A couple of years ago I tried reading "Libra," another very highly thought of DeLillo novel that speculates about the events in Lee Harvey Oswald's life that led to his assassination of JFK, but I couldn't get into it -- in part because of the lack of a sardonic, obsessive and somewhat effete first-person narrator of the Jack Gladney variety, who it needs to be said is humorously the professor of Hitler Studies at the College on the Hill. One problem of course is "White Noise" is hard to top.
And recently Mark Athitakis of his blog "American Fiction Notes" has lamented the fact that DeLillo struggled over the last decade to equal the work that has made him so notable and important to American literature. I essentially agree with Athitakis. "Cosmopolis" was extremely disappointing, and seemed to lose the weight and heft of a broader worldview that is enviably present in "Mao II" and "White Noise." Something similar has happened to Paul Auster, even though I admit I enjoyed "Man in the Dark" -- enjoyed it far more than I did "Cosmopolis."
But I'm afraid I have to disagree slightly with Athitakis' assessment in his "DeLillo in Winter" post of "Midnight in Dostoevsky" -- a 2009 DeLillo short story published in the November 30th New Yorker. Athitakis' notes that DeLillo has his main character, a contemplative male college student, at one point chat casually with a store clerk at a late-night convenience store, which Athitakis argues the candor of their conversation and forthrightness of the narrator was incongruous with his traits exhibited throughout the rest of the story.
On the one hand this is true. The main character's essence seems to be one that relies heavily on his evident solipsism and introverted nature. The first main locus of the story centers on the walks the main character, Robby, takes with his friend and companion Todd, another college student, who together as they walk, expound and pontificate about what they observe, which in the story takes the form of an old man in a coat, the specific type of which they cannot agree on and which then becomes the focus of much debate. Todd is an extension of Robby's solipsism, an almost internal argument rages between them, one you could imagine them taking part in without speaking, and so his candor and willingness to debate him do little to refute Athitakis' point.
What does more to, however, is Robby's interest in a female student he's currently taking a course in Logic with, which the Logic course is the other essential locus of the story. Her name is Jenna, and Robby learns this after finally asking her, "O.K., what's your name?" She's the only other character we get to see Robby become in any way close with, and she immediately discards him. Not purposely, one supposes, but she rejects the college as a place she isn't "happy" and expresses plans to go west to school in Idaho, of which Robby later wonders alone, "Idaho, the word so vowelled and obscure. Wasn't where we were, right here, obscure enough for her?" The school we sense is tied closely to Robby's unusual temperament. It throws him for a loop.
I think you could argue it a stretch, but Jenna has mattered to Robby as both a person unto herself and as a point of connection (She has had the only real conversation with their mystifying Logic professor, Ilgauskas) to others, and her immediate dismissal of him vis-a-vis his college is slyly important for this reason, as well. Following his thoughts of Jenna, he begins a thread of thinking which starts with his parents, divorced and active in their own lives and plans over the holiday break, leaving him to fend for himself by himself. The town's description is next in the sequence and is likewise abandoned for the break. I think his description of it in this state is apt, "On the stunted commercial street in town, there were three places still open for business, one of them the diner, and I ate there once and stuck my head in the door two or three times, scanning the booths." Implications of searching and straining to realize some connection abound there.
Then the anomalous conversation about the convenience store woman and her son's wife's kidney infection. A blip, yes. But is it unintentional? I'm not so sure. Is it instead the subtle climactical apotheosis to this series of events, which leads him to an unstated desire to talk honestly with someone, anyone? Does this talk, as half-heartedly as it was mentioned, convince him that he cannot relate to anyone, even about serious things of the nature described? The next paragraph reads like a descent, a return to alienation inside the protective confines of a novel he reads in the library, one that remains in the same place untouched and unmoved, exactly as he'd left it the day before, day after day. Still, perhaps the simplest explanation is best here, and DeLillo truly neglected in the one passage to write his character as uniformly as he did throughout the rest of the story. I guess I'm just offering another possibility, one that's admittedly less likely.
Of course I also liked the short story's ending. Athitakis says, "By the end things have moved pretty much nowhere, from a dimly felt fear of connection to a dimly felt fear of connection." I disagree. I feel like the first half of the story suggests a desire in Robby to form relationships with people, despite his bad luck with relationships to this point (i.e. his parents), and at the least it suggests this is possible. It's a transference from winter as idealistic to winter as reality (the former usually comes easiest to mind when winter is not actually taking place). I do think whether or not you consider the mid point of the story at the break to mark anything specifically significant about Robby's transformation, you at least have to concede he's changed by the end, maybe to the point of being jaded. Maybe that's an easy thing to have a character do, although I think DeLillo pulls it off fairly complexly, betokening the DeLillo of old.
There is an early moment in the story, after Robby and Todd are first following after the old man, when Robby, alone, comes face to face with him, and describes in a cursory moment when he seems almost hopeful the man will acknowledge him, perhaps even take an interest in him. He said, "There was no one else on the street. As we approached each other, he veered away, and then so did I, just slightly, to reassure him, but I also sent a stealthy look his way."
By the end of the story, though, Robby's potential desire for anything resembling contact with the old man is completely abandoned, to the point that he doesn't want Todd to know the man's true story, either, and physically fights him to prevent it. He has embraced a fiction about the old man, and that has become the real truth. It's easier and safer. As one of DeLillo's characters in "Mao II" mentions, "We understand how reality is invented. A person sits in a room and thinks a thought and it bleeds out into the world." Let it bleed, Robby I think would say.
Has DeLillo lost a step or two as he's aged? Yes, I think you could make that argument, as Athitakis did well. But I also thought "Midnight in Dostoevsky" was a really interesting read, and in some ways a return to the DeLillo of earlier years, which has me looking forward to (or at least hopeful for) his newest novel "Point Omega" -- which admittedly has a dumb-looking cover that, yes, I'm judging.