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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

Don DeLillo (b. 1936)


American novelist and playwright, who has explored icons, obsessions, idiosyncrasies, and the dark recesses of the American culture. DeLillo has been mentioned as a contender for the Nobel Prize in Literature. Through a highly acclaimed writer, DeLillo seldom gives interviews and never shows up on late-night television.

"It's my nature to keep quiet about most things. Even the ideas of my work. When you try to understand something you've written, you belittle it in a way. It was created as a mystery, on part. Here is a new map of the world; it is seven shades of blue. If you're able to be straightforward and penetrating about this invention of yours, it's almost as though you're saying it wasn't altogether necessary. The sources weren't deep enough." (in Conversations With Don DeLillo, ed.  Thomas DePietro, 2005)

Donald Richard "Don" DeLillo was born in the Bronx, New York, to Italian immigrant parents, who came from the Abruzzi mountains to the east of Rome. His father went to America in 1917, at the age of nine, and quickly learned English. He worked as a payroll clerk at Metropolitan Life, in Manhattan. DeLillo's education was entirely American. He has said, that New York had an "enormous influence" on his work – "the paintings in the Museum of Modern Art, the music at the Jazz Gallery and the Village Vanguard, the movies of Fellini and Godard and Howard Hawks." In 1954 DeLillo entered the Jesuit-run Fordham University, where he studied history, philosophy and theology, receiving his B.A. in 1958.

For some time DeLillo worked as a copywriter for the advertising agency Ogilvy and Mather, but then devoted himself to writing. His first stories, 'The River Jordan' (1960), 'Take the 'A' Train' (1962) and 'Spaghetti and Meatballs' (1965), were published in Epoch, Cornell University's literary magazine. Other stories appeared throughout the decade in The Kenyon Review and The Carolina Quarterly. To support himself, he had a series of temporary jobs. At that time, DeLillo lived in a small apartment with no stove.

DeLillo he has said the Kennedy assassination made him a writer, but he did not start thinking it as a subject for a novel until the 1980s. When the President was shot, DeLillo was eating lunch with friends in a restaurant on the west side of Manhattan. At the age of 35, DeLillo made his debut as a novelist with Americana (1971); many times he almost abandoned the work. Although the story of the spiritual search of a young television executive was not an autobiographical work, DeLillo drew more material from people and situations he knew firsthand than in End Zone (1972), which reflected fears of nuclear warfare, but examined the subject in the form of college football.

Ratner's Star (1976), in which the central character was a fourteen-year old mathematical genius, puzzled critics. DeLillo was unfavorable compared to Thomas Pynchon. Players (1977) introduced one of DeLillo's trademark themes, terrorism. Running Dog (1978), written in the form of a conventional thriller, differed from DeLillo's previous novels.

In 1975 DeLillo married Barbara Bennett, then a banker; she eventually became a landscape designer. They have no children. After living in Bronx and Manhattan, they settled a half hour's train ride north of New York City.

Under the auspices of the Guggenheim Fellowship, DeLillo spent in the late 1970s several years in Greece, and traveled in the Middle East and India. During this period he started to write The Names (1982). The neurotic narrator is a risk analyst, who becomes obsessed with a mysterious cult dedicated to murdering victims on the basis of their initials.

In 1985 DeLillo won the American Book Award for the "grimly funny" White Noise, which explored the fear of death in American suburbia. The protagonist, Jack Gladney, is chairman of the department of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill. Jack tries to protect his family from toxic fumes caused by a nearby railway accident. "Murray says we are fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts," he says, referring to Murray Jay Siskind, a professor specialized in the meanings of things.  DeLillo has remarked that White Noise was his attempt "to find a kind of radiance in dailiness."

Noteworthy, David Bowie found the work important to himself. This book has also been one of the passion projects of the film director Barry Sonnenfeld who has tried to find funding for a movie version of it. While working on The Broom of the System (1987), David Foster Wallace read DeLillo's novels. It has been said that he took the flat, echoing tone of his dialogue from him. (Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace by D.T. Max, 2013, p. 161)  Upon the suggestion of Jonathan Franzen, Wallace began a correspondence with DeLillo. When he complained that his writing wasn't going well and it was less fun that it was, DeLillo comforted in a letter: "The novel is a fucking killer. I try to show it every respect." (Ibid,. p. 236)

Libra (1988) was about Lee Harvey Oswald and the theories that surround the death of President John F. Kennedy. Convinced that Oswald was the gunman, DeLillo conducted no interviews but looked films and listened to tapes and in general depended mostly on the Warren Report. In Bronx, DeLillo and Oswald lived within six or seven blocks of each other. The title of the book refers to Oswald's sign. Libra, DeLillo's first bestseller, was made a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club.

Mao II (1991), winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award, described a reclusive writer – DeLillo himself is also personally reticent and dislikes interviews. He uses a manual typewriter (an Olympia) and doesn't own a mobile phone. One of DeLillo's characters remarks in Underworld: "I live a quiet life in an unassuming house in a suburb of Phoenix. Pause. Like someone in the Witness Protection Program." Despite being a person who enjoys his privacy, DeLillo has a regular meal in a restaurant on Arthur Avenue with his old childhood friends, with whom he grew up in the Italian Bronx.  

(1997) examined the Cold War experience and American culture. The protagonist, Nick Shay, is a Roman Catholic and has spent his childhood in Bronx, just like the author. Beginning from the Polo Grounds in New York, this freely from character to character jumping and back and forth in time moving story associates the fate of the game-winning ball of the 1951 world series with global concerns, from nuclear bombs to hazardous waste and terrorists. In The New York Times (September 16, 1997) Michiko Kakutani wrote that "DeLillo creates a wonderfully rich, elliptical narrative, filled with recapitulations, refrains and leitmotifs, a narrative that possesses all the improvisatory rhythm and magic of jazz." Gary Marshall, writing for Spike Magazine, found the novel "a victim of its own ambition". Since Underworld, DeLillo's books have been slimmer.

DeLillo's Cosmopolis (2003), set in the cold and lifeless high-tech world of a Wall Street currency trader, was dismissed in The New York Times as "an intellectual turkey shoot". David Cronenberg's film adaptation of the novel from 2012 replaced the internal monologue of the protagonist with external action and dialogue. Falling Man (2007) was about the events of 9/11. Its title is taken from the Associated Press photo of a man falling to his death from the North Tower of the World Trade Center.

For Point Omega (2010) DeLillo got the idea from Douglas Gordon's video installation 24 Hour Psycho about the famous Hitchcock movie. The Angel Esmeralda (2011), DeLillo's first collection of short stories, contained nine short pieces, written between 1979 and 2011. With Zero K  (2016), he joined the long line of writers who have introduced their own what-if scenario of the future of humankind. This work about love, science and immortality, took him nearly four years to finish. "But once the novel shakes off its labored start, “Zero K” reminds us of Mr. DeLillo’s almost Day-Glo powers as a writer and his understanding of the strange, contorted shapes that eternal human concerns (with mortality and time) can take in the new millennium." (Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times, April 25, 2016) With The Silence (2020), a catastrophe novel, DeLillo continued his probings of our existential situation – fragile and often at the mercy of blind forces. DeLillo began writing the book in 2018, before the covid-19 pandemic.

DeLillo's characters are products of consumer culture and mass media, spiritually undernourished persons, whose neuroses and rootlessness reflect the ongoing disintegration of society. A leading interpreter of the zeitgeist, his works have influenced Bret Easton Ellis, David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen, whom DeLillo sent a copy of Libra with a nice inscription. His writing, which carries various satiric undertones, is precise and carefully structured, but DeLillo also leaves much unsaid. "What writing means to me is trying to make interesting, clear, beautiful language," the author has said. "Working at sentences and rhythms is probably the most satisfying thing I do as a writer."

The British critic James Wood, who coined the concept "hysterical realism" (in 'The Smallness of the 'Big' Novel: Human, All Too Inhuman,' The New Republic, 2000) has cited novels by Pynchon, DeLillo, Foster Wallace, Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith, and argued that these writers aim for "vitality at all costs." Hysterical realism is very similar to magic realism. Its characteristics include frenzied action, manic characters, who are trapped in an "endless web" of stories, and frequent digressions on topics secondary to the plot.

DeLillo's once said that he does not think himself as "anything but a novelist". His activity as a playwright is less known. Between the novels Players (1977) and The Names (1982), he published in the Cornell Review his first playtext, 'The Engineer of Moonlight' (1979), which remained unstaged. DeLillo has written six other playtexts, The Day Room (1986), 'The Rapture of the Athlete Assumed into Heaven' (1992) and 'The Mystery at the Middle of Ordinary Life' (2000), both one-minute plays, Valparaiso (1999), Love-Lies-Bleeding (2005) and The Word for Snow (2014).

NOTE: This page is still under work!

For further reading: Don DeLillo by Douglas Keesey (1993); Introducing Don DeLillo by Frank Lentricchia (1991); American Magic and Dread: Don DeLillo's Dialogue With Culture by Mark Osteen (2000); Critical Essays on Don DeLillo, ed. by Hugh M. Ruppersburg, Tim Engles (2000); Don DeLillo: The Physics of Language by David Cowart (2003); Don DeLillo: Balance at the Edge of Belief by Jesse Kavadlo (2004); Conversations With Don DeLillo by Don DeLillo, Thomas DePietro (2002); Don DeLillo: The Possibility of Fiction by Peter Boxall, Prof Peter Boxall (2006); Jane Smiley, Jonathan Franzen, Don DeLillo by Jason S. Polley (2011); Understanding Don DeLillo by Henry Veggian (2015); Staging DeLillo by Rebecca Rey (2016); Don DeLillo After the Millennium: Currents and Currencies, edited by Jacqueline A. Zubeck (2017); Don DeLillo, edited by Katherine Da Cunha Lewin and Kiron Ward (2019); The Self-reflexive Art of Don DeLillo by Graley Herren (2019)

Selected works:

  • Americana, 1971
  • End Zone, 1972
  • Great Jones Street, 1973
  • Ratner's Star, 1976
  • Players, 1977
  • Running Dog, 1978
  • The Engineer of Moonlight, 1979 (play)
  • Amazons, 1980 (with Sue Buck, under the pseudonym Cleo Birdwell)
  • The Names, 1982
  • White Noise, 1985
    - Valkoinen kohina (suom. Helene Kortekallio, 1986)
  • The Day Room, 1986
  • Libra, 1988
    - Vaaka (suom. Helene Bützow, 1989)
  • Mao II, 1991
    - Mao II (suom. Helene Bützow, 1993)
  • The Rapture of the Athlete Assumed into Heaven, 1992 (one-minute play)
  • Underworld, 1997
    - Alamaailma (suom. Helene Bützow, 1999)
  • Valparaiso: A Play in Two Acts, 1999
  • The Mystery at the Middle of Ordinary Life, 2000 (one-minute play)
  • The Body Artist, 2001
    - Esittäjä (suom. Helene Bützow, 2001)
  • Pafko at the Wall: A Novella, 2001
  • Cosmopolis, 2003
    - Cosmopolis (suom. Helene Bützow, 2003)
    - Film: Cosmopolis, 2012, prod. Alfama Films, Prospero Pictures, Kinology, dir. by David Cronenberg, starring Robert Pattinson, Juliette Binoche, Sarah Gadon, Paul Giamatti 
  • Game 6, 2005 (screenplay, film dir. Michael Hoffman, starring Michael Keaton, Robert Downey Jr., Griffin Dunne)
  • Love-Lies-Bleeding: A Play, 2005
  • Falling Man, 2007
    - Putoava mies (suom. Helene Bützow, 2008)
  • Point Omega, 2010
    - Omegapiste (suom. Helene Bützow, 2011)
  • The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, 2011
  • The Word for Snow, 2014 (play; performed in 2007 and 2012)
  • Zero K, 2016
    - Nolla kelviniä (suom. Helene Bützow, 2017)
  • The Silence: A Novel, 2020
    - Hiljaisuus (suom. Helene Bützow, 2022)

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