By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Although I myself have been known to call DeLillo overrated (while reading every single one of his novels), Wood’s and Kirn’s reviews crackle with so much casual violence that I kept wishing I could say that Cosmopolisis a good book. It’s not. DeLillo’s books have always come in two kinds, full-cream or nonfat (he’s got Pynchon whispering in one ear, Beckett in the other), and this new one has been so skimmed of recognizable human feeling that its characters feel freeze-dried. Even its fund-manager protagonist is merely a pretext for DeLillo’s metaphors for the soul-killing power of money in the digital era. The novel doesn’t have a tenth the life of John Lanchester’s tenderly funny Mr. Phillips, another book about a single day, much less the teeming Ulysses.
But even if Cosmopolisis a failure, so what? Most good writers have duff books on their résumés, yet what we finally love (and judge) them for is their best work. In DeLillo’s case, that’s probably Americana, the book that announced his enormous talent, the first two-thirds of The Names(before it became Heart of Darknesswith no Mistuh Kurtz), his masterpiece White Noise, which spoofs and anatomizes our wised-up culture’s desperate attempts at meaning, and the ravishing 100 or so pages about his Bronx childhood in Underworld, the freest and most heartfelt writing he’s ever done. At his finest, DeLillo is a wizard who can invent an imaginary Lenny Bruce monologue, evoke an Athenian street with a few breathtaking strokes, or theorize about car-crash movies with such brio that he could land a movie-critic job at any publication in America. And he does all this within an absolutely distinctive sensibility: Say “DeLillo” and you call up an entire vision of the universe.
Jerzy Kosinski once noted that the difference between European culture and American culture was that we have no memory or respect for writers’ past achievements. In Europe, he said, a writer like Fitzgerald could’ve dined out for the rest of his life for having authored The Great Gatsby. Here, the attitude is, “Sure, the guy wrote one great book, but what did he do after that? Turned into a drunk.”
While Kosinski was doubtless romanticizing the Europe he fled (a few years ago, Der Spiegelran a cover photo of a literary critic ripping up a new Günter Grass novel), he was surely right about America, which more and more treats its writers like show-biz figures who are no better than their last project or as celebrities we enjoy seeing get theirs.
That’s why I find myself welcoming the first issue of the new literary magazine The Believer, which offers itself as a determinedly optimistic alternative to cheaply nasty (or “snarky”) book-review politics and small-magazine demolition jobs. As its opening statement pointedly declares, “We will focus on writers and books we like. We will give people and books the benefit of the doubt.”
The Believeris the latest self-consciously adorable offspring of the McSweeney’s empire, whose leader, Dave Eggers, has an obvious knack for marketing his trademark blend of the earnest and the cute. While I’m old enough to be driven nuts by the McSweeney’s crew’s belief that you demonstrate your sincerity by constantly announcing it — I can just imagine DeLillo filleting such an idea in a novel — I’m willing to give a break to any magazine whose opening number boasts a cover by Charles Burns, a family tree of Magical Realism (albeit one that omits Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo), a shrewd piece on the Bay Area’s self-defeating culture of protest, and, above all, Ed Park’s celebration of my favorite living American writer, Charles Portis, whose great comic novel The Dog of the Southestablished him as our homegrown Gogol. The Believeris wildly uneven, but in a world of superspreaders, its affection for writing and writers is one thing I wouldn’t mind catching on fast.
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