By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Illustration by Peter Bennett
In a memorable passage in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera observed that over the previous two centuries the European blackbird had abandoned the woods and begun inhabiting cities. This invasion of the human world, he concluded, was a profound planetary change, reminding us that history doesn’t simply belong to men.
His words came back to me when I first heard about SARS, the aggressive pneumonia that evidently began with some birds in provincial China and is now killing people as far away as Toronto. Here was the kind of potential pandemic that would normally send our media into a fear-mongering fiesta, and if the incessant Iraq coverage had no other value, it spared us the predictable onslaught of alarmist reports (“SARS in the Southland. Is it safe to leave the house?”) and unsettling flashbacks to 1918, when the Spanish influenza wiped out 20 million people (!) — more than were killed in World War I. Viruses, too, have a history.
Although the SARS outbreak now seems to have been checked, the paranoia lives on. Airlines keep canceling flights to Asia. The press tells tales of “superspreader” Esther Mok, who passed the virus to over 100 people in Singapore. Newscasts beam eerie images from Hong Kong, where tens of thousands of pedestrians walk the streets in surgical masks, as if they’ve just stepped from the pages of a lost book by Don DeLillo.
By sheer coincidence, DeLillo is himself currently in the news for his slim novel Cosmopolis, sort of a miniaturized Ulysses that, set over a single day, charts a solipsistic billionaire’s ride across Manhattan in his white stretch limo (wherein he gets, among other things, a prostate exam). The book’s shockingly harsh reception demonstrates that, just like blackbirds and viruses, literary reputations have their own histories and ecologies.
DeLillo, of course, spent most of the last two decades being hailed as a literary titan, a seer of postmodern America’s aluminum-bright skies and gloomy, CIA-run underworlds. He won prestigious awards, garnered rapturous reviews, even achieved the odd best-seller; awestruck writers spoke of his sentences the way Man Show viewers do Jennifer Lopez’s rump. Supremely ambitious and clever as hell, his books shimmered with dazzling riffs on the blips and big bangs of corporate techno-culture. His gift for Metaphysical Pop made him into something of a literary superspreader, whose influence is obvious in the fiction of Jonathan Franzen, Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace and many, many others.
Although no writer came closer to scripting 9/11 than DeLillo, ironically enough, none has been more damaged by its fallout. Shortly after the attacks on the twin towers, he wrote a widely disparaged piece for Harper’s that not only failed in its guru function (he proved no wiser about terrorism than the rest of us) but featured a waxed-mummy prose that let no humanity show through; he seemed embalmed in his style. Suddenly, you heard people pointing out his books’ limitations, grumbling that even his characters’ dialogue sounds exactly like, well, Don DeLillo. Just as the world was realizing his ideas about “The Age of Terror,” his perpetual air of chilly, precise detachment cut him off from the national mood; he began to seem like the voice of an earlier historical moment.
Now comes Cosmopolis, which has been greeted with bad, even contemptuous, notices. Naturally, not everybody has been disrespectful. One of my favorite critics, John Leonard, simply ducked the question of the novel’s quality in Harper’s, while over at The New Yorker, literary politician John Updike pulled one of his slyest maneuvers — playing the generous grandee with a rival’s lesser work. Still, when it came to the reviews that everyone would talk about, things were brutal.
The book got pilloried by the New Republic’s superb, unsparing James Wood, who’s perhaps a wee bit vain about being the Last Serious Critic. Back in 1997, Wood wrote the definitive review of Underworld, a piece admirable for its nuanced assessment of DeLillo’s strengths and limitations. In fact, that essay was so fine that his decision to vivisect a minor novel like Cosmopolis feels not just superfluous but inquisitorial. This time, Wood neatly reveals the chinks in what always seemed unassailable about DeLillo, those shiny metallic sentences, yet the overall effect is less illuminating than churlish — like pointing out patches of cellulite on an ex–beauty queen’s thighs as she leaves the maternity ward.
The review was even harsher in The New York Times Book Review, which periodically rouses itself from its torpid, institutional politesse and leads a sacred cow to the abattoir: It’s the editors’ way of kidding themselves that they’re engaged in lively cultural debate. Last year, Colson Whitehead creamed Richard Ford. This year the NYTBRassigned Cosmopolisto Walter Kirn, whose earlier pan of Underworldmade it clear he thought DeLillo a fraud and a bum. And guess what? He still does. Here he mocks DeLillo’s “fossilized academic futurism” and, in a generational gibe, suggests that he lost touch with reality in 1968. Not irrelevantly, Kirn is himself a novelist — indeed, his most recent book, Up in the Air, is fairly dripping with DeLillo’s DNA — and he sounds like a kid who wants his old man to step aside so he can run the family business.