Specifically, DeLillo’s story ‘The Starveling’, from his 2011 collection The Angel Esmeralda – a kind of greatest-hits retrospective of his short fiction career, and legitimately one of the finest American story collections published in the last twenty, thirty, forty years (pick a number). ‘The Starveling’, written in 2011, shows DeLillo’s preoccupation with themes of representation and mimesis and the act of looking unslaked, still as twitchily engagé as it was in his 1971 debut novel, Americana. Then, however, the protagonist was the image-trapper (or –maker), the reality-fastener (or –shaper); by contrast, the aging Leo Zhelezniak of ‘The Starveling’ is wholly a consumer, cat’s-cradling his days out on a complex circuit of of New York’s semi-derelict movie theatres. He still shares a flat with his ex-wife, Flory, and when he’s not there he’s criss-crossing the boroughs, taking in four, five movies a day. We got almost nothing of the movies: we know, at most, that Leo pays ‘close attention’ to on-screen rain, when it appears, and that he saw Apocalypse Now in Philadelphia on the day it opened. We know also that, early on in his ‘vocation’, he kept notebooks of personal commentaries and interpretations, but stopped when he realised that the notebooks were taking over from the movies: ‘The movies didn’t need the movie notes. They only needed him to be there.’ Leo is not even a consumer, then, but a receptacle, filled and drained in the same observing moment, completing a kind of cycle whereby meaning, flowing through him from the screen, bypasses his interpretative faculties and courses back into the film; we can imagine Leo as a kind of conduit, a depersonalised mystic. (‘There is a kind of uneventfulness,’ DeLillo tells us, ‘that resembles meditation.’) Filling up on saturated fats between movies, he fasts aesthetically, retaining nothing of what he sees, projecting himself toward a state of near-Zen purity. Yet Leo is not the Starveling of the title.
The opening lines – ‘When it started, long before the woman, he lived in one room. He did not hope for improved circumstances’ – fairly echo the situation of Murphy, yet the clearer association seems to be Beckett’s 1965 film, Film, which follows Buster Keaton through a dramatisation of the Berkeleyan principle, esse est percipi. (If a tree falls in a forest and there’s no-one there etc etc.) DeLillo comes close to breaking the fourth wall in order to hint at this: ‘If we’re not here to know what a thing is, then what is it?’ the text wonders coyly, just after we hear of Leo’s failed attempt at a philosophy course in his late twenties. The immediate assumption is that Leo occupies the Keaton role – simply named, in Beckett’s script, ‘O’ for Object – seen at the beginning of Film hurrying alongside a factory wall in Manhattan, huddled into his overcoat, apparently desperate to go unnoticed. Leo does, we hear, sometimes imagine himself in a similar position, ‘walking stooped and unshaven along the sides of buildings.’ But as Film progresses it becomes clear that O is being pursued either by the camera or by some figure whose perspective is aligned with the camera (given in the script as ‘E’, Eye – Leo’s name is a tantalising synthesis of both ‘characters’.) Likewise, Leo is revealed to be, not the viewed, but the voyeur, as he begins following a woman he’s noticed frequenting some of the same theatres that he does. ‘There was a word,’ we’re told, ‘he wanted to apply to her,’ and he settles provisionally on anorectic – hence she is the Starveling – but the point, really, is to let Leo define her through the imposition of a nominal category. This is a particularly DeLilloan trope: cf., for example, the story ‘Midnight in Dostoevsky’, in which two college students invent a whole life history for a mysterious old man in their town. (It’s worth mentioning the logic-professor character of Ilgauskas from that story, who gives a useful summation of this kind of project: ‘In our privatest mind…there is only chaos and blur. We invented logic to beat back our creatural selves. We assert or deny. We follow M with N.’ Or, in this case O with E and E with O.)
Leo, too, imparts a history to the Starveling, tailing her around Manhattan and the Bronx. ‘She was a woman alone. This had to be the case. She lives alone, in one room, as he did.’ Then, ‘She is staying with an older sister and her family. They are the only white family left on the block. She is the strange one, the one who never says where she is going…’ Leo, in this case, has followed the Starveling to her home, just as E does O; but unlike in Film, with E chasing O into O’s flat (a furnished single room much like Leo’s) and forcing him there into a confrontation – O attempting to eliminate any point of external perspective, anxious to elude the memento mori of categorisation through perception, ultimately incapable of covering himself from the scrutiny of E, who is revealed to be a slightly altered incarnation of O – Leo stands back, imagining the Starveling’s home life, inventing rather than perceiving. The final confrontation, in this case, happens in another cinema. Having tracked her there, discovering the movie on the bill to be one he’s already seen, Leo follows her into the women’s bathroom with a story about the faucets in the men’s being broken. (This in itself represents a negation of categories, something like the irruption of chaos into order.) But the revelation of life histories – the longed-for final truth-value – involves, not the Starveling’s, but Leo’s: he babbles to her about a Japanese movie he once saw and about his insomnia and about seeing Apocalypse Now in Philadelphia and a lampshade in his old room that once burst unexpectedly into flames. It is as though, having forced the acknowledgement by the perceived of the fact of her being perceived, the force of the perception breaks down, revealing itself to be a simple enaction of subjectivity and not at all a vehicle for any kind of purified, disembodied empathy. This may or may not count as a denial of Leo’s ‘need’ to transcend his ego through his movie-watching. At any rate, the Starveling departs the narrative as inscrutable as she entered it, and Leo is left revealing himself to himself, himself perceiving himself, having traced an arc that carried him from the O to the E to the E-O percipi-percipere coalescence that closes out Film.
In the coda, however, he returns to the flat he shares with his ex-wife, Flory, finding her motionless at the window in one of her habitual yoga-pose ‘stabilization exercises’. She is given to adopting these ‘difficult body positions…roll[ing] into a dense mass on the floor, a bolus, motionless for long periods, seemingly unaware of anything beyond her abdominal muscles, her vertebrae.’ As Leo sees it, she is ‘nearly swallowed by her surroundings’ in these moments, ‘on the verge of melting out of sight, dematerializing.’ This is a physical correlative of the aesthetic project he has set himself. But she is, by contrast, fully her own body, definitively occupying space, not hungry for the disincarnation of the ‘oneness’ with the movie screen yet tending to achieve something similar anyway, almost by accident. Wherever we can imagine Leo going from here, he is, by the very end, in the role of E again, watching his ex-wife, pinning her by his perception in his material reality as though terrified, simply, of being alone: ‘If he blinked an eye, she would disappear.’ In Film, too, after the credits roll, the eye – wide open, framed in close-up – that had been keeping the work’s reality ‘alive’ finally shuts, carrying the screen, the theatre we can imagine it playing in, the audience we can imagine seeing it, into darkness.