Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Don DeLillo Train Keeps Rolling After an Extended Layover

This year I've been reading a lot of DeLillo, D. He and Nabokov are my top two selections (although David Mitchell will be up there too, after I finish "Number9Dream" and get my hands on a copy of "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet"). I've still yet to find a novel of his I thought was equal to "White Noise," but none have disappointed me, either (with the possible exception of "Cosmopolis," I suppose).

It's fitting that football season is started for most players already, because "End Zone" is the latest of DeLillo's work I've completed. Now it's largely nothing akin to playing or coaching football. As someone who has done both, play and coach, I feel safe in positing that much. And so suffice it to say, it's missing a realist bent, because as you'd expect there's DeLillo's usual hyper-cerebral, hyper-surrealist satirical pontification and probably earnest theorization abounding throughout the narrative. Every player on the fictional West Texas college team he's conjured has a complex view of the mechanisms of modern life, and shares this view in vivid detail with the story's narrator, one of the team's runningbacks, Gary Harkness.

The story ruminates on a number of different themes: the usual speculative etiology of where man is in relation to where he has been; semantic / syntactical theory and language games as pertaining to realizing one's self more fully; the ontological nature of sport, how it defines something primal about man but at the same time, paradoxically, something very evolved and artfully construed; the clannishness of sport and whether it's encouraging of base jingoistic tendencies or not; and so on.

Moreover, as evidenced again in his most recent novel, "Point Omega," DeLillo sets his story in the backdrop of a barren desert landscape, replete with hazards or at least perceived hazards (players collect horrible bugs with the intention of pitting them against one another in a single confined cage-like place, where they will battle to the death, most likely). Notions of man against nature, and nature certainly operating in this sentence with two meanings or more. There's something necessarily Biblical about such a setting, and I don't doubt for a second this was part of DeLillo's intent in using it. Nothing is more evocative of the caveman, at least to my mind, than the desert, also. Maybe this is because of images I've got stored in my memory of old-time '50s and '60s movies depicting cavemen anachronistically battling dinosaurs in places that look like the American southwest. And so all of the preceding then appearing to me to betoken one of Harkness's earliest lucid descriptions: "We practiced in the undulating heat with nothing to sustain us but the conviction that things here were simple."

At the heart of the team's conception is Emmett Creed, the head coach who contrived with the Logos College president to build the school into a football power. His name indeed is hardly a misdirection; he is moved by his own personal creed, which seems best summed up in a passage of his nearing the end of the novel, when he asks Harkness into his office, saying to him at one point:

It takes character to win . . . It's not just the amount of mileage you put in. The insults to the body. The humiliation and fear. It's dedication, it's character, it's pride. We've got a ways to go yet before we develop these qualities on a team basis.

Yes sir.

I've never seen a good football player who didn't know the value of self-sacrifice.

Yes sir.

I've never seen a good football player who wanted to learn a foreign language.


Later on the same page Creed concludes his rumination on the subject of what it takes to win and the notion of football with:

People stress the violence. That's the smallest part of it. Football is brutal only from a distance. In the middle of it there's a calm, a tranquility. The players accept pain. There's a sense of order even at the end of a running play with bodies strewn everywhere. When the systems interlock, there's a satisfaction to the game that can't be duplicated. There's a harmony.

Odd, but I feel like I know exactly what Creed is saying here. I've thought once or twice myself that sports are great because of how nicely they remove the gray of life. Things like personal responsibility, merit-based ascension, order and fairness, right and wrong all seem to make sense on the football (or most any other field etc of play) gridiron. Like television, it's a place where the villain and the hero are more or less clear, depending solely on whomsoever you choose to root for. And sure, what I'm saying might not be entirely or absolutely true, but it feels true. It feels true to me.

As pertains to the world of the 20 Under 40 crowd and so forth (other literary items):

I've very much enjoyed Philipp Meyer, ZZ Packer, and Gary Shteyngart's short stories. I'm a little perplexed by Salvatore Scibona's "The Kid." On the one hand I think it's a story that's true to life and should be told. On the other hand I feel like it tugs at heartstrings and looks to affect the reader in a way it must necessarily if that reader has a soul, you could say. In other words, it's an important subject but written as he chose to I think it leaves one feeling a little taken advantage of. I'm open to the possibility that this is incorrect thinking on my part, though.

In other news I learned recently that Adam Levin has a novel coming, "The Instructions." I can't really tell you how jazzed I am for this. Very jazzed is all I'll say. Very.


  1. Hi Matt, hope you're keeping it real (does that make me sound young and hip?).

    I'm w/ you on White Noise, all the way. A fantastic book.

    Have you read Underworld?


  2. Nope, have yet to read Underworld. It's been in my stack forever. A friend of mine has read it and loved it. I also need to get to Libra. The consensus seems to be that both of those are considered among his best, and I've barely read the first 20 pages of each. It'll happen soon. I vow to have read either Libra or Underworld before the year is through.

    And all you need to do, Kevin, to make yourself sound young and hip is speak a few lines from a Lady Gaga song. That's my default mode of youthful slang, anyway.