DeLillo has always been the most treacherous member of that Golden Generation of male American writers born in the 1930s. (Heartiest sympathies go out to Messrs Gass and Gaddis for being born a decade too soon.) Harold Bloom once made a presciently Wikipedia-friendly knighting of four of these gentlemen – DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth – as the greatest American novelists of his lifetime, and however one feels about old Bloomosaurus rex his methodology does have some taxonomic advantage.
All four novelists are, in their own ways, self-conscious stylists. They all were lucky enough to come of age at a time when the living, omnipresent memento mori of nuclear annihilation – ah, halcyon days! – must have been to writer’s block as the scythe is to the corn. Providence smiled on them enough to show a middle way through the Red Sea of postmodernism, whose more interesting affectations they carried with them to glory, leaving the Barths and Coovers adrift like thrown-back behemoths. With the exception of Pynchon, who is a disincarnate literature-pooka – a ghostwriter – they have all aged to the kind of monolithic old-man handsomeness that terrorises you into handing over money literally the moment you see it photographed on a dust-jacket.
Yet DeLillo is starting to look like the last man standing. Roth has retired, with only the yearly Nobel-speculation carousel to keep his name circling. In the context of his remarkable career, Pynchon’s last two novels were as minor as they get, a fact accidentally confirmed by Paul Thomas Anderson’s dreary Inherent Vice adaptation (God, I’d have paid money to go and see an Anderson film of one of the big ones, Gravity’s Rainbow or Lot 49). And McCarthy has been silent since 2006; unless his supposedly forthcoming opus is some serious shit, I’m afraid his work will come to be regarded as historically notable but fundamentally quaint, if not further compromised by a constant negotiation with self-parody – that much was always going to come from his being the most rigorously humourless of the bunch.
But, after all, as Martin Amis once said and is now in the process of demonstrating, writers die twice: first the talent goes, then the body.
Certainly, DeLillo is no longer the consummate critical darling either. The novels that followed the grand Gesamtkunstwerk of 1997’s Underworld, from The Body Artist (2001) to Point Omega (2010), have been dismissed in some places as being too hermetic, too spartan, too goddamn slim; there is the sense that Underworld represented the simultaneous culmination and dissipation of his various powers. But DeLillo, among his maximalising, sometimes scenery-chewing contemporaries, has always had a better grasp of the effectiveness of absence and distance and curated emptiness when deployed so subtly that, reading him, you can’t even see where it’s happening, but feel it in the meteorology of the prose, like a chill in the page. To take a random sample, here are the first lines of Great Jones Street (not, admittedly, one of his better novels, but one of his best opening gambits – PS it’s about a rock star):
‘Fame requires every kind of excess. I mean true fame, a devouring neon, not the somber renown of waning statesmen or chinless kings. I mean long journeys across gray space. I mean danger, the edge of every void, the circumstance of one man imparting an erotic terror to the dreams of the republic. Understand the man who must inhabit these extreme regions, monstrous and vulval, damp with memories of violation.’
Excuse me but what the fuck is going on there? What is it about that prose that’s just so good? That’s the kind of opening that makes Waterstone’s fall away around you and islands you on some dread geometric enclave when you slide the book from the shelf and start reading. This is what DeLillo’s writing does to you, relentlessly. It’s as clean and brittle-hard as thin ice on a lake, a lens over waters wine-dark and turbulent. His lauded satirical foresight is one thing, his strange, spare, chaste, monstrous, vulval music quite another.
Anyway, the point is that, more than any of the other Big Four’s, DeLillo’s oeuvre seems still to be developing and adapting itself. It’s still describing the parabola that Americana fired off in 1971, not merely gesturing toward a coda. It could easily, in its apparent drive toward reduction, lessness, spectrality, be described as an echo of the Beckettian project. Which brings me to what I really wanted to say about Don DeLillo. Which I won’t say just now because I’ve sidetracked myself but I definitely definitely will before long.