Don DeLillo: The Word, the Image, the Gun (Documentary)

Hemingway died one day and Pynchon was born the next (DeLillo on Pynchon)

It was as though, in some odd quantum stroke, Hemingway died one day and Pynchon was born the next. One literature bends into another. Pynchon has made American writing a broader and stronger force. He found whispers and apparitions at the edge of modern awareness but did not lessen our sense of the physicality of American prose, the shotgun vigor, the street humor, the body fluids, the put-on.

I was writing ads for Sears truck tires when a friend gave me a copy of V. in paperback. I read it and thought, Where did this come from?

The scale of his work, large in geography and unafraid of major subjects, helped us locate our fiction not only in small anonymous corners, human and ever-essential, but out there as well, in the sprawl of high imagination and collective dreams.

Don DeLillo on Thomas Pynchon. From the Summer 2005 issue of Bookforum.

Don DeLillo on William Gaddis

I REMEMBER THE BOOKSTORE, long gone now, on Forty-Second Street. I stood in the narrow aisle reading the first paragraph of The Recognitions. It was a revelation, a piece of writing with the beauty and texture of a Shakespearean monologue-or, maybe more apt, a work of Renaissance art impossibly transformed from image to words. And they were the words of a contemporary American. This, to me, was the wonder of it.
Years later, when I was a writer myself, I read JR, and it seemed to me, at first, that Gaddis was working against his own gifts for narration and physical description, leaving the great world behind to enter the pigeon-coop clutter of minds intent on deal-making and soul-swindling. This was not self-denial, I began to understand, but a writer of uncommon courage and insight discovering a method that would allow him to realize his sense of what the great world had become.
JR in fact is a realistic novel–so unforgivingly real that we may fail to recognize it as such. It is the real world of its own terms, without the perceptual scrim that we tend to erect (novelists and others) in order to live and work safely within it.
Two tremendous novels. And the author maneuvering his car out of a dark and cramped driveway, the last time I saw him, with four or five friends and acquaintances calling out instructions as the car backed onto the country road, headlights shining on our waved good nights.

Don DeLillo on William Gaddis. From the Fall 2003 issue of Conjunctions.

The Mystery at the Middle of Ordinary Life — Don DeLillo

The Mystery at the Middle of Ordinary Life, a one-act play by Don DeLillo

A MAN and a WOMAN in a room.

WOMAN: I was thinking how strange it is.

MAN: What?

WOMAN: That people are able to live together. Days and nights and years. Five years go by. How do they do it? Ten, eleven, twelve years. Two people making one life. Sharing ten thousand meals. Talking to each other face to face, open face, like hot sandwiches. All the words that fill the house. What do people say over a lifetime? Trapped in each other’s syntax. The same voice. The droning tonal repetition. I’ll tell you something.

MAN: You’ll tell me something.

WOMAN: There’s a mystery here. The people behind the walls of the brown house next door. What do they say and how do they survive it? All that idle dialogue. The nasality. The banality. I was thinking how strange it is. How do they do it, night after night, all those nights, those words, those few who do it and survive?

MAN: They make love. They make salads.

WOMAN: But sooner or later they have to speak. This is what shatters the world. I mean isn’t it gradually shattering to sit and listen to the same person all the time, without reason or rhyme. Words that trail away. The pauses. The clauses. How many thousands of times can you look at the same drained face and watch the mouth begin to open? Everything’s been fine up to now. It is when they open their mouths. It is when they speak.


MAN: I’m still not over this cold of mine.

WOMAN: Take those things you take.

MAN: The tablets.

WOMAN: The caplets.


MAN: Long day.

WOMAN: Long day.

MAN: A good night’s sleep.

WOMAN: Long slow day.

[Lights slowly down.]


“What writing means to me” (Don DeLillo)


(Don DeLillo, in a 1982 interview with Contemporary Literature).

“On Freedom to Write” — Don DeLillo


List with No Name #17

  1. Gordon Lish
  2. Ed Sanders
  3. Nadine Gordimer
  4. Harry Matthews
  5. Doris Lessing
  6. Cynthia Ozick
  7. Philip Roth
  8. Derek Walcott
  9. William H. Gass
  10. John Ashberry
  11. E.L. Doctorow
  12. Lawrence Ferlinghetti
  13. Harold Bloom
  14. Gabriel García Márquez
  15. Joyce Johnson
  16. Milan Kundera
  17. Amiri Baraka
  18. Gary Snyder
  19. Joyce Carol Oates
  20. Mario Vargas Llosa
  21. Joan Didion
  22. Harper Lee
  23. John Barth
  24. Don DeLillo
  25. Cormac McCarthy
  26. Chinua Achebe
  27. Umberto Eco
  28. Günter Grass



“Name the Parts” (A Scene from DeLillo’s Underworld)

A favorite scene from Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld:

“Sometimes I think the education we dispense is better suited to a fifty-year-old who feels he missed the point the first time around. Too many abstract ideas. Eternal verities left and right. You’d be better served looking at your shoe and naming the parts. You in particular, Shay, coming from the place you come from.”

This seemed to animate him. He leaned across the desk and gazed, is the word, at my wet boots.

“Those are ugly things, aren’t they?”

“Yes they are.”

“Name the parts. Go ahead. We’re not so chi chi here, we’re not so intellectually chic that we can’t test a student face-to-face.”

“Name the parts,” I said. “All right. Laces.”

“Laces. One to each shoe. Proceed.”

I lifted one foot and turned it awkwardly.

“Sole and heel.”

“Yes, go on.”

I set my foot back down and stared at the boot, which seemed about as blank as a closed brown box.

“Proceed, boy.”

“There’s not much to name, is there? A front and a top.”

“A front and a top. You make me want to weep.”

“The rounded part at the front.”

“You’re so eloquent I may have to pause to regain my composure. You’ve named the lace. What’s the flap under the lace?”

“The tongue.”


“I knew the name. I just didn’t see the thing.”

He made a show of draping himself across the desk, writhing slightly as if in the midst of some dire distress.

“You didn’t see the thing because you don’t know how to look. And you don’t know how to look because you don’t know the names.”

He tilted his chin in high rebuke, mostly theatrical, and withdrew his body from the surface of the desk, dropping his bottom into the swivel chair and looking at me again and then doing a decisive quarter turn and raising his right leg sufficiently so that the foot, the shoe, was posted upright at the edge of the desk.

A plain black everyday clerical shoe.

“Okay,” he said. “We know about the sole and heel.”


“And we’ve identified the tongue and lace.”

“Yes,” I said.

With his finger he traced a strip of leather that went across the top edge of the shoe and dipped down under the lace.

“What is it?” I said.

“You tell me. What is it?”

“I don’t know.”

“It’s the cuff.”

“The cuff.”

“The cuff. And this stiff section over the heel. That’s the counter.”

“That’s the counter.”

“And this piece amidships between the cuff and the strip above the sole. That’s the quarter.”

“The quarter,” I said.

“And the strip above the sole. That’s the welt. Say it, boy.”

“The welt.”

“How everyday things lie hidden. Because we don’t know what they’re called. What’s the frontal area that covers the instep?”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know. It’s called the vamp.”

“The vamp.”

“Say it.”

“The vamp. The frontal area that covers the instep. I thought I wasn’t supposed to memorize.”

“Don’t memorize ideas. And don’t take us too seriously when we turn up our noses at rote learning. Rote helps build the man. You stick the lace through the what?”

“This I should know.”

“Of course you know. The perforations at either side of, and above, the tongue.”

“I can’t think of the word. Eyelet.”

“Maybe I’ll let you live after all,”

“The eyelets.”

“Yes. And the metal sheath at each end of the lace.”

He flicked the thing with his middle finger.

“This I don’t know in a million years.”

“The aglet.”

“Not in a million years.”

“The tag or aglet.”

“The aglet,” I said.

“And the little metal ring that reinforces the rim of the eyelet through which the aglet passes. We’re doing the physics of language, Shay.”

“The little ring.”

“You see it?”


“This is the grommet,” he said.

“Oh man.”

“The grommet. Learn it, know it and love it.”

“I’m going out of my mind.”

“This is the final arcane knowledge. And when I take my shoe to the shoemaker and he places it on a form to make repairs—a block shaped like a foot. This is called a what?”

“I don’t know.”

“A last.”

“My head is breaking apart.”

“Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren’t important, we wouldn’t use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Say it,” he said.


“An extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace.”



Gordon Lish: “Don’t Believe Me”


From “A Conversation with Gordon Lish,” an outstanding interview between the writer/editor and Rob Trucks. The interview is really amazing—Lish talks at length about his writing process, his sense of competition, his friendships with Don DeLillo and Cynthia Ozick, his interest in Julia Kristeva, his feelings for Harold Brodkey and Barry Hannah—and Blood Meridian. Lots and lots of Blood Meridian.

I chose this little nugget because I think it reads almost like a perfect little Lish story—or at least, it seems to perfectly express Lish’s voice, which if you haven’t heard it, my god, get thee to his own reading of his Collected Fictions. Again, the whole interview is well worth your time if you have any interest in Lish. It includes this insight into the man’s fiction:


Five Favorite Fictional Fathers

Literature seems to have an ambivalence toward fatherhood that’s too complex to address in a simple blog post–so I won’t even try. But before I riff on a few of my favorite fathers from a few of my favorite books, I think it’s worth pointing out how rare biological fathers of depth and complexity are in literature. That’s a huge general statement, I’m sure, and I welcome counterexamples, of course, but it seems like relationships between fathers and their children are somehow usually deferred, deflected, or represented in a shallow fashion. Perhaps it’s because we like our heroes to be orphans (whether it’s Moses or Harry Potter, Oliver Twist or Peter Parker) that literature tends to eschew biological fathers in favor of father figures (think of Leopold Bloom supplanting Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, or Merlin taking over Uther Pendragon‘s paternal duties in the Arthur legends). At other times, the father is simply not present in the same narrative as his son or daughter (think of Telemachus and brave Odysseus, or Holden Caulfield wandering New York free from fatherly guidance). What I’ve tried to do below is provide examples of father-child relationships drawn with psychological and thematic depth; or, to put it another way, here are some fathers who actually have relationships with their kids.

Prospero and Miranda--William Maw Egley
Prospero and Miranda–William Maw Egley

1. Prospero, The Tempest (William Shakespeare)

Prospero has always seemed to me the shining flipside to King Lear’s dark coin, a powerful sorcerer who reverses his exile and is gracious even in his revenge. Where Lear is destroyed by his scheming daughters (and his inability to connect to truehearted Cordelia), Prospero, a single dad, protects his Miranda and even secures her a worthy suitor. Postcolonial studies aside, The Tempest is fun stuff.

2. Abraham Ebdus, The Fortress of Solitude, (Jonathan Lethem)

Like Prospero, Abraham Ebdus is a single father raising his child (his son Dylan) in an isolated, alienating place (not a desert island, but 1970’s Brooklyn). After Dylan’s mother abandons the family, the pair’s relationship begins to strain; Lethem captures this process in all its awkward pain with a poignancy that never even verges on schlock. The novel’s redemptive arc is ultimately figured in the reconciliation between father and son in a beautiful ending that Lethem, the reader, and the characters all earn.

3. Jack Gladney, White Noise (Don DeLillo)

While Jack Gladney is an intellectual academic, an expert in the unlikely field of “Hitler studies” (and something of a fraud, to boot), he’s also a pretty normal dad. Casual reviewers of White Noise tend to overlook the sublime banality of domesticity represented in DeLillo’s signature novel: Gladney is an excellent father to his many kids and step-kids, and DeLillo draws their relationships with a realism that belies–and perhaps helps to create–the novel’s satirical bent.

4. Oscar Amalfitano, 2666 (Roberto Bolaño)

Sure, philosophy professor Amalfitano is a bit mentally unhinged (okay, more than a bit), but what sane citizen of Santa Teresa wouldn’t go crazy, what with all the horrific unsolved murders? After his wife leaves him and their young daughter, Amalfitano takes them to the strange, alienating land of Northern Mexico (shades of Prospero’s island?) Bolaño portrays Amalfitano’s descent into paranoia (and perhaps madness) from a number of angles (he and his daughter show up in three of 2666‘s three sections), and as the novel progresses, the reader slowly begins to grasp the enormity of the evil that Amalfitano is confronting (or, more realistically, is unable to confront directly), and the extreme yet vague danger his daughter is encountering. Only a writer of Bolaño’s tremendous gift could make such a chilling episode simultaneously nerve-wracking, philosophical, and strangely hilarious.

5. The father, The Road (Cormac McCarthy)

What happens when Prospero’s desert island is just one big desert? If there is a deeper expression of the empathy and bonding between a child and parent, I have not read it. In The Road, McCarthy dramatizes fatherhood in apocalyptic terms, positing the necessity of such a relationship in hard, concrete, life and death terms. When the father tells his son “You are the best guy” I pretty much break down. When I first read The Road, I had just become a father myself (my child was only a few days old when I finished it), yet I was still critical of McCarthy’s ending, which affords a second chance for the son. It seemed to me at the time–as it does now–that the logic McCarthy establishes in his novel is utterly infanticidal, that the boy must die, but I understand now why McCarthy would have him live–why McCarthy has to let him live. Someone has to carry the fire.

William Gaddis Fiction-to-Music Entelechy Transducer — Gregg Williard

“Gaddis Fiction-to-Music Entelechy Transducer” by Gregg Williard (More graphs/via).