Don DeLillo in the Desert

A scene that could be touching, yet:

It’s June 4th 2016, and I’m sitting at my desk with my calculator, generating random integers from 0 to 274. For each number generated I flick to the corresponding page in the book in front of me, a hummingbird reading. It’s late in the afternoon, and the thick humidity of the air is spitting that anxiety of transition into evening, from the scratchy reading and writing of the day into night. Random flicking is about the only structure I can take at this point. I’m turning through Don DeLillo’s Zero K, released this year, kidding myself that it is rubbing the text into the sinews of my body. It is not; I am just overly-anxious, trying to think of the right things to hold in mind when listening to DeLillo speak in the evening.

It shouldn’t be a big deal, but it really is. It is the day of a rare public appearance for him as he speaks at the Royal Festival Hall (London). He is not reclusive, as he likes to point out, just ‘private’. Bolstering the feeling of anticipation is my sketchily embarrassing cultish adulation. What started out as a challenge to read everything DeLillo had ever published (reading qua phallus comparison) resulted in his work structuring my life. When reading DeLillo it is difficult not to carry his tiny lines of poetry in your pocket and take them out for world-viewing. His lyric moments lean toward aphorism, enchanting the conscious processes of your mind, then zoom off into the imagistic. Whether the sheer force of reading him in such great volumes has made my tastes or whether he actually speaks to me is moot. The moment of being able to see the man and hear a voice which has so carefully mingled my realities with its texts is one that I’m sure many other readers will understand: it is important.

I finally squeeze out some possible questions to ask him from my pores into my notepad, arrogant in my assumption that I will get a chance to say anything. As I walk into the Royal Festival Hall the size is alarming. We sit in our hundreds underneath the hall’s organ that looks down sheepishly, sensing a presence greater than itself. Don DeLillo walks in, slight, old, and stands at the lectern. The applause is preparatory, revving the engine, heating the space, making sure that everything said must be pushed higher than normal words and normal appearances. Everybody in the room is ready to be told.

* * *

It’s difficult to talk about Don DeLillo without falling into such over-charged language. His corpus has had a way of becoming, for me, the only way of writing, the only ways worth seeing. The first things I ever wrote were yellow-belt DeLillo, to amend a phrase by Tom Bissell, all huge landscapes, lists of stark profundity, vaporous bodies, shoes and deserts, clauses in calm apposition. Bastardising his insight, his half-a-century’s worth of honing his sentences, became a habit and vocation of mine. However poor the results were, it felt as if I was moving in the right direction.

What is actually terrifying about Don DeLillo’s voice is that no matter what shit I produced, and there was page after page of it, thankfully he resisted parody. Snide readers have for years tried to wedge apart the cracks they seem to find, his paragraph structures and his “ponderous generalized aphorisms [sic]”, the ‘philosophy McNuggets’. They have tried to find the gaps in his understanding of technology, of finance, of nuclear weaponry, or the internet. The tragic thing is how none of these criticisms ever match DeLillo on his own terms. He is resistant. In his later novels in particular what is noticeable is the sound of the voice of the self-effacing novelist. In Zero K, for instance, the narrator, Jeffrey, visits the Convergence, the realm of humans desperately trying to reach out past death, past language, past the cultural inscriptions of themselves. Yet he is still stuck in his world of naming, of compartmentalising, of doubting the mission with cynicism and irony: ‘Isn’t that why I was here, to subvert the dance of transcendence with my tricks and games?’ DeLillo can paw at the blisters left by our human questioning of language, death, and beauty, but always with one eye at the potential vapidity of it all, its existence purely as surface. He populates his text with the voices of the cynics that want refuse to drown in his language and builds them into the structure of his novels. Its as if despite our protestations, he lures us into the poetic and the indulgent. Parody and snark become impotent; DeLillo has absorbed his critics. The ‘reality that would be mystifying if it weren’t so abruptly real’ — it would fall into meaninglessness if it weren’t so persistently there.

His images that have always struck me most are of deserts. As he sweeps across plains, DeLillo is invulnerable. Once he has shown how impoverished the small-minded are that do not succumb, deserts are the blank canvasses with which he can point at his language most obviously. They are geographically huge and empty yet buzzing with the tiny flies of DeLilloan language, as he drags a reader into his vision. The nothingness of deserts means they are the perfect focus for him to flex his muscles and display the structures of his lyric, void of subject.

They are everywhere in DeLillo. This passage comes in the final movement of Running Dog (1978):

The land was a raked paint surface. The power of storms to burnish and renew, he thought, had never been more clearly evident. The sky was flawless. Things existed. The day was scaled to the pure tones of being and sense.
The last sweeps weather had caused the body to become partly buried. …[Levi] knew what to do with the body.
You approach death with a clear mind. You choose the right place. They’d discussed this often. Glen used to talk about pure landscape. He loved the desert. When you leave the earth-plane, there’s a right place and a right way.

DeLillo doesn’t focus on sand and heat. The desert is literally his canvas, a ‘raked paint surface’. Time and perception have been pulled taut, disrupting the crust of things that are there, leaving the ‘pure tones of being and sense’ lying flat across our vision. Glen wants to die in a desert, and of course he does. The earth becomes just a plane, the launching off point into a world of transcendent darkness.

In Underworld (1997), one of the characters sees row after row of painted aeroplanes as the desert becomes the space for a work of art:

The painted aircraft took on sunlight and pulse. Sweeps of color, bands and spatters, airy washes, the force of saturated light — the whole thing oddly personal, a sense of one painter’s hand moved by impulse and afterthought as much as by epic design. I hadn’t expected to register such pleasure and sensation. The air was color-scrubbed, coppers and ochers burning off the metal skin of the aircraft to exchange with the framing desert.

The solid intensity of the metallic lines and colours of the aircraft are crowned by the cut-glass sunlight of the desert, and the noise of your pulse as the heat brings it out beating in your neck and eyes. The first sentence, by alerting us to these two things taken from the world in its eloquent brevity, makes the desert into something far more than ‘framing’. It is pure intensity and sharpness. Moments like this characterise DeLillo, especially his 80s and 90s work. Short points snatched out of the narrative in which the writer gives you of the power of his Romantic vision.

The narrator responds:

Sometimes I see something so moving I know I’m not supposed to linger…. If you stay too long you wear out the wordless shock. Love it and trust it and leave.

It is difficult in these words not to hear DeLillo’s advice for how to approach these moments of lyric intensity in his deserts. They are indulgent, they defy ideological concision. In writing about DeLillo it seems we miss the joy of the moment of deft beauty.


It’s the end of the talk, and my illusions have not been shattered. Hearing a writer speak is so often the quickest possible way to lose interest in their work. Something about DeLillo has been surprising but not destructive. The very idea of being a ‘fan’ of someone’s work is a construct made by the reader. The fragility of taste and reading means that my youthful and naive hold on what I thought was DeLillo was vulnerable to any stray remark of his that could sour the taste of his sentences. Yet there has been definitely something paternally affirming about it. His refusal to show any expertise in his own work has been delightful to hear, an implicit refutation to any of us who claim to understand him. He has admitted that he couldn’t remember anything about White Noise (1985), often described as his greatest work, and never wrote his books in dialogue with one another, or even consciously structured them. He has spoken of reality and images, and it is liberating. His words: ‘[those that look for symbols in his work] are literary types preciously because they are over-anxious’. Thanks, Don.

I raise my hand in the Q&A and just as all the blood has drained from it and the appendage begins to wither away, the microphone comes to me and I ask my question.

‘Don, what is it about deserts?’

I expected the spattering of nervous laughter and the puzzled look of the host, but DeLillo just nods understandingly, not even turning his head to look at me. I am convinced that he understands the immediate obviousness of the question, how integral it is to him and his corpus. Whatever the reality may be, at this moment, it feels as if we harmonised.

‘I grew up in the Bronx’, he responds.

He goes on to tell a story. I won’t pretend I have it down verbatim but I was eight years old, and I was on a trip with my family to the American South West, into the deserts of Texas. I grew up in the Bronx with my immigrant grandparents and cousins all in one house. We came upon a figure-of-eight tarmac track in the desert, with trucks winding round it, clearly in some sort of testing ritual. It was a dance that was protracted, and these blocks of heat and sound, terrifying in their machinery, went around and around, spinning into the yawning dust. I sat there for hours, watching them go round, dwarfed by landscape. Dwarfed by the idea of landscape; in the emptiness of the desert all that is there is the cathedral I can erect with my eyes and my wonder. That’s what it is about deserts: empty landscapes.

Something caught my eye far on the horizon if I squinted hard enough through the dust kicked up by the trucks. I walked towards it, knowing that I was abandoning my car and my family. My throat was thick with the air, barren. I walked and the thing started becoming a man with each step. He was standing, arms slightly raised as if anticipating a breeze, that distinctive polyhedral mane bearing his identity strongly into the day.

It was Don DeLillo, standing in the desert. I went up to him and looked over his head. There was a short moment, and I was confused but happy.

‘“The complications of awe,” he said.’

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