restricted access American Magic and Dread: Don DeLillo's Dialogue with Culture (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 48.3 (2002) 763-765

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Book Review

American Magic and Dread:
Don DeLillo's Dialogue with Culture

Mark Osteen. American Magic and Dread: Don DeLillo's Dialogue with Culture. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2000. 299 pp.

Mark Osteen's latest book offers an excellent overview of Don DeLillo's novelistic career and deserves a careful reading by anyone interested in DeLillo. Ranging from DeLillo's early Americana (1971) to Underworld [End Page 763] (1997), Osteen crafts his argument around the persistence of variations on DeLillo's own terms of "magic" and "dread" and deftly traces through DeLillo's career the evolution of the forms of magic that he deploys against the continuance of dread; thus American Magic and Dread offers a counterweight to those who might identify DeLillo as an apologist for postmodern drift.

If it is a perverse mark of veneration and distinction in American literary circles to be sneered at in a high profile venue, then it can be fairly said that Don DeLillo has arrived and Mark Osteen's critical practice has, in a sense, helped. In a recent Atlantic Monthly piece (July/August 2001) DeLillo figures prominently (along with Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, and Toni Morrison among others) in what is billed as "an impassioned attack on the pretentiousness of American literary prose." In DeLillo's case, the writer specifically attacks his "spurious profundity," "catchall vagueness" and "trite and diffuse prose." Alas, critic Mark Osteen comes in for his share of ridicule for his introduction to an edition of White Noise and for having the effrontery to praise DeLillo generally.

Is there anything of importance, anything at all besides sheer pique, behind this level of scorn? The answer, perhaps, is in the superficial understanding even some well-read critics have about writers often called postmodern; the Atlantic writer seems to find DeLillo's "literary prose" philosophically shallow and banal, his style pretentious, and his work in general a specimen of self-indulgent postmodern suspicion, a form of doubt leaving us with nothing but a radical skepticism that is finally only a poorly written and empty play of words. It is with relief that one turns from this sort of bombast to Osteen's book because Osteen makes clear through detailed readings of DeLillo's novels the simplistic and simply misleading nature of such a charge; instead of elucidating postmodern drift, he carefully outlines how DeLillo's characters seek "forms of magic [. . .] that they hope will help them rediscover sacredness and community."

By magic Osteen means the many and varied practices DeLillo's characters and the author himself use to evade, subvert, or deny the dread of diffuse authority structures in contemporary capitalist cultures that oppress the individual. Osteen claims DeLillo's dialogue with contemporary cultural institutions works necessarily from within those institutions [End Page 764] and respects their power but criticizes their dangerous consequences, specifically their "dehumanizing potential." For example, Osteen sees that Great Jones Street (1973) stages a drama of commodification and the consumer economy generally; but ultimately the novel resists commodification through its own structure; Ratner's Star (1976) resists dread by making us aware that "reality is a function of our representations, and that both are constantly reshaped by observation"; Running Dog's (1978) examination of film and the society of the spectacle ultimately "enable us to imagine ourselves as other, to be free from our daily obsessions, and even, perhaps, to recapture the mystery that transfigures dread into magic"; Players (1977) and Libra (1988) (as well as Underworld) depict dread as a totalizing system of secrecy that infects not only public life but also the very foundations of subjectivity; yet Osteen claims they examine the place of the sacred within this realm of simulacra.

Osteen's chapter on White Noise (1985) is perhaps the best example of his thesis, since there he finds DeLillo's fiction "is an act of faith" in "the power of fiction itself [. . .] to question our own beliefs, satisfactions, and desires, to perceive the radiance in dailiness but...