Tag Archives: Don DeLillo

“Our mutual friend, Paul Auster”

I read Siri Hustvedt, What I Loved, in just a few days last month. I brought it with me on a weekend trip to Seattle and back, a trip on which I didn’t read a thing but bought a pile of new books, and went right through it when I got back. I want to note that I read it within a week of buying it at PulpFiction – my habit is to buy novels and read them six months later. But I had a sense that if I did not read this right away, I might never get around to it.

And I don’t know what it was about or I can’t phrase it all into an aphorism, at least. One take suggested that it is two novels, uneasily grafted into one. From the back cover: “A wrenching portrait of parental grief, then a psychological thriller, and finally a meditation on the perspective of memory itself.” But to write something long – in both page length and scale of time – and to never end up glib or cheap. It was sudden to see a character die but that’s how it goes: people die, it’s sudden, you handle these things as you do. The course of change and the things that stay the same.

The comparison I made when I started was with Paul Auster, The Book Of Illusions – similar size and weight, same publisher, same year, similar interest in fictional art objects and great investment in art objects (paintings/films) as agents of character development, a focus on grief. Also, they are married. Siri Hustvedt is also the author of two previous novels… She lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Paul Auster.

But the next comparison I made was with Michael Redhill, Martin Sloane, which I read over two days in August 2008 and haven’t really thought about since. But hey, it was shortlisted for the Giller prize! And I have to admit to taking What I Loved more seriously because it doesn’t have a great big “Giller Prize finalist!” sticker on the front. I enjoyed reading it but what was there at the end, why did I read this book? All I remember now are the detailed descriptions of the little ‘boxes’ that Martin Sloane, the artist, made. And when Bill Wechsler, the artist, in What I Loved starts to make his own boxes all I could picture were these incongruous passages from Martin Sloane – art objects that are delicately imagined and wonderful to read over but in both cases a real stretch to place into the narrative. Maybe, two years from now, all I will have left from What I Loved will be the boxes. Imaginary pieces of art. And I have had to check myself – did I see the boxes? In a gallery, somewhere. No, wait, that was just that Michael Redhill book I read last year. And, again, from the back cover: “Martin Sloane evokes the mysteries of love and art, the weight of history, and what it means to bear memory for the missing and the dead.”

Here is a cartoon about Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt. Are they rich? Literary, sure, but rich – I’m sure they’re doing fine but I don’t know about ‘rich.’ I read an interview from The Guardian with Don DeLillo that ends with the reporter and Don DeLillo meeting Paul Auster for lunch, because that’s just what human beings do. Sometimes after work, we get together to eat at local restaurants with “our mutual friend, Paul Auster.”

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And a rat became the unit of currency

Last week I read Stephen Amidon, Human Capital. Ostensibly a novel about a hedge fund manager. The pace and plot are fun and easy, no challenge but then nothing else at all – I read through it all in a few days and it was fun. But then what? Tell me about hedge funds, use the language, spend time in these words that don’t actually have any meaning to me, use this language of finance and do something: give it meaning. But he never really gets into the hedge fund world, the complex stuff. And a week later, there’s nothing left. I don’t feel as though I read anything at all. (He also does this horrible thing where he lists off the bands that the teenagers are into, and the movies that the film society is discussing and it’s awful. It’s just namedropping, a hip crutch and it embarrassed me to read it, every time. And he kept doing it. The problem is that specific cultural artifacts have no fixed meaning – it shifts from person to person and over time. Show, don’t tell – just say “movie,” “local band,” and let me fill in the blank.) I really liked reading it but what a missed opportunity. ‘Hedge fund’ was nothing more than a headline rip, a cheap hook that had no bearing on the actual story and that leaves me feeling a bit cheated.

I remember my last two political science courses at SFU, both 300-level globalization courses. I did most of the readings but not for the subject – for the language. Most of these articles are covering very simple, basic concepts and most of them have vague conclusions. So I would sit down for an hour with Governance in a Globalising World or The Global Transformations Reader and just enjoy the sheer language of it all, sometimes even reading a sentence or two out loud. Over the past two decades the world has experienced problems with heavy transborder debt burdens, major disruptive swings in foreign exchange values, a perpetual rollercoaster in the securities markets of global financial centres, and a string of crashes among global derivatives players.

Players is a novel written by Don DeLillo in 1977. “It’s this system that we believe is their secret power… It all goes floating across that floor. Currents of invisible life. This is the centre of their existence. The electronic system. The waves and charges. The green numbers on the board… Not the bulk of all that money. The system itself, the current… ‘Financiers are more spiritually advanced than monks on an island.’ It was this secret of theirs that we wanted to destroy, this invisible power. It’s all in that system, bip-bip-bip-bip, the flow of electric current that unites moneys, plural, from all over the world.”

In Cosmopolis the hedge fund employs a Chief of Theory whose dialogue is taken right out of these PoliSci textbooks, new words and old words and the thrill is in the language itself. And reading Cosmopolis now, for just the second time, it fills in exactly what was missing in Human Capital: a sense of and perspective on language, in style and in subject. “These were three tiers of data running concurrently and swiftly about a hundred feet above the street.  Financial news, stock prices, currency markets. The action was unflagging. The hellbent sprint of numbers and symbols, the fractions, decimals, stylized dollar signs, the streaming release of words, of multinational news, all to fleet to be absorbed.”

And now, in sequence, I am reading about rats – specifically, Observations on the History and Habitat  of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants. It is a history of New York City as much as it is a story about rats and it is also a story of New York City in 2001, before and after the World Trade Centre collapsed. The epigraph of Cosmopolis is from a poem by Zbigniew Herbert, “Report from the Besieged City:” and a rat became the unit of currency.

This dude writing for Esquire suggests that Don DeLillo is better equipped than anyone to figure out this never-ending “underwater toxic event” in the Gulf of Mexico; not in the sense of James Cameron and Kevin Costner riding to the rescue but in the sense of simply figuring out how to name it all.

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Toyota Celica

The working title of White Noise was Panasonic but that was dropped when the publisher was unable to secure rights to the trademark. The brand. No Space, No Choice, No Jobs, No Logo.

I lent White Noise to my dad in 2001, maybe 2002 and he gave it back after maybe 200 pages; “I can’t connect with these characters. They all have the same dialogue.” Well, actually, you’re not wrong about that but it’s not a problem for me. (Act 1: A Simple Postmodern Novel, or How I was Don DeLillo’d Into Submission) As we say now, No Plot – No Problem! And here was a book that did a whole bunch of stuff I wanted a book to do without really being very much of a novel at all.

Rereading No Logo is a wonderful coda to a long decade. I read it first in May 2001, just under nine years ago, at the very end of my last year in high school. I remember reading it on my way home from work, eating dinner at the old Thai Away Home location at Commercial and 4th. It felt great: I’m working in a mall, going to high school in Surrey, and reading a totally serious book while eating thai food on Commercial Drive. But No Logo was a coda – the end of where I was, no matter the several years of denouement left. And I sure didn’t get all of what White Noise was trying to do but enough of it took root that I can read it again today and see it all, 2001, and where I would end up.

Really, the bulk of No Logo was already gospel to me in 2001. I was tearing ads off of SkyTrain cars and putting ‘Buy Nothing Day’ posters up at my north Surrey high school. No Logo said “hey, kid, you’re totally right about everything.” 400 pages of affirmations.

Four years after No Logo, in 2004, the brands that mattered weren’t Nike or WalMart but suddenly Bechtel and Halliburton and Blackwater. And ‘de-cooling’ these guys didn’t matter because their contracts came from the government. Brown and Root, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell. Meanwhile, here at home there was something charming and quaint about Anne Roberts taking on Canadian Tire in 2004 – hey, we can play too, but we’re playing the Clinton game still. Between 2000 and 2010 you saw the US shift from soft power to hard power on a dime. You saw government decisions inspire reactions that certainly weren’t happening when I was in high school. Nothing could ever stop the eternal rule of Jean Chretien and David Collenette and John Manley and Allan Rock until, um, Paul Martin managed to make elections relevant again in Canada. And I remember a Naomi Klein piece from 2004 that said “Vote for John Kerry, even though he is actually on their side in the end.” The argument was that under Clinton we were finally able to develop a systemic analysis on a broad scale, because we weren’t worried about rollbacks of stuff we should take for granted by now or distracted by outsized personality flaws. So, vote for Kerry and keep on working. But Bush pushed us past the smug ‘Republicrat’ crap and now here we are, the number one issue is government involvement in health care and not only do elections matter, but votes in Congress matter even more. In 2000 I came back from Bumbershoot in Seattle with a Ralph Nader sticker that I was very proud to wear on my backpack to-and-from my high school and my mall job. No logo my ass.

The best chapter of No Logo looked back at what campuses were concerning themselves with in the early 1990s – battles over identity – and concludes that they missed the target. In 2001, when I started my undergraduate degree, until sometime in 2002 we were still talking about No Logo. But then we started talking about Islamophobia and the Middle East concentrations in History and Political Science started to fill up. By the time I left SFU, this space was entirely claimed by a shallow, technocratic environmentalism that seemed to be dominated by ‘green economy’ and entrepreneurial bullshit; some weird hybrid of Greenpeace and the Power of Positive Thinking. And all of No Logo‘s fears around ‘conscious consumption’ simply becoming a ‘Lemon-Aid’ guide to the mall became true but kinda without the ‘conscious’ part.

I feel as though No Logo has very little to say about our cultural landscape today but I am well aware of the fact that I am far more out of touch now than I was in 2001. The brands in my life today are mostly locally-owned beer companies. And comparing No Logo(2000) to White Noise(1985) – nothing in the last section of No Logo, the ‘call to arms,’ comes even close to doing what White Noise does to place brands outside of context and into the landscape in which we encounter them day-to-day. I can read No Logo again today and look at how far we have come – how far I have come – for better or for worse. And I can read White Noise again today, 25 years later, and still look forward.

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Down and Out in New York City

I read Paul Auster, The New York Trilogy, in one day last December mostly out of anticipation for rereading at some point. Get the structure down, figure out where he is going, and then reread to figure out what he is actually trying to do. For a ‘complex’ book the prose is spare and direct and wonderful to read. Part of this goes to White Noise – the tendency of all plots to move deathward – but it all reminded me of Amazons by ‘Cleo Birdwell,’ although these books have nothing in common.

I have no way of reading Amazons as anything but an out-of-print curiosity, an artifact and key to figuring out my favourite author. But, if I had been 26 years old in 1980 reading Amazons in drugstore-format, a pocket-sized paperback I would be reading a different book altogether – a book closer to what ‘Cleo Birdwell’ was actually trying to write perhaps. Amazons-as-curio makes Amazons a suddenly serious and mysterious piece of literature – ‘I Am A Jumper’ notwithstanding – on the level of Paul Auster, or at least the level of Paul Auster’s reputation. And the long walks through New York City in City of Glass made me think of Cleo Birdwell pushing Shaver through New York City in a wheelchair and carrying a hollow cane filled with scotch.

My copies of Amazons and Libra are in imposing first-edition hardcover but these are the only two DeLillo novels that I have seen also published as pocket books. Libra reduced to the thrill of an airport bookstore.

But the real connection is apparently with Cosmopolis, not Amazons: the dedication, “To Paul Auster.” But Cosmopolis is another labyrinth. I thought I understood Cosmopolis – a trip across New York City by car with diversions -until I watched Game 6, starring Michael Keaton and Robert Downey Jr. DeLillo wrote the script in 1991 but the movie came out in 2006, 15 years later, and the script as filmed is full of Cosmopolis, ‘pissing under the Manhattan bridge’ and ‘Benno Levin.’ But it gets weirder because apparently David Cronenberg has completed his own screenplay for Cosmopolis and if he casts Michael Keaton as Eric Packer it will all kinda fit together. When I read Cosmopolis in September 2006 I had never even heard of Paul Auster but I had read No Logo which I took as a clear antecedent.

Cosmopolis is on deck in a great big pile of books for me to read before the end of April and Game 6 is still for rent at Applause Video down the street. The 1991 script, set in 1986 and released in 2006, is preoccupied with the curse of the Boston Red Sox but in 2004 they won the World Series.

Paul Simon, “Paranoia Blues” from 1972

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More on Cormac McCarthy

I read Blood Meridian in September and October 2008 and I just hated it, probably more so in retrospect. What a frustrating way to have spent my downtime through an election campaign.

I would go back into Cormac McCarthy – we have all of The Orchard Keeper, All the Pretty Horses, and No Country for Old Men in the house – but the odds of reading any of those when there are so many other wonderful things in the world to read are slight.

Here I was all ready to say that I didn’t read another solid novel until Afterlands by Steven Heighton but I’ve checked my fall 2008 list and that isn’t true. In between I read What Was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn which was nice but not as good as Afterlands turned out to be. And, wonderfully, the real-life arctic expedition in Afterlands came up again in Elizabeth Hay’s The Only Snow In Havana which was one of my favourite books of 2009. The quote on Afterlands, from The Globe or something: “A magnificent novel about the wreckage of history – both the history that happens to us and the versions of it we create.” Yes and it had so much more to say about history and exploration and memory and the day to day and even more to say about the American Southwest than bloody Blood Meridian. Maybe I was the wrong audience (not an issue – good books should transcend etc etc) but the point of Blood Meridian was entirely lost on me. I don’t need 400 macho pages telling me how the west was really won – I don’t need your inside-joke cowboy subversion. The structure beat me into submission and I was left with how many hundreds of pages left to go where nothing really happened. Blood and guts and long sentences but nothing. Whose fault: the reader or the writer? It’s fair to split the difference.

I read The Road too but I read it as genre fiction, not as a novel, no matter how many awards were splashed on the back cover. My copy has an ‘Oprah’s Book Club’ sticker too. Maybe the genre/novel bit is a quaint distinction, maybe I should have read Blood Meridian in the same style but the fact is that I went through The Road in two days and fought with Blood Meridian for a month. The Road sits beside The Chrysalids and Earth Abides and Interface while Blood Meridian sits alone as some horrible totem. How a novel can make you feel so lousy about reading books.

And speaking of totemic novels – Point Omega by Don DeLillo, the 117pg (shorter than The Body Artist for crying out loud) new novel is on my shelf, waiting for the summer.

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