain charismatic leaders than there was ten years ago, when I wrote Mao II. Masses like that seem to aim at a certain form of self abandonment. I don't know if this kind of behavior is going to end. In one part of the world there are signs indicating that the governments' terror is modified or vanishes because of the official politics. In other parts of the world, the terror carried out by individual persons is worse than it has been. There will always be marginalized elements in this world, and those persons have always gathered around strong individuals, whether the impulse is religious, political or national.
BGJ - But the mass in Mao II is like a mutation. It desires a happy self-destruction. Is this kind of mass mind increasing?
DD - It is difficult to generalize about. In many parts of the world the great movement seems to have dissolved into more ethnic conflicts. Will we find this kind of mass in Bosnia, in Serbia, in Kosovo? I'm not sure. Not like we did in Iran or in China before the death of Mao. While I was writing Mao II there were a variety of human masses, which all seemed to move towards a violent release. It was kind of apocalyptic, even if it happened coincidentally. After the fatwa over Salman Rushdie, the traffic on 23rd Street in New York was blocked by a large Muslim demonstration. It was terrifying and overwhelming. Could something like that happen again? I can't see why it shouldn't. It's just a matter of the right occasion.
BGJ - Masses, crowds, the panic in them and the warmth they generate? is something you have written a lot about. Have you ever been in a crowd and thought "I have to write about this some day"?
DD - Yes, but I didn't say to myself that I had to write about it, I just said I had to survive. In the moment you asked the question, I recalled an episode in Cairo. As it happened, I got caught in the crowd on one of the Shiites holidays. In a way there was a good atmosphere but there was this massive gathering of people. It was a matter of surviving physically, of not being caught by a claustrophobic panic, but not because the crowd was angry. It was just a crowd, and it carries its own kind of anxiety.
BGJ - Another ongoing theme is terrorism. On several occasions you have coordinated the artist and the terrorist?
DD - I believe I have opposed them. When I wrote Mao II, it appeared to me that the story of the world, the great story, was being taken over by dictators, assassins and terrorists. And the old idea that the culture at least partly is created and influenced by the nation's great novelists was superseded by the news stream, bad news, catastrophically news, which in itself became the story of the world. I had a feeling that terrorism had stripped the arts of a particular kind of power. This feeling is not as strong now as it was ten years ago. There was a direct clash of interests between these two extreme positions in culture.
BGJ - You spent three years in Greece and wrote The Names. You have said that you, at your homecoming, noticed an addition to the catastrophic reports in the news, namely the daily toxic waste. Was that the only difference?
DD - It was an important addition in all the wrong ways. It is physically terrifying to see these black, toxic clouds, gigantic ships which crack, railroad accidents. But nobody talked about it, it was just accepted. It was just noticed in the news. And I probably just noticed it because I had been away. I wanted to write about it, and that is why I chose that direction in White Noise. Since then, the theme has grown in Underworld. What else did I see? I saw supermarkets with other eyes. I began to see an American supermarket as it would be perceived by a person from a faraway, under-privileged country. I don't know why, perhaps because I had visited such places and I began to understand them in a different and new way. My eyes were opened for something one might call - I think the phrase is used directly in White Noise - "American magic and dread". One of the characters begins to think of supermarkets in an almost magic light, as something almost religious.
BGJ - The novel ends with a sort of ironic epiphany, a daily life revelation, in the supermarket. Murray is at the counter next to the stand with magazines about UFO's and Elvis, who has been seen again.
DD - Supermarket magazines, yes. The last sentence is actually: "The cults of the famous and the dead". It has grown since then. Think of Princess Diana and the cult, which grew around her. It gets more and more prevalent in our culture. For me it was interesting that something as trivial as the tabloids actually could imply meaningful material about our lives. For what is it all about? It's about faith, death, life after death, love.
BGJ - Jackie Gleason from "The Honeymooners" is among the spectators at the baseball game in Underworld. Also Frank Sinatra and J. Edgar Hoover are present, and later in the novel we encounter other authentic persons such as Lenny Bruce and Jayne Mansfield, of whom the young men fantasizes heavily. Her breasts are compared to the bumper on a Cadillac. How did you create the list of characters?
DD - I did research on the game and I found out that these men were among the spectators, Hoover, Gleason, and Toots Shor. It was a breakthrough for me when I found out that Hoover had seen the game, because that made it possible for me to link the game to the Soviet atomic explosion on the other side of the planet. Maybe there wouldn't have been a novel if I didn't found out about Hoover. I could have made it up, but now it was as if someone were trying to tell me something. In the USA the popular culture and The Cold War was completely mixed up, because in America everything is absorbed by the mass culture. So we had jokes about The Cold War, we had songs and movies like Dr. Strangelove. Cars were designed as jet planes. I felt a need to reproduce some of the black humor from this period, and Lenny Bruce seemed to be the optimum figure, even though he, to my knowledge, didn't say much about the possibility of war between the USA and the Soviet Union. At this moment he was more occupied with local matters such as race, sex and double standard of morality. Still I felt that he was the man who could bear this theme, so I wrote some new Lenny Bruce material. I hope the readers will understand that it is thought of as a tribute to Lenny Bruce.
BGJ - You saw him perform?
DD - Only once, but I had film clips and his manuscripts. Jayne Mansfield is a part of the novel, because she was a part of the culture. She was an example of the bizarre process that goes on when an obvious imitation, in Mansfield's case of Marilyn Monroe, becomes more important than the original. It has happened again and again ever since. Jayne Mansfield became one of the most important women in the world. When Marilyn's career ended because of her personal problems, Mansfield was bigger for a short period. But when Marilyn died, so did Mansfield's fame. And then she died in that terrible car accident.
BGJ - When did you find out that Breughel's painting "The Triumph of Death" had been published in Life magazine that week?
DD - When I began writing about the game, Life was one of the first things I looked into, because Life was so important to the self perception of the Americans in the 50's. I wanted to see what else was going on in this week, that was all. The Breughel painting was reproduced in connection to an article about the Prado Museum and "The Triumph of Death" literally jumped in my face. Immediately I combined it with Hoover's apocalyptic vision. In the background there is actually a flickering explosion, a sunset, which could be caused by an atomic bomb.
BGJ - Later you also refer to other medieval works, among others the mystic publication "The Cloud of Ignorance". Is Underworld a modern vanitas-picture?
DD - In a way. For some reason I found it obvious to give the chapters titles from existing works, books, movies, even advertising slogans. It began with "The Triumph of Death". I think I wanted to show how the past always influences our lives. There is also a reference to the Breughel painting in the chapter about Truman Capote's famous black and white ball, where Hoover and his "assistant" Clyde are among the guests and the demonstrators gathered in front of the hotel. The guests wear medieval costumes and it is like the dance of death. At the end of the novel we see what the radiation has done to the children in Kazakhstan. There is something medieval in these mutated faces, but the distortion is not caused by leprosy, it is caused by modern science.
BGJ - You were born in 1936. How did The Cold War effect your daily life, when you were a young man in the Bronx?
DD - I remember when I was 16 and watched a movie, a news cast, which showed the first H-bomb explosion. I recall the speaker, I can still hear his voice, he was in the ship's stern somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, maybe Bikini, as they named the bathing suits after. And there was something terrifying about it, but at the same time it was very entertaining. There was this vision, the iconographical flame, the atomic anger. The mushroom cloud was beautiful and for me it became the determining picture for the culture in the second half of the 20th century. These complex matters are all weaved into our perception of the danger we were exposed to, of the way we escaped extinction. Something we haven't yet made exactly clear to ourselves.
BGJ - I was born in 1955. One of my first memories is my parent's fear and subsequent relief, when we listened to the Cuban missile crisis on the radio. Was it really entertaining?
DD - No. It was a frantic, dangerous moment, and at this point it had long since stopped being entertaining. It wasn't hard to believe that we were on the verge of an atomic war, because that's exactly where we were. I was at a football match during that week and I clearly recall how people, for the first time, really joined in the singing when the national anthem was played. The whole stadium sang. I had never experienced anything like it before. There was an enormous fear. It lasted for thirteen days, but it was most intense during the last week. That's why I let Lenny Bruce travel from coast to coast that week and tell us about it in his own way.
BGJ - In the middle of the novel Nick finally captures the baseball from the beginning. There is a short essay about sitting with a baseball and thinking of the feelings it carries with it. Is nostalgia always a superficial emotion?
DD - Not necessarily. There's something about a baseball, the item itself, which carries the history of the game with it. When Nick sits with the ball I don't think he's nostalgic. He's about to realize why he has bought this baseball. He has bought it to demonstrate a feeling of loss. He doesn't identify himself with the player who made the determining home run, but with the pitcher who became that moment's loser and happened to be wearing the number 13 on his uniform. I don't think it is mentioned in the novel, but what Nick did was to buy this baseball to tie himself to his fathers' disappearance. That was the event, which determined his life and there is something mystic about the loss itself, something that reaches deep down. For Nick the baseball is the lapel badge of the loss.
BGJ - Actually nostalgia means homesick?
DD - Yes, and there is a certain atmosphere of longing in the novel. But, you see, what Nick is nostalgic about, what he yearns for, is not a lost innocence. It is a lost guilt. It is the way he could act, back when he was a teenager. To fight, love, steal; live in his muscles and his blood, that is what he is nostalgic about. Instead he lives the perfectly successful but antiseptic life in the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona.
BGJ - Did you fell that kind of longing yourself while you wrote the novel?
DD - Yes. I was longing for The Bronx and it was a pleasure writing those pages. Possibly the most comfortable writing experience, I've ever had, and that chapter in particular was easy to write in comparison to the rest of the novel. Each of us is the world's leading expert on the topic, which is called our own childhood and puberty. In fact, nobody else knows anything about those years. Only you can, with certainty and pithy, tell what happened, and I wrote these pages with a feeling of self-confidence and authority, that I'd wish I could have all the time when I write. It's a rare and wonderful feeling.
BGJ - Should the writer's role always be subversive?
DD - By all means, but it's hard to keep one's resistance. I hope that my own novels point out an opposition to the state, the industry concerns and the runaway consumerism. No one is freer than the American writer and for the same reason he is one step away from ending as elevator music. The pop culture absorbs everything and how do you keep on having an undermining strength? William Burroughs did it for 40 years, but today everything becomes a T-shirt, a coffee mug, a shopping bag. There is something about the big complex novel, which resists and suggests that everyone is not willing to be involved in the food chain of consumerism. In this kind of culture, the writer should always stand alone. If he succeeds in that, he has at least achieved something.