Don DeLillo’s American Dream

Don DeLillo’s American Dream

His recent protagonists dream only of money, except perhaps for the technological advances that will allow them to go on acquiring it indefinitely.

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Ever since Underworld, the 1997 book that marked the end of his ambitious middle period, Don DeLillo’s novels have been creepy, inconclusive, and short. Zero K, his 16th novel and a book that has the feel of a parting gesture, is no exception. Its first sentence, “Everybody wants to own the end of the world,” expresses the kind of sentiment that, if you’ve been steeped in DeLillo’s prose long enough, strikes a familiar chord. It might be profound; it might be nonsense. In any case, it has something to do with death.

The line belongs to Ross Lockhart, a billionaire Manhattan-based hedge-fund speculator. Ross is speaking to his unemployed 34-year-old son Jeffrey, who has come to visit him in a nondescript cluster of buildings, known as the Convergence, in a desert somewhere near Kyrgyzstan. Ross has brought his terminally ill second wife, Artis, to the Convergence to have her body entombed in a technologically engineered underworld, where it will be preserved until science has perfected the tools to reanimate her. Ross finds the process so exciting that, briefly, and despite being completely healthy, he elects to undergo it himself. Then, without any explanation, Ross changes his mind and returns to Manhattan. Then he changes his mind again. Father and son go back to the Convergence, and Jeffrey watches as Ross is lowered into Zero K, the special unit at the facility for healthy subjects willing to make a “certain kind of transition to the next level.” Afterward, Jeffrey wanders aimlessly around the halls of the Convergence before returning, just as aimlessly, to the streets of Manhattan.

There is one other relationship in the book besides the one between Ross and Jeffrey. When he returns to Manhattan the first time, Jeffrey begins seeing Emma, a special-education professional who has recently separated from her husband. Briefly, his and Emma’s domestic routine becomes a firewall to keep unruly thoughts at bay. “Gather all the forgettable fragments, fresh towels on the racks, nice new bar of soap, clean sheets on the bed,” Jeffrey tells himself. “This was all I needed to take me day to day and I tried to think of these days and nights as the hushed countermand, ours, to the widespread belief that the future, everybody’s, will be worse than the past.” But the “soporifics of normalcy” ultimately do little to alleviate his sense of foreboding. Emma returns to her husband, and Jeffrey, after his second visit to the Convergence, takes a job as an ethics and compliance officer at a small college. As he sits in his cubicle checking items off a list, the question arises whether we are not already living in the “suspended animation” of Zero K. “The long soft life is what I feel I’m settling into,” Jeffrey reports. “The only question is how deadly it will turn out to be.”

Jeffrey’s exhausted pessimism, vague sense of doom, and chronic ambivalence (his father refers to his “little church of non-commitment”) are the harvest of a childhood spent attempting to “steep” himself in European art and novels—a dynamic that further reinforced for me the parallels between Zero K and another novel published in the last year, Michel Houellebecq’s Submission. A work in the European modernist tradition, Submission is narrated by François, a middle-aged Huysmans scholar who meanders across a slightly futuristic Paris in a haze of dissociation and boredom. François, like Jeffrey, carries on a long-distance relationship with his own emotions: In both novels, the narrator reports the death of a parent as one would normally describe the demise of a toaster oven. Likewise, both men display a remarkable passivity and detachment in their interactions with their sexual partners, even as they seem to sense that the women in question represent possibly their last chance at meaningful human connection.

Jeffrey and François share something else: an admiration, leavened by incomprehension, for those able to believe in something larger than themselves. In Submission, François cannot help giving in at times to a grudging appreciation for the committed Muslim politicians who, in the novel’s notorious political subplot, eventually seize control of the French government. Zero K contains few political references, but there is a moment when Jeffrey watches video footage of monks setting themselves on fire in Tibet and India, commenting with a sense of awe on the spectacle of “men dying for a cause.” Then, just after he returns to Manhattan, he notices

a taxi parked three or four feet from the sidewalk and then a man in the gutter on his knees, shoes off, set behind him, and he is bowing, head to the pavement, and it takes me a moment to understand that he is the driver of the taxi and that the direction is Mecca, he is bowing toward Mecca.

Like the monks, the cab driver represents for Jeffrey the prospect of a life and death oriented by spiritual purpose, something that is striking to him precisely because it appears incompatible with his own “scatterlife.” In another scene, he listens to a monk at the Convergence describe his grueling trek through the Himalayas. Despite being inspired by the man’s determination, the example of such “simple reverence” strikes him as “outside my own fragmented visions, a thing for others.”

In such moments, Zero K even seems to ask the same fundamental question as Submission: What does it mean to lead a life with no faith? In the context of DeLillo’s fiction as a whole, however, the question takes on a subtly different accent. In Submission, Houellebecq is concerned, as he has been in all six of his novels, with what he sees as the moral impoverishment wrought by the triumph of modern liberal secularism in Europe, a worldview that emphasizes rationality, detachment, and skepticism as opposed to conviction, passion, and faith. As Karl Ove Knausgaard rightly observes in his review of Submission, the Islamization of France presented in the novel is “merely a consequence” of the retreat from tradition and community that is characteristic of secular liberalism, and which is Houellebecq’s primary theme. In one of the novel’s few extended set pieces, François visits a famous French monastery and attempts, unsuccessfully, to spark within himself some ember of Christian conviction.

The detachment and cynicism that have always interested DeLillo are related to, but also distinct from, the phenomena targeted by Houellebecq. While many Americans still expect to end up in heaven or hell, DeLillo’s characters have been attracted, as a rule, less to belief in any supernatural entity than to a faith in the transcendent properties of the nation itself. This is what accounts for the occult significance granted in DeLillo’s fiction to political operatives, celebrities, advertising executives, and artists—all of whom are involved in transubstantiating American reality into American theology, a set of images and slogans to feed the rapacious spiritual appetite of its citizens. It is also what accounts for his characters’ obsession with apocalyptic scenarios—whether nuclear holocaust (End Zone), environmental disaster (White Noise), or terrorist plots (Players, Mao II)—for no theology can be complete without a meaningful story about the end of the world.

Zero K is unlikely to survive as one of DeLillo’s significant literary achievements; its prose, much like its characters, could best be described as lifelike. Yet as I began reading it in January, with the presidential primary buzzing in the background, there seemed something oddly revealing about the novel’s tone and themes. It is not only in DeLillo’s recent fiction that one can discern the worry that America, incapable any longer of bearing the weight of its manifest destiny, is becoming a land of the living dead.

* * *

When I initially encountered DeLillo’s fiction in college, the first thing that bothered me was the stiltedness of the dialogue; the second was the depthlessness of the characters. His books, I complained to classmates as we sat at Starbucks drinking lattes like real American adults, pretended to be realistic but weren’t; people didn’t talk or act like that. My standard of literary sophistication at the time was European modernism and the Americans who imitated it, Faulkner and Hemingway especially. These writers had shaped my sense of what made for an interesting or believable character, which had then shaped my sense of what made for an interesting or believable person. DeLillo’s characters seemed unliterary to me by comparison, at least in part because they reminded me of the people I had judged as credulous and shallow, and therefore unworthy of artistic attention, during my upbringing in the American Midwest.

“Soon I was no longer content merely to make love to my wife. I had to seduce her first. These seductions often took their inspiration from cinema.” This is the narrator of DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, published in 1971. Crass, calculating, and endearingly innocent, the voice is unmistakably that of an American. David Bell is a 28-year-old executive at a Mad Men–style advertising firm in Manhattan; he is so good-looking in the classic Hollywood style that people on the street often ask him for his autograph. The narrative of the novel jumps between flashbacks to his childhood in the appropriately named Old Holly, New York—a childhood that culminates with David shifting his allegiance from Stephen Dedalus to Burt Lancaster—and a “mysterious and sacramental” road trip he sets off on across the country with his friend Sullivan, camera in hand. Although David never articulates his intentions clearly, the trip becomes a screen on which DeLillo can project a distinctly American tension between, on the one hand, the individual American’s desire to painstakingly document his reality and, on the other, his desire to mythologize it—to live, that is, not in America but in Americana. “When it rained Sullivan put on her old buttonless trenchcoat even though we were inside the camper…. Every time I saw a river I thought it was the Mississippi.”

Despite taking place in the middle of the Vietnam War (“The war was on television every night but we all went to the movies”), now synonymous with the erosion of trust in American institutions, Americana belongs to the idealistic phase of DeLillo’s fiction. Through the haze of postmodern irony, absurdist comedy, and pseudo-academic political theory, in novels like End Zone, The Names, and White Noise, there remain traces of the aspiration that America might yet play its assigned role as, to paraphrase Nick Carraway, history’s last enchanted land. (Somewhat less romantically, the narrator of The Names calls it the “world’s living myth.”) At the end of White Noise, the Gladneys join a crowd gathering ritualistically on a highway overpass to watch sunsets that have taken on “content, feeling, an exalted narrative life” in the wake of a catastrophic toxic release. “Some people are scared by the sunsets,” reports the narrator, “some determined to be elated, but most of us don’t know how to feel, are ready to go either way.” The book ends with this tension unresolved: Americans are the people who unleash “airborne toxic events” on the world, and they are also the ones best able to appreciate the holy pageant of their aftermath.

* * *

That ambivalence would not last. Underworld, DeLillo’s longest and, perhaps unfortunately, best-known novel, begins with the memorable story of a teenager jumping the turnstiles of New York City’s Polo Grounds to watch the 1951 National League championship playoff between the Dodgers and the Giants—the game famously concluded by Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard ’round the world.” Appearing as a novella five years before the publication of Underworld, the story begins with the observation that “Longing on a large scale is what makes history.” It is exemplary of DeLillo’s most compelling fiction insofar as it dramatizes, via a series of shifts in perspective among different members of the crowd (including Jackie Gleason, J. Edgar Hoover, and a black teenager from the Bronx named Cotter), the friction between Americans’ desire to live in mythological innocence and our inescapable awareness of the many sins the nation has committed in the name of that very mythology. (“Everyone wants to love America,” says a character in Libra. “But how can an honest man forget what he sees?”) When the baseball game appeared for the second time as the prologue to Underworld, however, it was preceded by a new heading, “The Triumph of Death,” and followed by some 800 pages describing a Cold War America in which longing was continuously asphyxiated by conspiracy, violence, and Hoover-style paranoia.

For me, Underworld ultimately snaps under the weight of its mania for demystification. Desire, and a situation in which it might be plausibly fulfilled, are the air and water of a novel, especially a long one. If the point of Underworld is that the United States has ceased to offer such a promise, then it should come as no surprise that its pages prove inhospitable to the generation of narrative suspense. This doesn’t mean that DeLillo was wrong in his judgment of America, only that he miscalculated what kind of literature could survive such a judgment. It might be taken as an acknowledgment of this miscalculation that most of what DeLillo has published since 2000 resembles ordinary-language philosophy or religious parable more closely than it does his previous novels. Pages filled with cryptic allusions, prophetic mantras, and thoughts trailing off before they reach their destination have proved, at least at times, to offer a compelling vehicle for the story—or nonstory—that DeLillo has wanted to tell about America in the new millennium: a place where neither the traditional touchstones nor the “soporifics of normalcy” can veil our descent into spiritual chaos.

What is the cause of this descent? The answer, in DeLillo’s later novels, is surprisingly consistent: finance capitalism. Capitalism, of course, has been a visible force in De­Lillo’s fiction from the beginning, sometimes crudely threatening, at other times awe-inspiring. For David Bell, the “dream of the good life” was linked inextricably to “the Sears, Roebuck catalog. Aunt Jemima.… Frank Gifford and Bobby Hull in their Jantzen bathing suits.” In a famous scene in White Noise, the narrator experiences a sense of “looming wonder” when his daughter mouths the words “Toyota Celica” in her sleep. But the transition to an economy dominated by money handlers doesn’t register for DeLillo as merely a shift in emphasis. Advertising executives, political conspirators, even terrorists have what he’s called a “structured narrative” to unfold about why certain things are consequential or valuable, which means that they play on the same field as the novelist. Bill Gray, the author at the center of Mao II, describes terrorists as being locked in a zero-sum conflict with writers to “shape the way we think and see.” In Libra, Lee Harvey Oswald says that his true ambition “is to be a short story writer on contemporary American life.”

In contrast, as the critic Ben Jeffery has argued in an essay on the 2003 novel Cosmopolis, a society built around moneymaking seems for DeLillo to be “plotless,” meaning it “can’t be explained in terms of what’s good for the people who populate it.” Ross Lockhart in Zero K is described as being “shaped by money,” a designation that could be equally applied to Keith Neudecker in Falling Man or Eric Packer in Cosmopolis. The latter tells a younger analyst that there’s “only one thing in the world worth pursuing professionally and intellectually…the interaction between technology and capital.” Packer’s reference to technology, which connects to the main theme of Zero K, is not incidental: Although DeLillo has sometimes been identified with a standard-issue argument about the marginalization of the novel in the age of Nintendo and Netflix, with Cosmopolis he began to express a different kind of insight about technology’s threat to the cultural relevance of fiction. Not only money, but also technology, becomes an end in itself for men like Packer and Lockhart: First they use their technology to make more money, then they use their money to buy more technology. No proper novel can document a society animated by such ambitions, DeLillo suggests, because the ambitions are unintelligible, not least to the people who best exemplify them. Jay Gatsby wanted money because there was a life (and a love) he dreamed he could purchase with it; DeLillo’s recent protagonists dream only of money, except perhaps for the technological advances that will allow them to go on acquiring it indefinitely.

In this respect, Zero K represents the next and possibly final step in a depressing fait accompli, wherein the dream of the good life that had animated DeLillo’s earlier fiction has been supplanted by the dream of the long life. Ross tells Jeffrey that the Convergence offers a “faith-based technology.…Another god. Not so different, it turns out, from some of the earlier ones. Except that it’s real, it’s true, it delivers.” He is right that there’s a difference between the god of technology and the earlier ones, but he is wrong about what that difference is. DeLillo makes clear that the Convergence’s technocratic promise of eternal life is no more or less fanciful than that offered to the Egyptian pharaohs. What’s distinctive is the meagerness of its promise—not meaning, salvation, or grace, but merely a respite from extinction, an incoherently acquisitive life extending in perpetuity. If for Jeffrey a Tibetan monk expiring by self-immolation represents the vanished ideal of a man dying for a cause, then his father represents the final hope of the obscenely successful American: a life that goes on and on for no reason.

* * *

Speaking as an American about the same age as Jeffrey Lockhart, the most striking thing about this diagnosis of America and its future is how familiar it has become. When Jeffrey refers to “the widespread belief that the future, everybody’s, will be worse than the past,” he is voicing a sentiment that has gone, in DeLillo’s lifetime, from being a hushed worry in one corner of the American consciousness to a nugget of conventional wisdom passed down along with the national debt from one generation to the next. Virtually for our entire lives, my friends and I have been told that we are inheriting a country in far worse condition than the one our parents inherited, and that, the pallid optimism of techno-evangelists notwithstanding, there is good reason to think things will only get worse from here.

That this has now become an article of faith among Americans—a certainty beyond the reach of evidence—can be confirmed by the spectacle, this political season, of presidential candidates in both parties describing a country of relative peace and prosperity as if it were on the brink of annihilation, whether because of terrorism, global warming, immigration, or Goldman Sachs. The nature of the impending crisis varies fundamentally depending on the messenger. The appeal of Donald Trump’s campaign slogan—“Make America Great Again”—is to assert explicitly what has been the subtext of every Republican presidential campaign since the emergence of Richard Nixon. When Trump and other Republicans say that the economy is a “disaster,” or that America never “wins anymore,” there is no need for them to back up such statements with proof. They convey to their audience a mood and a (thinly veiled) promissory note: The fantasy of Americana is not just a fantasy, the implication goes; such a place existed before it was trampled by feminists, Black Panthers, and brainwashed college kids, and it can be restored still. One afternoon while reading Zero K, I glanced up at the TV and saw Trump and Sarah Palin standing in what looked like a prefab barn in Ames, Iowa. With the sound muted, they looked like two figures sprung fully formed from the depths of the American subconscious, come to lead us back to the promised land of Ben Franklin and Annie Oakley.

Liberals have been rightly suspicious of the reactionary nostalgia behind this vision of a once-and-future land of greatness, and of the kinds of actions that have been undertaken in its name. DeLillo’s fiction, in its middle period, bracingly dramatized the fear, loathing, and violence promoted by people—Hoover, Oswald, Guy Banister—committed to fighting for (or against) an America that only ever existed in their paranoid imaginations. Only in his later writing, however, has DeLillo seemed to offer support for an even broader skepticism—one that encompasses not only the retrograde fantasies of some conservatives but also the very idea of an America that could amount to anything more than the sum total of its most dismal “realities.” And it’s here that DeLillo risks contributing to the same fatalistic malaise that his novels depict and, by implication at least, decry.

If longing on a large scale is what makes history, then making history will require us to keep faith with our longing, despite our inevitable disappointments. A compelling politics, like a compelling novel, requires desire and a situation in which that desire can be plausibly fulfilled. The fragmentary form of DeLillo’s writing since Underworld has mimicked—not always to its advantage as literature—the sense that its characters convey of being members of a technologically advanced nomad tribe, cut off from their original purpose and now condemned to the purgatorial pursuit of objectives they know in advance cannot satisfy them. For us as readers, the question is whether we recognize ourselves in such a picture. Has high finance changed us as profoundly as DeLillo’s fiction suggests? Has the American “plot” been so irreversibly disrupted that our only options are to embrace the technocratic fantasies of men like Ross Lockhart, or to become, like Jeffrey, a facsimile of Houellebecq’s faithless Europeans?

DeLillo’s novels are not the only place where it seems so. As I write, the Democratic candidate for president most appealing to young people opposes the power of Wall Street bankers, treats American exceptionalism as a false idol, and recommends Denmark as a vision for the country’s future. Because many of his policy proposals fall well outside the Beltway consensus, Bernie Sanders is often described as an idealist, but this is an awkward label for a politician whose appeal is based almost entirely on a materialist interpretation of society. At least some of his success, in any event, is likely attributable to the fact that his competitor for the nomination offers a prospectus even more ploddingly prosaic than his own.

Toward the end of Zero K, an administrator at the Convergence quotes Augustine: “And never can a man be more disastrously in death than when death itself shall be deathless.” The same quotation appeared 45 years earlier in Americana, where it had been scrawled on a memo left by an anonymous colleague for David Bell. The source is section 11 of City of God, in which Augustine is considering how the meaning of death—and of life—would change in a world where man had been abandoned by his Creator and therefore could not expect salvation. DeLillo’s Americans have been abandoned by their Creator, but they haven’t given up on salvation: They find it in the Sears, Roebuck catalog, in a game-winning homer, and in the “mass delusion,” as Jeffrey calls it in Zero K, of a technologically certified crypt. The last of these indicates the death-haunted orientation of DeLillo’s later fiction, itself in strange harmony with the night terrors of his American readers. The “city on a hill” has never been as high as the City of God, but you do have to look up to see it.

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