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Don DeLillo (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)

DeLillo was born in the Bronx, New York, to Italian immigrant parents. His father worked as a payroll clerk at Metropolitan Life, in Manhattan. Later DeLillo has said, that New York has 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. DeLillo lived in a small apartment with no stove. To support himself, he had a series of temporary jobs.

DeLillo began writing short stories in his early 20s. At the age of 35, DeLillo made his debut as a novelist with Americana (1971), about the spiritual search of a young television executive. Although it 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 is chairman of the department of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill, who tries to protect his family from toxic fumes caused by a nearby railway accident. DeLillo has remarked that the novel was his attempt "to find a kind of radiance in dailiness." The film director Barry Sonnenfeld has been trying to find funding make a movie version of the book. 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. Underworld (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".

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". 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.

DeLillo's characters are products of consumer culture and mass media, spiritually undernourished persons, whose neuroses and rootlessness reflect the ongoing disintegration of society. 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." 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.

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)

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
  • 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)
  • Underworld, 1997
    - Alamaailma (suom. Helene Bützow, 1999)
  • Valparaiso: A Play in Two Acts, 1999
  • 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, 2006
  • Falling Man, 2007
    - Putoava mies (suom. Helene Bützow, 2008)
  • Point Omega, 2010
    - Omegapiste (suom. Helene Bützow, 2011)
  • The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories, 2011

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