Don DeLillo in Texas

Don DeLillo walks out in person wearing an ensemble fit for an extra in The Shawshank Redemption. His shirt a blue, thick button-up. He holds the microphone aslant, a kind of posture that goes beyond confidence, but also belies a crowded, lower-middle class upbringing in a large Italian family. His grandmother didn’t speak English. He emerged as a kind of American. He worked in advertising, and left to write a book called Americana.

He is interviewed by showrunner and writer Noah Hawley [you write them, don’t you? he asks to Hawley’s question about the Fate of the Novel]. I don’t know much about Hawley at the time of the interview (have now read two of his books). I look next to me in the church pew and see a girl has gone with a boy to this event, impressed that he knew about the author; they are high school aged. Hawley asks questions very comfortably, from a slight slouch, a vest worn indie and with alert but restrained-by-dignity facial expressions. One of his questions is about the “wisenheimer” quality of dialogue coming from DeLillo’s characters — D nods head quickly, questions about the spooky art being a jet ski rope to brace yourself at and hang onto for as long as it takes to survive.

He has his own chance to crack wise when a raised hand asks if D actually sees the future. This is a reference to the prophetic quality of DeLillo’s novels. Mao II for instance, published in ’91, puts forth the thesis that terrorists will overtake novelists as masters of public dialogue through the mass media — a quaint notion now, but the radicalization of its bookish narrator plays eerie nonetheless, as do the melancholy sketches of the twin towers, beacons of “mass production,” says the narrator in Underworld, a disguised love letter to a monster city, written about on DeLillo’s ghostly terms — 4 years before the real towers fell.

Does he see the future. Are you psychic? the audience member asks.

DeLillo says, that’s funny, when I was backstage, I was just saying to him, someone is going to ask me if I’m a psychic.

Up close, I saw kindness in DeLillo’s face (in author photos you can see enigma, pain, thoughtfulness, an iciness of temperament). It was a learning moment for me. In that busy youth going up to musicians, enrolling in a class, approaching artists I admire, a sense of inferiority and awe always causes words to pour from me helplessly. Yet something about the economy and deliberateness of DeLillo’s sentences in books, and word choices in person, finally caused me to edit myself in the moment. His assistant slid my copy of Zero K over to him, which indicated a clear border between me and the literary icon. I said simply “Thank you for your writing.” His eminence teaching me in the moment to stick to the absolute basics. That’s when his eyes looked up from the table and a brief smile flashed from his tight mouth. A recognition, appreciation, and humility before a reader that touched me, if I was reading it right as tenderness. Walking out of the First Baptist Church downtown, looking for one of those fine blue public buses at dusk, the fact that I hadn’t said something stupid was a gift I carried quietly with me, listening to the air. It was Sunday in a major city, and I only heard the open sky, and bird wings flapping, the refreshed suggestion that walking through the streets was now a way of writing about the world.

DeLillo had some lyrical detours as well during the discussion. He is sort of in puzzlement over why he is in Texas. Texas seemed to choose him. At the end of writing his first novel Americana, he says, new images came to him. He imagined from New York the streets of Dallas as the Kennedy motorcade would have, passing each street sign on the way past the infamous book depository. As if he were drawn despite himself to ground zero of the national trauma. Some hurt part needed to float there.

Later he decides to write Libra while walking the streets of his home neighborhood in the Bronx section of New York. He had found out that Lee Harvey Oswald, the subject of Libra, spent some time there, streets from where he grew up. As he walked the streets further, he knew that it was a book he could write. This was a person he could’ve bumped into, seen, eavesdropped on. “Not a word would go wrong,” DeLillo knew about this novel. He says he knew this was true.

In the year 2013 or ‘14 I picked up Underworld and since then it sits on my shelf or on an end table like a kind of Bible. Its connection to death and also an exuberant real-world impressed something deeply on me, mainly through his author-artist surrogate Klara Sax (formerly Sachs). Later in her life she meets a mate. In the getting-to know-you stage she sits and watches over his ailing parents. With the breathing of the sick in the next room, she’s calmly working on her artwork. This calm in the face of sickness and death, a kind of poise that’s hard to find in any novel or conversation. With a whisper of aesthetics to the image as well.

Since that image, in a book of many, I return to see what its artists and corporately trapped men and women are doing. Harold Bloom calls DeLillo a transcendentalist, which is not the rap you read when people talk-up the legend of DeLillo. But when I opened my copy of Underworld tonight I saw what the wild teacher meant. Klara Sax the artist was exchanging auras, again comfortably, with a master of finance — that ghostly figure we political beings strive to direct our rage at in these troubled times. Rather DeLillo casts a sharp line between the two characters and searches for a kind of abstract music in their chance encounter. Two types that are not prevented to meet in our discourse, finding strange commonalities in the ethereal imagination.

“It was the rootftop summer and the air was filled with heroes, the dusty sky that burned with stormlight. Oblong gods braced in narrow corners and a pair of seated pharos that flank an air conditioner. And she loved the mermaided columns she saw on lower Fifth and all the oddnesses, the enigmatic figures she could not place in particular myth, mainly downtown, atop the older banks, on the parapets and setbacks — robed oracles jutting over the streets or helmeted men of unrevealing aspect, lawgivers or warriors, it was hard to tell.

And it was down there on a roof one Sunday, the streets hot and dead, that the gentleman reappeared, the European she’d talked to once before, gazing into the unfinished grid of the World Trade Center.

Yes, hello, we meet again.

And he told her that the figures she’d been wondering about with their cultic look, faces in shadow under the streamlined headgear were called the Titans of Finance. And how suitably dour they were, as if measuring the Depression’s effects on the streets below — she guessed the building had been erected around that time.

“Some kind of secret fraternal order, sounds like to me.”

“Perhaps,” he said. “But all banking is secret, I think.”

And she could believe it, with all the granite and limestone massed around them, and the newer towers, curtained sheer, of reflecting glass and anodized aluminum, and every office empty of human trace today, except in basements maybe where paper was spun through microfilm machines, a billion checks a second.

His name was Carlo Strasser. He lived on Park Avenue and collected art with an amateur’s clumsy passion, he said — an apartment on Park and an old farmhouse near Arles, where he went to do his thinking.

And of course she said, “What do you think about?”

And he said, “Money.”

She laughed.

“I sometimes wonder what money is,” she said.

“Yes, of course, exactly. This is the question. I will tell you what I think. It is becoming very esoteric. All waves and codes. A higher kind of intelligence. Travels at the speed of light.”

He was dressed very well, he was turned out, he had presence and manner and she felt a little shambly, but not uncomfortably so, in her denim and old sandals. The man confirmed her in her partialities and she was marvelously, in fact, at ease talking to him.

They heard foghorns in the bay and paused to listen and the sound had an element of formal awe, it rolled and caromed down the narrow streets, collided with itself, an organ work that swelled the air and sent pigeons beating out of the tower clocks.

He asked questions about painters and she did something she almost never did — she expounded, she did detailed analysis, a thing she’d tended to avoid even when she used to teach. She heard herself go into explanations so ardent and newly struck that she realized she’d been withholding them from herself.

“Louise told me once, Nevelson, that she looked at a canvas or a piece of wood and it was white and pure and virginal and no matter how much she marked it up, how many strokes and colors and images, the whole point was to return it to its virgin state, and this was the great and frightening thing.”

Klara could not connect this remark to her own work but she liked to repeat it to herself anyway — she liked the idea of a famous artist being frightened by what she does.

“I have a small Nevelson,” he said. “Very small piece, I bought it years ago, and now you have given me a reason to look at it in a different way, and this is something I will do with pleasure.’

“I’d go into her studio and she’d show me a black sculpture, a wood sculpture painted black, and I’d comment on the color and I’d comment on the material and she’d look at the thing and she’d say, “But it’s not black and it’s not wood.” She thinks reality is shallow and weak and fleeting and we’re very different in that regard.”

Miles showed up later and Carlo Strasser faded gracefully in the cluster, eight or nine people standing around a table filled with cheese and fruit and wine, those lion-blood Bordeaux, those damson plums and blue-black nights and how the thunder sounded dry and false.

(Austin, TX November 5/2016, June 23/2017)