Fiction rescues history from its confusions. It provides the balance and rhythm we don’t experience in our daily lives, in our real lives. So the novel which is within history can also operate outside it—correcting, clearing up and, perhaps most important of all, finding rhythms and symmetries that we simply don’t encounter elsewhere.—Don DeLillo qtd. in DeCurtis
Don DeLillo’s often stated assertion that he writes in opposition to the culture he depicts raises a critical conundrum that typifies his fiction and is endemic to postmodern fiction generally. That is, DeLillo’s work raises the question: is it possible for a writer to produce fictions that are not in turn absorbed by the cultural forces out of which they are made? Critics have consistently identified DeLillo’s remarkable ability to construct in his novels conflicting narratives [End Page 696] inflected through varying representations of media (music, radio, film, photography, television, video). To many readers, however, DeLillo’s almost uncanny ability to recreate in his narratives the ontological instability that characterizes postmodernism is incompatible with the aims of fiction. John Johnston says of Libra that it communicates “an essentially unrepresentable multiplicity whose every manifestation is entangled with conflicting versions and contaminated physical evidence” (321). Glen Thomas suggests that in DeLillo’s work “information refuses to coalesce and remains stubbornly fragmentary” (109). Speaking of Mao II, another critic observes that “one misses” in reading this novel “an old-fashioned novelistic virtue, the attempt to communicate the distinctive accents of a culture” (Scanlan 246). 1 The irony that critics repeatedly face is that DeLillo’s ability to deconstruct “old-fashioned novelistic virtues” is in large part what enables his work to capture the distinctive accents of postmodern culture.
DeLillo’s readers thus find themselves in a critical bind. On the one hand, they delight in the virtuosity of his multimedia mimicry—his ability to transmit a range of media forms through his narratives seriatim. That the very success of his narrative mimicry leads readers to worry that he is an impersonator co-opted by the narrative forms that he replays suggests how difficult it is for DeLillo to succeed in being both innovative and in control of his fiction. 2 Confronted with a demanding and difficult writer like DeLillo, critics have understandably called upon influential postmodern theorists—Jean Baudrillard, Paul de Man, Gilles Deleuze, Linda Hutcheon, Fredric Jameson, and Hayden White—to provide a vocabulary for addressing the intellectual problems raised by DeLillo’s fiction. 3 Precisely because DeLillo’s fiction is concerned with imagining how conflicting postmodern practices collide, it resists the coherence that theory demands. Trying to account for Miguel de Cervantes’s accomplishment in Don Quixote, Jorge Luis Borges asserted that “every novel is an ideal plane inserted into the realm of reality” (194). This idea led Borges to ask, “Why does it disturb us that Don Quixote be a reader of Quixote and Hamlet a spectator of Hamlet?” and to answer that “these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers, or spectators, can be fictitious” (196). Whereas Borges is describing a culture that reads print texts and watches live performances, DeLillo is writing for a culture that watches and makes [End Page 697] recordings. Television, movies, and cameras comprise the media through which we know ourselves.
If everyone is both watcher and participant—as the omnipresence of the Zapruder film in DeLillo’s fiction suggests—then the philosophical dilemma Borges identified with Cervantes has become everyday currency in a way that Cervantes could never have imagined. Watching the Zapruder film, Klara Sax wonders at how “it carried a kind of inner life, something unconnected to the things we call phenomena” (DeLillo, Underworld 495). Its “footage seemed to advance some argument about the nature of film itself” (496). From Klara’s perspective, the film is not about what Oswald intended on that day or who may have manipulated him. The shooter’s mind is less important than the mind shooting it, which, for DeLillo, is the viewer watching...