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Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street and the Science of Mind

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 55, Number 2, Summer 2009
pp. 349-368 | 10.1353/mfs.0.1608

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Don DeLillo's Great Jones Street and the Science of Mind

Scientists are Adams of a new Eden. As emerging technologies have uncovered the unimaginable complexity of the natural world, scientists have remade the lexicon, supplementing the semantic fuzziness of natural language with the clarity of their own specialist vocabulary. David Crystal estimated at the millennium that "scientific nomenclature" now comprises "most of the English vocabulary" (372), and this reformulation of language inevitably requires a reformulation of the codes and premises of fiction. Among novelists, Don DeLillo has been especially sensitive to the way science has redefined the concrete realities of contemporary life. As scientists named their newly-discovered world, DeLillo explained to Tom LeClair that he had found in science "a new language to draw from." But while DeLillo discovered "a source of new names" in scientific language, beyond new nouns he also found a new understanding of the neurophysiological basis of the self as science remapped "connections between people and the world" ("Interview" 84). Yet because traditionally-minded literary critics—overly reliant on the broad, hopeful intuitions of what philosophers call "folk psychology" (Hogan 32)1—have tended to miss the way that science informs character motivation in DeLillo's novels, many readers have underestimated the complexity of both his characterization and of some of the novels themselves.

The reputation of DeLillo's third novel—Great Jones Street—has particularly suffered because readers have overlooked its careful [End Page 349] incorporation of scientific sources. Even as a kind of critical industry has emerged around DeLillo's fiction in the last ten years, his third book has been relatively neglected by critics. Rigorously compiled bibliographies show that the novel has been less studied than almost all of DeLillo's other writing, and its critical status currently rests on the same level as works that are surely more marginal, such as Amazons and The Day Room.2 The critical neglect of Great Jones Street is not, however, a recent phenomenon—in fact, in a remarkable overlap of critical phrasing, even the earliest scholars to write on DeLillo's developing canon classified it as his "least impressive" novel (Oriad 15; Nadeau 168). Yet, in spite of these gloomy estimates, excavating how DeLillo calibrated his novel to both read and reflect recent scientific research suggests that Great Jones Street occupies a more significant position than it is usually accorded in terms of DeLillo's development as a writer.

Intertexts: How the Mind Works in Great Jones Street

"How do minds work?" Charles Maitland asks in The Names. "What does the latest research show?" (98). "Isn't it all a question of brain chemistry?" Heinrich Gladney responds in DeLillo's next book, White Noise: "signals going back and forth, electrical energy in the cortex" (45). As these two quotations suggest, the question of how the mind works, and its connection to neurophysiological structures, is a persistent obsession in DeLillo's fiction that extends through to Falling Man's references to "basic brain function" (211). But while few critics have noted DeLillo's fascination with the brain,3 the science of mind emerges for the first time in Great Jones Street as a way of outlining a calculus of human behavior. In this book, DeLillo makes his knowledge of localization theory—specifically the well-known language areas discovered by Broca and Wernicke in the nineteenth century—explicit when he specifies that the drug at the center of the novel only acts on "the left sector of the brain. Language sector" (Great 255). But the importance of the brain to Great Jones Street is fundamental, rather than simply topical—and rather than just providing plot details, it subtly underwrites the book's psychological investigations, literary strategies, and overall architecture. To appreciate how neuroscientific research controls and shapes this novel, however, it's necessary to identify some of the scientific intertexts that enrich the texture of DeLillo's novel.

Establishing the boundaries of DeLillo's knowledge of the science of mind with any precision is difficult, but the progress being made by neuroanatomists and neuropsychologists was widely reported in the late sixties and early seventies. Neuroimaging techniques (CAT [End Page 350] and...