- The Delillo Dilemma
The novel is revolutionary, not only in its style but in its very appearance. Its frontispiece is an image of a block of marble, or is it a lily pond? And after that it only gets worse: pages filled entirely with asterisks, or entirely with nothing; plot digressions that ultimately are the plot; a narrator who intrudes continually and to no apparent purpose. It befuddles critics so thoroughly that they are reduced to invective, saying of it "nothing odd will do long," (Samuel Johnson) that it is "an impure presence," (William Thackeray) and an "irresponsible (and nasty) trifling" (F. R. Leavis) (Boswell 696; Howes 27; Ross x). The work's structure, style, dynamics, thematics—to say nothing of its punctuation—simply don't fit into the usual categories. The novel is, of course, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, often called postmodern even though it was first published in 1759, well before there was any modernism to be post. Like, that is, other "postmodern" works such as The Satyricon (61 AD), or Tale of Genji (1000 AD), or Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532).
In other words, the "post" of postmodernism is, to say the least, an inconvenient if not meaningless prefix, and the overall term's definitions are as varied as its examples. Certainly some postmodern works seem to be antirealist, others to be modernism on steroids, and [End Page 584] others focused on the cultural dynamics of late capitalism. A critic's choice of which of these attributes to use as the reason to label a work as postmodern seems most dependent on their critical approach: new criticism, poststructuralism, or Marxism, take your pick.
Is Don DeLillo postmodern? Since his early works, critics have tried to read DeLillo, in his concerns about individual freedom of action as well as his stylistic independence, as either exemplary of American literary traditions, or conversely as a radical postmodernist. Neither placement seems quite right, as clearly DeLillo's work is too stylistically innovative and thematically sophisticated to be comfortable among the vast majority of mainstream American fiction, even American modernist fiction; yet it is too stark, streamlined, and more often than not primarily concerned with American landscapes—urban as well as suburban—to be quite typically postmodern. Thus DeLillo fits uneasily into postmodernism, the way Ernest Hemingway seems unconvincingly jammed into modernism, neither quite the exemplar of their respective categories. Certainly DeLillo doesn't look like Robert Coover, Donald Barthleme, Italo Calvino, or John Barth, any more than Hemingway remotely resembles Gertrude Stein or William Faulkner. In attempts to outflank this categorical conundrum, contemporary critics often read DeLillo through one critical prism or another, applying a single organizing thematic focus in addition to, or substitution for, postmodernism in their struggle with an oeuvre that stubbornly resists tidy unification.
Both of the books under discussion use such central organizing principles for their analyses of DeLillo's entire production to date. Such a comprehensive project is a daunting task, and both Peter Boxall and David Cowart bring immense erudition, sophistication, and impressive referential breadth to their works. However, in both cases it is this very overarching thematic that sometimes obscures and at other times warps their readings of DeLillo's works.
The frontispiece of Boxall's book declares that his goal is to ask of DeLillo "how far his writing can be thought of as an enactment of the possibilities of literary fiction." Such a formulation of the relationship between possibility and fiction is one of the two major problems I have with the thematics of this book. While it is true that in DeLillo, "[t]he writer . . . is under threat . . . from new forms of mass communication" it does not follow that "his writing charts the disappearance of critical fiction" (x). Boxall suggests that in DeLillo, as in Samuel Beckett before him, what is called postmodern is a response to the end of the possibilities of traditional literary fiction. More specifically, Boxall's definition of the...