restricted access Beyond Grief and Nothing: A Reading of Don DeLillo (review)
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Reviewed by
Joseph Dewey. Beyond Grief and Nothing: A Reading of Don DeLillo. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 2006. vii + 172 pp.

At seventy, Don DeLillo has produced fourteen novels, seven plays, a dozen uncollected short stories and nearly as many essays. During the second-half of his four-decade career—writing that shows no sign of diminishing—he has garnered significant accolades including the 1985 National Book Award for White Noise, the 1991 PEN/Faulkner Award for Mao II, and the 2000 William Dean Howells Medal for Underworld (presented every five years by the American Academy of Arts and Letters for the "most distinguished work in American fiction"). Most notably, in 1999, DeLillo was awarded the Jerusalem Prize, presented biennially to a writer of international stature whose work celebrates the dignity and freedom of the individual. DeLillo was the first American to win the award, which has previously been awarded to a number of Nobel laureates. Yet even prior to his rise to critical, and to a lesser degree, popular acclaim, DeLillo, as Joseph Dewey notes, "is that rare literary figure, massively productive yet [End Page 891] without requiring critical apology." DeLillo "never produced a shoddy text"; "never, novel to novel, resorted to formula, to repetition" "never pandered to public interests in the hope of a best-seller or film contract" (3–5).

It is a heady and welcome undertaking then, to present a suasive reading of all of DeLillo in one slender volume, as Dewey has accomplished in this book. Dewey's introduction clearly stakes out his analytical niche in the voluminous arena of DeLillo studies. ("With the exception of Pynchon, no living writer has generated such an accumulation of explication" [4]). In contrast to the "uneven" treatment of the DeLillo canon—heavily weighted, that is, to his midcareer novels—White Noise (1984), Libra (1988), Mao II (1991), and Underworld (1997)—Dewey's study is "rigorous[ly] egalitaria[n]." He reads DeLillo teleologically, charting "a workable trajectory, a viable arc of evolution" (5) from "his earliest stories to his most recent work" (through Love Lies Bleeding [2005]) (4). Indeed, one of the most rewarding elements of Dewey's book is his weaving DeLillo's uncollected short stories and plays—which have yet attracted precious little critical attention—into his chronological study, fluently illuminating them alongside and in relation to the better-known novels of the same or preceding years. Dewey moreover distinguishes his analysis from other recent single-book studies of DeLillo—by Tom LeClair, David Cowart, and Mark Osteen—that "address DeLillo at a rarified level of theoretical argument that can intimidate a reader first approaching DeLillo." Although such analyses "surely await" such an "intrigued but unfamiliar" reader (in fact, Dewey references these critics throughout), Beyond Grief and Nothing is an eloquent introduction to DeLillo. Dewey's are essentially keen—and beautifully written—close readings of DeLillo: often creative and illuminating; occasionally, lucid plot summaries. His book is thus aimed at "a new generation of serious readers" whom DeLillo "is beginning to reach" (4–5).

Coming to Dewey's book on the heels of two public events devoted to DeLillo—his first interview following the May 15, 2007 publication of Falling Man, his novel about 9/11; and a Don DeLillo Society-sponsored panel at the May 2007 American Literature Association Conference in Boston—I concur: Dewey's book is timely for an upcoming body of readers. The thoughtful and intelligent questions following the sold-out New York Times Magazine interview were nearly all from readers less than half DeLillo's age. The second, exceptionally well-attended panel featured emerging scholars' innovative critiques of largely unread DeLillo texts, from his second novel, End Zone, to archived manuscripts of White Noise.

Dewey organizes his book into three chronological, subdivided Parts according to "the three strategies for restoring the self to authenticity [End Page 892] that DeLillo has tested" (8). Dewey takes his title from the 1960 film Breathless, directed by Jean-Luc Godard, whom DeLillo has severally named as a significant influence on his artistic sensibility as a budding writer. Michel, the endlessly "self-ironic gangster" beset by ennui, revisits the quote from William Faulkner...