Since wins by Toni Morrison (1993), Isaac Bashevis Singer (1978) and Saul Bellow (1976), American authors have got short shrift from the Nobel prize for literature. Both before and after these writers, global geopolitics created by many American leaders has worked against a Nobel laureate from the United States. Just look at some of the hopefuls: Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Thomas Pynchon, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo.
It has been rewarding to reread DeLillo and to appreciate how his works are undiminished by time. Rather, their prescience on first publication is confirmed now as genius and as literature for the ages. Take the significant handful of Ratner’s Star (1976), Players (1977), Mao II (1991) and Underworld (1997).
Ratner’s Star posits a precedent-shattering, first-time Nobel mathematics winner (there is no such Nobel; the Fields Medal is the “Nobel of maths”). Billy Twillig is rushed into the underground company of 30 fellow Nobel laureates, working to decipher a transmission that came from near Ratner’s Star in deep space.
DeLillo examines what can be understood by science and the shape of a mathematically riddled future world that, 40 years after the book was published, is our algorithm-burdened today — and every day.
Players could be about Jo’burg in 2016. Lyle and Pammy Wynant embody the boredom of the bourgeoisie, the barrenness of an existence defined by affluent suburbia, conspicuous consumption and mindless chatter — and the perils of language and terrorism, the last a reaction to the affluence.
Terror is at the core of Mao II: “He conceded the fact of his confinement. He admitted to the presence of the plastic wire they’d used to fasten his wrist to the water-supply pipe. He conceded the hood. His head was covered with a hood.”
A poet is being held hostage in Beirut. To the apparent rescue comes an unlikely, almost JD Salinger-like figure: Bill Gray, novelist and professed recluse. The keyboard gives way to Semtex explosive in a disquisition on terrorism, celebrity and the single-mindedness of mobs.
I’ve always thought of Underworld as a fictional companion to Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle (1967). Debord set up an entire field of political and cultural theory, encapsulated in 221 theses, as concise as they are complex.
Thesis 1 is: “The whole life of those societies in which modern conditions of production prevail presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. All that was once directly lived has become mere representation.” (Marxists will pick up the deliberate echo of Capital, Part I, Chapter I, Commodities.)
It’s as if DeLillo took that as an epigram for Underworld, a vast history of the Cold War — in which we are once more. Looking at spectacular events and the imagery that the media chooses and curates to represent them, DeLillo prefigures how 9/11 would alter both the presentation of history and the operation of memory.
Nobel or not, DeLillo is a true master of the universe. Whether it’s in the handsome, newly issued Picador editions now out, or in old, beloved copies, read him.