Shocks to the System

Mao II & Underworld By Don DeLillo. New York: Library of America. 1,100 pages. $43.

The cover of Mao II & Underworld

THE DREAM OF AN ARTWORK that encompasses the whole world; of a novel that tells everybody’s story; of characters who feel and act and speak for us all; of the image that nobody doesn’t recognize. Yet it is the world and characters and images and stories themselves that stand in the way of that dream. They are too real and too small, too specific and too discrete to be for all. A person personifying history is still a person, history warped by and warping a personality. A dramatic narrative consists of speeches, acts, events. A consciousness is marred by the having of particular thoughts. An era is stained by its favorite clichés: the rise and fall, rags to riches, the trauma plot. Is there any escape from the contortions and inherited feelings of melodrama? What if it were the conventions of the novel themselves that obstructed the mission of telling the “inner life of the culture”? 

Don DeLillo tells two stories about how and when he started writing novels (he wrote and published short fiction beforehand, but that’s another story): in 1966 while he was on vacation with friends sailing off the coast of Maine, they put in at Mount Desert Island and he sat on a railroad tie waiting to take a shower and “had a glimpse of a street maybe fifty yards away and a sense of beautiful old houses and rows of elms and maples and a stillness and a wistfulness—the street seemed to carry its own built-in longing.” This is how the idea for his first novel, Americana, first hit “the nervous system.” But something else happened that week in Maine. He picked up a newspaper and read of Charles Whitman, the “Texas Tower Sniper.” After stabbing his wife and mother to death, Whitman shot three people to death in a University of Texas building, then climbed twenty-eight floors to the top terrace of the university tower and began shooting at random, killing eleven people and wounding thirty-one others before he was gunned down by police. He had brought with him supplies for a long siege, “including underarm deodorant,” the detail that stuck in DeLillo’s mind. 

Two images, one so generic in its evocativeness that it might as well have been remembered from a Hollywood movie, a photograph in a magazine, or a television show. (Nine years later, in 1975, John Ashbery would end his poem “The One Thing That Can Save America” with the lines: “In quiet small houses in the country / Our country, in fenced areas, in cool shady streets.”) The other the picture of an aberrant soul—a new kind of man, one we would come to know all too well, though it was impossible to be aware of that then—a monster, yet one who partook of common creature comforts, the habit of attending to the way he smelled, as if you could cover up the stench of mass homicide with a product you bought at the pharmacy. On the one hand, a universal nostalgic dream of America (even for Americans with no such memories to be nostalgic for; even for people who have never been to America, have seen it only in pictures); on the other, a bloody nightmare then without precedent, the predatory logic of war breaking out in the absence of war, devoid of politics, without warning, utterly irrational and random. DeLillo recognized in these transmissions, these sense impulses, the poles of an emergent reality.

A former ad man at Ogilvy & Mather, a child of Italian immigrants born in the Bronx in 1936, a lapsed Catholic, a boy who read comic books and not much else until he got a job minding a parking lot where he read Hemingway, Faulkner, and Joyce while being paid to sit on a bench, DeLillo devoted himself to writing during his thirties and published his first novel, Americana, in 1971. Five more followed in that decade: End Zone (1972), Great Jones Street (1973), Ratner’s Star (1976), Players (1977), Running Dog (1978). These books constituted the early phase: wild grapplings with the themes of the 1960s; a meditation on mathematics written in the shadow of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow; a pair of taut, self-contained thrillers. Since 2000 we have been reading his late work, from The Body Artist (2001) to The Silence (2020), works greeted as so many codas to his earlier achievements. In between came five novels—The Names (1982), White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Mao II (1991), Underworld (1997)—a progress of books with a “range and sweep,” in DeLillo’s phrase, unmatched by either the less perfected early works or the mostly slimmer later ones. Over the past two years these books have been republished in two volumes by the Library of America. White Noise, the book that brought DeLillo a wide audience, academic attention, and a National Book Award, has been adapted for the screen by the filmmakers who, in a strange dialectical twist of the system, have also brought us Barbie. Long hailed as a prophet, of the age of terrorism, of nuclear dread, of random peacetime violence, of the power of crowds, of the corrosive effects of mass media and consumerism, of the ghostly warping powers of intelligence services, he is now seeing his work being set in amber, surely anticipating the involuntary mutations that await the posthumous. In the end, somebody once said, all plots lead deathward.

Don DeLillo, 1988. Bernard Gotfryd/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs
Don DeLillo, 1988. Bernard Gotfryd/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs

AFTER THE SECOND WORLD WAR it was perhaps inevitable that new forms of the novel would emerge to accommodate a new age and its characteristics. The masterpieces of international modernism had often been hyperlocal in their settings: think of James Joyce’s Ulysses, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Andrei Biely’s Petersburg, or Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz. During the Cold War, a system of multivalent colonialism was succeeded by one of bipolar antagonism, followed by globalization under a regime of neoliberalism. Film and television were now ubiquitous media, soon to be joined (or eclipsed and absorbed) by the internet. John Ashbery’s 1972 poem “The System” begins with the sentence “The system was breaking down,” but the remarkable thing about the system is that it hasn’t broken down; that it is always breaking down, but always somehow reinforcing itself; that even an event like the collapse of the Soviet Union didn’t lead to another cataclysm (though the specter of nuclear Armageddon remains) but to an increasingly intertwined world troubled by outbreaks of violence in borderlands and interzones, such as the ongoing bloodletting in Ukraine. The resulting landscape has been saturated with universally available information and thus, from the point of view of, say, a protagonist of a novel, holistically unknowable. 

This paradox—the overflow of information combined with its fundamental incomprehensibility—became for a certain kind of writer the central problem for the novel to attempt to grasp. Of course, there were other sorts of fiction flourishing too: magic realism, social and historical novels, the African American novel, the Jewish American novel, the minimalist short story, forays into metafiction from various angles at various lengths. All of these were more or less subsumed under the umbrella of postmodernism. The sort of novel I’m talking about, often thought of and taught in schools as the quintessential postmodernist novel, also goes by another name: the systems novel. As the name has caught on over the decades and its practitioners have been canonized, its origins have been obscured. The term was coined by the scholar, critic, and novelist Tom LeClair in his 1987 study In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel and expanded upon in his 1989 book The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction

We retain a loose sense of what a systems novel is by virtue of the fact that LeClair derived his theory from and applied it to novels that are still widely read: the work of William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, Ursula K. Le Guin, Robert Coover, Joseph Heller, William S. Burroughs, and DeLillo himself. To read In the Loop today is to notice how far the use of the name “systems novel” has drifted from the terms by which LeClair originally defined it. He was looking for a paradigm and a critical framework more appropriate to these authors’ books than the one primarily associated with postmodernism: deconstruction. He turned to the Austrian biologist Ludwig von Bertalanffy, whose magnum opus General System Theory was published in 1968, four years before his death at age seventy-one. 

From von Bertalanffy’s “system of systems,” LeClair derived six criteria to define the genre. (1) Systems novels respond to “accelerating specialization (and alienation) of knowledge and work”; “tremendous growth in information and communications”; “large-scale geopolitical crises over energy and exchange (of goods information and money); and “planetary threats produced by man yet now seemingly beyond his control.” (2) They bridge the gap between C. P. Snow’s “two cultures,” the literary and the scientific. (3) “The themes of systems theory are the master subjects of literary modernism—process, multiplicity, simultaneity, uncertainty, linguistic relativity, perspectivism—but in a new larger scale of spatial and temporal relations (the ecosystem) that reflects the new scale of sociopolitical experience, including the rise of multinational corporations and global ecology.” (4) In terms of character, “‘Systems man’ is more a locus of communication and energy in a reciprocal relationship with his environment than an entity exerting force and dictating linear cause-effect sequences.” (5) Systems theory “offers the novelist a contemporary model for hypothetical formulations of wholes.” (6) Systems theory provided a “a doubled or split relation to the idea of mastery, criticizing man’s attempt to master his ecosystem and yet, in its on synthetic act, ‘mastering’ various specialties in large abstractions in order to communicate beyond specialties.” 

I have quoted liberally from LeClair’s original formulations to give a sense of the way that in setting new terms for the understanding of these novels he was deviating from the ordinary modes in which we talk about novels. Part of his project was to bring fresh academic attention to DeLillo, whom he saw as neglected by scholars, and so he sought the razzle-dazzle of a theory yet to infiltrate English departments, one that brought with it fresh jargon. It turned out we could talk about these books and understand them in a way close to that which LeClair intended without resorting to this language. Novels teach you how to read them, and they teach novelists how to write more novels. I have tried to reformulate LeClair’s theses on my own in the simplest terms: (1) too much information; (2) the inescapability of science; (3) the incomprehensible scale of things; (4) the limits of any man’s perceptions; (5) the need to see things whole; (6) the impossibility of mastery even when it’s the artist’s duty. 

It could be argued that these conditions have applied to any novelist or writer of extended narratives at any time in the history of the form. Wasn’t Dickens synthesizing massive amounts of information? Didn’t Shakespeare have to consider science or cosmology? Wasn’t Nick Carraway telling a story whose historical dimensions he couldn’t entirely grasp? Didn’t Herman Melville and George Eliot aspire to put the whole world into their novels? Hasn’t total mastery eluded every writer from Homer down to Joyce and Beckett? Novels emerge from a long cyclical tradition. Since LeClair coined the term critics have recast the systems novel as a return of the encyclopedic novel or as the maximalist novel, terms of long standing that can easily be projected into the past. But the differences between these terms are useful to discern. An encyclopedia is a container of knowledge that seeks to include everything and organize it. Its mode of organization is arbitrary: the alphabet. The maximum is simply a term of scale: everything will be as big as possible. But the system will not only accommodate everything but also its movement and change. The theory comes from a biologist, and the metaphor accommodates living things, even living things moving deathward. 

JAMES AXTON, JACK GLADNEY, LEE HARVEY OSWALD, Bill Gray, Nick Shay. Blunt, stunted men not entirely aware of the circumstances that govern their lives. Husbands and lovers in familial, romantic, sexual disarray. Men buffeted by tides of history they can only strive to comprehend. These are DeLillo’s “systems men.” The name in the middle is the one we all know. The others: an international risk analyst; a professor of Hitler studies who doesn’t speak German; a famous and reclusive novelist who hasn’t published a word in decades; a waste-management executive. All of them, including Oswald, are writers of a sort, now or in the past, frustrated or fraudulent writers. As such are they mere loci “of communication and energy”? Are their relationships with their environments “reciprocal”? Are they not entities “exerting force and dictating linear cause-effect sequences”? These questions recall a conversation between William Gass and John Gardner in an interview conducted by LeClair and published in the New Republic in 1979:

Gass: A character for me is any linguistic location of a book toward which a great part of the rest of the text stands as a modifier. Just as the subject of a sentence say, is modified by the predicate, so frequently some character, Emma Bovary for instance, is regarded as a central character in the book because a lot of the language basically and ultimately goes back to modify, be about, Emma Bovary. Now the ideal book would have only one character; it would be like an absolute, idealist system. . . . 

Gardner: I obviously don’t agree with Bill on all that. It seems to me a character is an apparition in the writer’s mind, a very clear apparition based on an imaginative reconstruction or melting of many people the writer has known. The ideal book has to have more than one character, because we know a character by what he does: what he does to other people, and what they do back to him. 

DeLillo’s idea of character, particularly his narrators and protagonists, is not so far from the conventional vision espoused by Gardner: they do things and others do things back at them. And certainly, we know things about them, the way we know things about Emma Bovary. But the novels are not their predicate. Something closer to the opposite, without precise grammatical analogue, is the case. These men move through the books not fully aware of the forces operating on them, unable to comprehend the whole picture, moving by instinct and hunch, and knowing any sense of control is an illusion. They sense that they are not in the subject position. It belongs to the system itself. As Oswald put it, “I’m a patsy.”

DeLillo has said that he constructed White Noise around a “trite adultery plot,” the affair that Jack discovers at the end of the novel between his wife Babette and the man who deals her Dylar, the drug that purports to ward off the fear of death. You could say the plots of all these novels are trite. The Names: a man who does not know he’s working for the CIA becomes obsessed with a murderous cult that kills people whose initials are the same as the places where they are slain. Libra: the JFK assassination was the result of a conspiracy of rogue CIA agents gone wrong, and Oswald was a misplayed pawn. Mao II: a reclusive, blocked novelist tries to substitute himself for a Swiss poet being held hostage by terrorists in Beirut. Underworld: an array of stories tied together by characters in possession or contact with the ball hit out of the Polo Grounds by Bobby Thompson during the National League playoff series in 1951, the so-called “Shot Heard ’Round the World,” at once the most elaborate and tritest of these conceits.

Plots turned secondary, providing only comic illusions of suspense; characters’ motivations drained of significance—our attention turns both outward and inward, toward the mysteries that move these men through the world and the effects on their sense of that world and their place within it. Acquiescence, surrender, despair—these are all options, and the last may lead, under a spell of delusion, to the most extreme of actions. How does the system bring about its own disruption and how does it seek to correct it? How does it put Oswald in the book depository with the rifle and the spent shells? And how within a week does it make a corpse of him, his murder broadcast on television, another national snuff film?

AMERICAN INNOCENCE AS UNCONSCIOUS COVER for American monstrosity is the theme of The Names, a novel about emergent US imperialism. James Axton is a former freelance writer who has moved to Athens to follow his wife and son after a divorce and taken a position as a risk analyst for a corporate insurer. It will be revealed at the end that his employer, in the person of his deposed boss Rowser, is a front for the CIA. The revelation comes as an anti-climax, since the novel has shown that the workings of American multinational corporations and the American government are barely distinguishable. Collecting information on behalf of either, as Axton does dispassionately, with a resigned boredom born of too much air travel and too much hotel living, amounts to the same thing because it’s part of the same system of international financial domination. When Rowser is introduced it is as a parody of a spy, a perception Axton suppresses:

Rowser traveled under a false name. He had a total of three identities and owned the relevant paper. His office outside Washington was equipped with a letter-bomb detector, a voice-scrambler, an elaborate system to prevent break-ins. He was a man who never quite took the heavy step into foolishness and pathos, despite the indications. His life itself was the chief indication, full of the ornaments of paranoia and deception. Even his hoarse voice, a forced whisper, seemed a comic symptom of the clandestine environment. But Rowser’s massive drive, his will to see things through, overpowered everything else. 

He was a businessman. He sold insurance to other businessmen. The subjects were politics, money and force.

Rowser’s main subject is terror: “What he had was a set of interlocking facts he’d drawn from tons of research material on the cost-effectiveness of terror.” Terror here is perceived as something committed rationally that can be absorbed by the system using Axton’s risk analysis. The “foolishness and pathos” would lie in believing that there was any meaning in the disruptions terror or other political violence presented to the system beyond an inevitable statistically predictable resistance. But after Axton learns the true nature of his employment he comes to believe that the attempted murder of a friend of his, an American banker in Athens, was a case of mistaken identity: Axton was the real target. His life of expensed air travel and deluxe accommodation wasn’t so secure. 

Until this time, Axton’s more acute interests lie elsewhere: in his disintegrated family and in a series of murders being committed seemingly at random by a cult called Ta Onomata, “the Names.” His divorce signals the breakdown of an old system of living. His wife Kathryn’s work on an archaeological dig on an island in the Aegean Sea is a retreat into a more archaic world, recoverable only in fragments reclaimed with great effort. No effort will restore the marriage, which was broken by an act of adultery Axton committed almost unconsciously and without passion as if to restore risk to a life that had become too calm. When the killings of the cult brush up against the archaeological dig, the cult becomes an obsession for Axton and Kathryn, as well as Kathryn’s boss Owen, a charismatic Midwesterner from a background of tent revivals and speaking in tongues, and an acquaintance of the Axtons’ from the past, the filmmaker Frank Volterra, who made his reputation with a work about the Vietnam War protesters. 

There is something a little silly about the cult, novelistically. Their mode of killing, murdering people whose initials match the letters of place-names, is preposterous. But the irrationality is the point and so is the ambiguous role of language. Axton is fascinated by the Greek language and its alphabet but he never goes so far as to learn it. (Owen by contrast knows many languages living and dead.) As much as Axton travels to research it—to the Peloponnese, to Jordan, to Pakistan—he can never tell if the cult and its murders are some reawakening of ancient violence or a modern reaction to the new circumstances of American-imposed globalization. What would the difference be? Language and alphabets are the remnants of conquest, and the old names that go with the cults’ murders are remnants of dead empires. Owen and Frank are similarly transfixed, the one with his memories of plains mysticism, the other as a representative of a counterculture whose antagonism to the system was once without ambiguity. These variations on American unknowing, animated within a book whose tissue is DeLillo’s lyrical descriptions of the Greek landscape and points east, give the novel its power. A character refers to Europe as the “hardcover,” America as “the paperback version,” and India—not yet ushered into the regime of modernity, mass literacy, and the nascent world of computers and telexes, still governed by oral traditions—as “not even a book.” The Names glimpses these contrasts in simultaneous anachronism. It is to Axton and Kathryn’s son Tap that the future belongs. He spends most of his time imagining a lost American past, writing a historical novel about Owen’s prairie boyhood, full of misspellings.

DELILLO CAME HOME FROM GREECE, where he lived from 1978 to 1981, to write a slapstick romp about fear and death in the cosseted precincts of the homeland, which had become weirder and perhaps more stupid and unconsciously vicious, via television and consumerism, in his absence. White Noise is narrated by Jack Gladney, a sham academic who studies Hitler but can’t speak German. The joke, which everybody knows because it’s a book everybody reads, is that the world’s greatest horror, now a few decades in the past, could be tamed by the academic collation of trivia about its main instigator. The subtext that explodes literally into the text is that the placid New World built far away from the slaughterhouse of the Old World is secretly or not so secretly run by means of a system that relies on human ingenuity that is potentially lethal to humans—industrial chemicals, nuclear waste, poison at the supermarket and the pharmacy. Say hello to the airborne toxic event. 

The question when it came to adapting this novel to the screen was whether it would be a comedy, a deadpan thriller, or something weirder. Noah Baumbach delivered a period piece comedy full of incongruous if diverting homages to Steven Spielberg and other commercial cinema of the 1980s, such as National Lampoon’s Vacation. It could have been worse. I found myself imagining an adaptation made shortly after the novel was published, directed by Alan J. Pakula and shot by Gordon Willis, with Harrison Ford as Jack Gladney and Barbara Hershey as his wife Babette. This would be the deadpan thriller, The Parallax View of campus dread with jokes. (A film critic I mentioned this to objected and held that DeLillo adaptations belong in the hands of the crazed, like David Cronenberg, who adapted the claustrophobia-inducing Cosmopolis.) Instead we have the actor who played Harrison Ford’s son in the Star Wars sequels doing a tall man’s Woody Allen impression and a Babette whose performance is overshadowed by the frizz of her period hairdo. In the novel Jack says of his wife’s hair: “Her hair is a fanatical blond mop, a particular tawny hue that used to be called dirty blond. If she were a petite woman, the hair would be too cute, too mischievous and contrived. Size gives her tousled aspect a certain seriousness. Ample women do not plan such things. They lack the guile for conspiracies of the body.” “Your wife’s hair is a living wonder,” another character says. “She has important hair.” 

The hair is important: done wrong it can be a distraction. (There are a lot of distractions, largely to do with set design, a circa-2005 memory of a 1985 color palette—thank you, American Apparel.) Greta Gerwig’s stereotypical perm in White Noise is distracting, as is Adam Driver’s constant flagrant neuroticism. Yes, these are characters plagued by crippling anxieties, and that is what drives the plot and the action: how to go about everyday life, raise children, and hold a job in the face of fear and certain knowledge of death, a condition that is definitively diagnosed and its prevention or delay relentlessly marketed? Something the maker of The Squid and the Whale seems to have forgotten is that not so long ago people prided themselves on repressing their anxieties, faking their way through life. The Jack and Babette of the film seem to be paying lip service to this in their lines, but they come off like basket cases, an effect not helped by a sing-song delivery of dialogue (loaded in the adaptation with exposition displaced from the novel’s narration), as if the actors have sometimes forgotten what the words mean in an effort to keep up the screwball pace, admittedly a daunting task when the script is full of ironic aphorisms. It’s a strange thing to say of movie characters, but Jack and Babette should have been less particular, more generic, and not so generic in the sense particular to the way we remember that time. We are still living through the White Noise moment—as the rail-car explosion last winter in Palestine, Ohio, demonstrated—only a version digitized and amplified.

Critics pointed out omitted scenes and nonobvious casting choices: Murray Jay Suskind, the New York sports agent turned semiotician, was played by the African American Don Cheadle, and Suskind’s essential Jewishness was supposedly undermined (it seemed to me that Cheadle nailed the character; he was funny and more confident in his comedy than his castmates); the Most Photographed Barn in the World scene was elided (who needed to see it really?). The climactic sequences—the shootout that resolves the trite adultery plot, and its aftermath in the convent where Jack and Babette and the Dylar dealer Mink are tended to by German-speaking nuns who tell them, “It is our task to believe things no one else takes seriously. To abandon such beliefs completely, the human race would die”—are the film’s most entertaining and best executed parts. What surprised me was the omission of a later, highly cinematic scene, in which their son Wilder rides his tricycle across the interstate and reaches the other side without being hit. Afterward, Jack describes a ritual of going to an overpass with his son to behold sunsets altered by the airborne toxic event:

The spirit of these warm evenings is hard to describe. There is anticipation in the air but it is not the expectant midsummer hum of a shirtsleeve crowd, a sandlot game, with coherent precedents, a history of secure response. This waiting is introverted, uneven, almost backward and shy, tending toward silence. What else do we feel? Certainly there is awe, it is all awe, it transcends previous categories of awe, but we don’t know whether we are watching in wonder or dread, we don’t know what we are watching or what it means, we don’t know whether it is permanent, a level of experience to which we will gradually adjust, into which our uncertainty will eventually be absorbed, or just some atmospheric weirdness, soon to pass. The collapsible chairs are yanked open, the old people sit. What is there to say? The sunsets linger and so do we. The sky is under a spell, powerful and storied. Now and then a car actually crosses the overpass, moving slowly, deferentially. People keep coming up the incline, some in wheelchairs, twisted by disease, those who attend them bending low to push against the grade. I didn’t know how many handicapped and helpless people there were in town until the warm nights brought crowds to the overpass. Cars speed beneath us, coming from the west, from out of the towering light, and we watch them as if for a sign, as if they carry on their painted surfaces some residue of the sunset, a barely detectable luster or film of telltale dust. No one plays a radio or speaks in a voice that is much above a whisper. Something golden falls, a softness delivered to the air. There are people walking dogs, there are kids on bikes, a man with a camera and long lens, waiting for his moment. It is not until some time after dark has fallen, the insects screaming in the heat, that we slowly begin to disperse, shyly, politely, car after car, restored to our separate and defensible selves. 

DeLillo’s relentlessly cascading sentences, so often moving into litanies of nouns that pile up and remake each other, are often in service of this quasi-religious spirit. Baumbach’s film misplaced it, in the supermarket, with a dance number. The LCD Soundsystem song that plays, “New Body Rhumba,” is pretty good, if not quite as memorable as a hymn. 

“THE IMPORTANT THING ABOUT PARANOIA in my characters is that it operates as a form of religious awe,” DeLillo told his Paris Review interviewer, Adam Begley, in 1993. “It’s something old, a leftover from some forgotten part of the soul. And the intelligence agencies that create and service this paranoia are not interesting to me as spy handlers or masters of espionage. They represent old mysteries and fascinations. Central Intelligence. They’re like churches that hold the final secrets.” Libra is his liturgical book, a speculation that the fathers of America’s high church may have been responsible for its greatest sin. 

Libra’s premise is stated so directly and so clearly imagined—a plot by demoted anti-Castro CIA agents to stage a failed attempt on the president’s life in order to renew US efforts at regime change in Cuba, a plot that is hijacked and kills the president—that it’s a wonder it stirred up so much agitation on its publication in 1988, at a time when the agency’s image was not exactly pristine. There were denunciations from the likes of George Will and others on the right, despite the fact that the novel appeared more than a decade after Seymour M. Hersh’s reporting about the agency’s domestic spying, his revelation of its secret self-history, the so-called Family Jewels, and the subsequent Church Committee hearings. Thousands of documents about the Kennedy assassination and Lee Harvey Oswald remain classified, their absence from the public record fueling justified paranoia across the political spectrum. Almost four decades on, the meticulousness of DeLillo’s speculative novel seems the height of artistic responsibility. 

In Oswald he found another stunted man, in this case a real one with a substantial paper trail, including a historic notebook, familial correspondence, photographs, and a memoir, “The Kollective,” about his time as a defector working in a radio factory in Minsk. A real killer, a soldier, a teenage Marxist and would-be intellectual, a trespasser between systems and continents, another kid from the Bronx, Oswald is at once the world’s most well-documented formerly anonymous man and a permanent enigma. For DeLillo, his story was a ready-made into which he could pour his ideas about faith, heresy, and violence, the system pushing a resistant and confused individual toward something he could imagine was his destiny. Here’s something a fictionalized David Ferrie, the pilot who was alleged to have abetted Oswald and denied it, says to Lee a few days before the murder:

“Think of two parallel lines,” he said. “One is the life of Lee H. Oswald. One is the conspiracy to kill the President. What bridges the space between them? What makes a connection inevitable? There is a third line. It comes out of dreams, visions, intuitions, prayers, out of the deepest level of the self. It’s not generated by cause and effect like the other two lines. It’s a line that cuts across causality, cuts across time. It has no history that we can recognize or understand. But it forces a connection. It puts a man on the path of his destiny.”

The formal fascination of Libra lies in this quality: a historical novel with characters borrowed from life who speak like Jack Gladney or Murray Jay Suskind in White Noise or Owen Brademas and Frank Volterra in The Names. A novel about the crime of the century required theorists of the mystery and authors of the secret liturgy, scribes of the system’s occlusion of cause and effect or what used to be called fate. 

IN RETROSPECT Mao II reads like a staccato regrouping, a preparation for the major operations of Underworld. Here the terrorists are more in the realm of the real than Ta Onomata, hostage takers in Beirut. So is the cult, followers of Reverend Moon, from whose powerful spell one character has slipped away. The novel’s structure is buttressed by three set pieces: a mass wedding of Moonies at Yankee Stadium; the funeral march for the Ayatollah Khomeini seen on television; and civil-war-era Beirut seen at night through the eyes of a photographer, who glimpses another wedding party. In between these spectacles is the story of Bill Gray, a reclusive author long publicly silent who has consented to have his photograph taken. 

Next to geopolitics and international finance, global terrorism and presidential assassination, environmental disaster and even academicized neutering of historical horrors, the system of literary publicity is small beans. But DeLillo makes use of the metaphor in two crucial ways: the predicament of the author as the object of devotional admiration that threatens to mutate into fanatical violence, the reader behind the bush with a camera who might be carrying a pistol; and the usurpation of the novelist’s role in guiding the dream life of the society by the terrorist. Mao II is the most distilled of DeLillo’s novels because Bill Gray’s status as a famous novelist—not some frustrated ex-freelancer, shambolic careerist academic, agency apparatchik, or scribbling psycho—allows him to aphorize at will and with authority:

There’s a curious knot that binds novelists and terrorists. In the West we become famous effigies as our books lose the power to shape and influence. Do you ask your writers how they feel about this? Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture. Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness. What writers used to do before we were all incorporated.

The passage is justly famous, if often attributed to DeLillo himself rather than a character he imagined. The pathos is in the word “incorporated,” a despair that under capitalism literature has lost its power because the market has subsumed it. The foolishness that follows is Bill’s attempt to undertake a hostage-rescue operation of his own devising, and to reclaim the terrorists’ power by becoming their prisoner. He is escaping his own hostage situation: life in the woods with his fan and keeper Scott, a presence more malevolent than a would-be assassin, and the truest villain in the entire DeLillo corpus, a living writer’s executor and obstructor. The fate of the writer: increasingly irrelevant yet more and more captive to his own fame and its exploiters. Uncharacteristically for DeLillo, the book is humorless for long stretches, until a hilarious scene near the end when Bill describes recent injuries he has suffered to a group of veterinarians at a bar. He lies and tells them he’s trying to figure out what to do with one of his characters. They advise him to call his character an ambulance and he suggests putting him on a sea voyage, a ferry he intends to take himself to meet the hostage takers in Beirut. One of them responds: “Completely and totally implausible.” The plot leads to its author’s death.

NO OBJECT IS MORE AMERICAN than a baseball, not even an atomic bomb. In Underworld DeLillo hit on a concept that he could follow from the Polo Grounds, Harlem, and the Bronx in 1951 out to the deserts of Arizona and the barren zones of Kazakhstan. A novel including shit, perhaps too much of it. The theme of waste, a ubiquitous phenomenon concealed wherever possible as soon as possible, allows for a panorama. This book could really do the whole thing, and its superstructure tames the many melodramas within. And so much sex. “Who goes to bed with what / is unimportant,” wrote Ashbery. “Feelings are important.” The astonishing thing about Underworld is less its “range and sweep,” in DeLillo’s words—historical and geographic expanse was the plan all along—but the depth and breadth of feeling it accommodates. The novel is a catalogue of longings, frustrations, regrets, rages, and desperations. Paranoia and systems, words that occur dozens of times across 827 pages, are addressed explicitly, as DeLillo enters into dialogue with his great critic LeClair. Afterward he would retreat into relatively miniature contemplations of art, language, war, mortality, and, yes, terror—9/11 beckoned him to write Falling Man (2005)—but the brilliance of the late novels only emphasized their self-conscious fragmentary qualities. He had already done the whole thing. 

Christian Lorentzen is a critic currently residing in Albania. He is grateful for a grant from the Robert B. Silvers Foundation in support of this essay.