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Introduction: From Valparaiso to Jerusalem: DeLillo and the Moment of Canonization

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 45, Number 3, Fall 1999
pp. 559-568 | 10.1353/mfs.1999.0049

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Modern Fiction Studies 45.3 (1999) 559-568

The title of this special issue of Modern Fiction Studies, "DeLillo II," speaks, I hope, in various ironic registers. Since this is not the first special issue of a journal devoted to Don DeLillo, it cannot hope to introduce him. The essays here, in one sense, stand like the faux Warhols on the cover as yet another instance of serial replication. Yet in another sense, "DeLillo II" is meant to underscore what is new, a difference from earlier work on DeLillo, both in these essays' varied approaches and in their several considerations of his two novels published in the 1990s. The issue's cover, an open homage to the dust jacket of Mao II, may serve to acknowledge this issue's implication in the very construction of celebrity that DeLillo, with much suspicion, has examined. In DeLillo's case, this construction is ongoing and becoming fully institutionalized: the processes of canonization are in play.

In his most recent work, the two-act play Valparaiso, DeLillo returns once again to the fetishization and commodification of celebrity. But while the rock star Bucky Wonderlick in Great Jones Street and the novelist Bill Gray in Mao II seek to escape their celebrity by going underground -- attempts that only add unintentionally to their personal auras -- Michael Majeski, the play's Everyman, embraces his media fame. Michael, who has no talents that would traditionally constitute celebrity, points to a world in which Andy Warhol's famous pronouncement regarding everyone's fifteen minutes of fame should perhaps be revised to read "several hours of fame." Having on a business trip to Valparaiso, Indiana, ended up instead in Valparaiso, Chile, Michael finds himself on his return to the United States subject to countless interviews examining his mistake. He becomes the world's most famous human-interest story. Despite DeLillo's contemporary subject matter, the play evokes certain conventions of Greek theater through its minimalist setting and use of a chorus.

The second act takes place on an Oprah Winfrey-style talk show, where intimate details of the Majeskis' life (Livia's extramarital affair, Michael's alcohol-induced car accident that seriously injures their son) are offered up for viewers' consumption. The dialogue acidly points to the illogic that millions of television viewers experience their intensely mediated experience with such talk show hosts as personal and intimate. The host, Delphinia Treadwell, depends upon an ability to draw her aura from her guests' confessions, which in the Majeskis' case are typical talk show fare. But Delphinia is much more than a vehicle for satirizing the talk show genre and host. In this allegorical play, the host encodes her audience's urge for spiritual renewal in a world of heavy media saturation. Complaining that she feels "undifferentiated" when not in front of the television cameras, Michael asks what she does in her "private moments." She responds:

These are my private moments. This is the time I set aside in which to be myself. The studio audience restores my life force. The thing I've misplaced during the night. I feel private here. You have to understand. I live in a box in a state of endless replication. I speak to intimate millions. One of me for each of them. It's the only way to have a conversation. I'm like a primitive painted doll. (DeLillo, Valparaiso 94)

And this talismanic doll, as her sidekick, Teddy rejoins, is "undersized but powerful." In this regard, Delphinia is a metonymy for the specious aura that wants to contain the spiritual yearnings of the television audience. The world of the television talk show is represented as Michel Foucault's panopticon writ large, revealing a carceral society (ironically experienced as fully liberated) where our ability to find instant gratification through image consumption demands only that we not be alienated.

Delphinia urges Michael to reveal his innermost self, to melt into the camera and merge with her to reveal all to the audience, an audience that needs to know. And so Michael submits to her demand and reveals that his mistaken flight to Valparaiso is less accidental than had been suspected. He details his confrontation with this...


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