Raph al Guul: A Year of DeLillo

Don DeLillo

This post is part of a series of posts in which students of the English Seminar present their favourite books they have read in 2015. The lists are not restricted to books that were published this year. If you want to participate as well, send your list to zest.editor@gmail.com.

Today’s list comes to you from Raph al Guul.

I spent this year reading critical texts and novels by Don DeLillo almost exclusively in order to develop and write my master thesis on the subject of endings in DeLillo. During that time, not unexpectedly, I encountered people wanting to know what my thesis was, but usually I had a hard time explaining myself because they were unfamiliar with DeLillo. I was surprised to learn that even many students of English literature would respond to the above description with a blank stare. I don’t want to make hyperbolic claims concerning the author’s relevance to the state of present-day literature, so I’ll simply say that Don DeLillo is my favorite novelist (he shares this title with the very different, but nonetheless amazing Michael Crichton) and that it is a crying shame that even among colleagues you hardly ever get to discuss this particular author’s work.  So if you want to do me a favor, go out and get yourself some DeLillo; I’ll make it easy for you and give you five recommendations below. These are all more recent titles and I have listed them here in order of relevance to my master thesis and, consequently, as well as in the spirit of this series, in order of how much time I spent with the novel in the past year.

Falling Man 1

5. Falling Man

She was ready to leave, that’s why, and all the way down on the elevator, twenty-seventh floor to lobby, she thought of the mythical figure who’d said the planes were coming back, the man whose name they all knew. But she’d forgotten it.

DeLillo’s take on post-9/11 trauma is here on a technicality. I continue to cheat on my book lists – Falling Man was the first novel I read in preparation for my thesis, which is why it was already on my 2014 list. I read it another three times in 2015, though, so it still counts. And since it was more relevant to my work than The Body Artist, and since White Noise has previously received its own coverage, Falling Man makes it twice in a row.


4. Cosmopolis

These were scenes that normally roused him, the great rapacious flow, where the physical will of the city, the ego fevers, the assertions of industry, commerce and crowds shape every anecdotal moment.

I was not as impressed by DeLillo’s two cents on Wall Street’s 1% as I hoped I would be – but I suppose such expectations will always lead to disappointment. Not as intricate as the other novels on this list, Cosmopolis sometimes comes across as a bit blunt for a DeLillo. The upside is that it is consequently a little less difficult to make sense of it. It is also comparably short, another reason why this might be a good first venture into DeLilloland. And while I may sound overly critical of the novel, I should add that my continuous engagement with the text improved my opinion of it. The fact that the novel is upfront about what it is trying to achieve does not take away from the achievement itself, nor from the eloquence of its author, for that matter. On a side note, this novel has been adapted to film very faithfully by Cronenberg, although there were two omissions that bothered me (one of which solely has to do with the focus of my thesis, however). As with all film adaptations I recommend reading the novel first.

Mao II

3. Mao II

He counted to ten and when no lights showed he began to count to ten once more, slower now, standing in the dark, making an agreement with himself that this time he would really go to the desk and turn on the lamp if the car did not appear at the top of the hill by the time he reached ten, the mud-spattered compact, and settle down to work because it was only children who thought they could make things happen by counting.

This is the first DeLillo I ever read, eight years ago in high school. I was so impressed by the author’s style, language, and ability to hide his narrative in plain sight, that on a whim I decided to pursue the study of English literature, instead of German. Needless to say, I have always been partial to this little gem, especially because it gave me an appreciation for literature and the English language that I didn’t have before, in addition to being a catalyst for much of what I occupied myself with since; tellingly it is a novel about the significance of writing, the power of language, and an eccentric pursuit of meaning. It makes me feel like this book was written for me and about me – and I believe that’s one of the most invaluable experiences you can have when reading.


2. Libra

Lee Harvey Oswald. No matter what happened, how hard they schemed against her, this was the one thing they could not take away – the true and lasting power of his name.

Almost as popular as its predecessor White Noise, Libra is certainly DeLillo’s most historical novel. Much of it reads like a biography, albeit an oddly poetic one. On first read, I was not particularly familiar with the background of the Kennedy assassination and the conspiracy theories attached to it. The result was that I thought most of the novel was made up. Upon further examination, however, I realized that DeLillo is not only extraordinarily adept at blending fact and fiction, he also has the ability to disguise his own extensive research as a story so perfectly constructed, it couldn’t possibly be real. And best of all, the novel is partially concerned with this very notion, so that there are some deliciously self-reflexive passages in there. Those passages were certainly my favorites. Those passages and… the Weird Beard.


1. Underworld

When you decide on a whim to visit the H-bomb home page, she begins to understand. Everything in your computer, the plastic, silicon and mylar, every logical operation and processing function, the memory, the hardware, the software, the ones and zeroes, the triads inside the pixels that form the on-screen image – it all culminates here.

If you’re familiar with DeLillo, it probably comes as no surprise to you that in my academic engagement with the author, Underworld was the single most important text. As much as I like White Noise for its humor, admire Libra for its historicity, and enjoy Mao II on a personal level, I don’t think there is any question that DeLillo’s masterpiece has to be the paradoxically mundane epic that is Underworld. Certainly the most challenging of the novels on this list, this 800-page paragon of postmodern literature is intricately – and unusually – structured, taking its readers on a journey through three decades of 20th century America. It bears all the hallmarks of the author’s unmistakable style, including some of the most frustrating – because realistic – dialogue, whimsical musings on seemingly unrelated observations (is it really unrelated though, IS IT?), and a poetic take on the ordinary in prose. It is sometimes serious, sometimes funny, often both, and consistently beautiful. However, unless you are already accustomed to postmodern literature (and somehow haven’t read DeLillo yet – shame on you), I would not recommend Underworld as an entry point to the author’s work. While it is typical, it is hard to wrap one’s mind around a piece of this length, especially because DeLillo likes to go out of his way to obscure and occasionally subvert the few more traditional elements of his narrative, which can lead to the impression that the novel drags on aimlessly sometimes. But if you have made it past some of the shorter texts (I recommend White Noise, Mao II, Cosmopolis, or The Body Artist), be sure not to miss the master’s greatest literary achievement to date.

And now, for those who have already read the novel, let’s count the words in all the direct quotes from DeLillo novels in this post.

Everything is connected.

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