- Don DeLillo: The Physics of Language
In his latest book, David Cowart offers a comprehensive analysis of the works of Don DeLillo, a writer whom Cowart considers to be a post-modern master. Cowart's book "focuses on DeLillo's career-long exploration of language as cultural index" (2), and in a series of illuminating chapters, reveals the intricacies of language and its relation to an image-saturated American culture that DeLillo examines in each of his fictions.
According to Cowart, DeLillo sets himself apart from postmodern writers. In contradistinction to authors who embrace poststructuralist notions of language and view it as a "system of signifiers that refer only to other signifiers in infinite regression," Cowart sees DeLillo as one who fully acknowledges the circularity of language but who also "affirms something numinous in its properties" (5). This accounts for DeLillo's interest in naive linguistic constructions or the speech patterns of children who are acquiring language. It may also account for the title of Cowart's book.
"The physics of language" is a phrase taken from DeLillo's magisterial novel, Underworld. Overall, it relates to Cowart's contention that DeLillo's novels replicate the very power of language to convey the noumenal. In this regard, Cowart distances himself from approaches of fellow DeLillo critics such as John Johnston and Glen Scott Allen, who see DeLillo as a creator of memorable images or as one who refuses to "surrender romantic and modernist constructions of the self (5). For Cowart, DeLillo's art rests upon his willingness to let language be. For example, the many celebrated instances in DeLillo's novels in which he presents a list or catalogue of verbless nouns does more than express "a nostalgia for lost cultural wholeness" (164). Instead, Cowart sees in such instances examples of Derrida's notion of presence under erasure and Wittgenstein's description of the elliptical or degenerative sentence. The implication here is that DeLillo's words may be viewed as subatomic particles the effects of which are well known and felt yet which remain forever beyond the grasp of exact measurement and description. Language in DeLillo, argues Cowart, becomes not so much a prison house as a means of redemption for those who play with it. What DeLillo does, in varying degrees, in each of his works is provide us with a type of ludic vision, one in which [End Page 204] we can experience what Cowart calls "intimations of essentiality" (180).
Cowart shows tremendous scope in his interpretations of DeLillo's novels, drawing upon not only Anglophone, but also French, German, and Italian critics and theorists. In doing so, he provides readers with the most comprehensive examination of works by and about DeLillo to date. Deftly placing him within the Anglo-American tradition, Cowart draws parallels between DeLillo's novels and works by writers such as Conrad, Frost, Hemingway, Eliot, Joyce, Whitman, and, of course, Pynchon. In making such comparisons, Cowart reminds us just how steeped in the tradition of English-language literature DeLillo's texts are.
To grapple with the corpus of DeLillo's works, Cowart makes a bold choice in dividing them into three categories. The first he describes as the "more tentative early novels" (6), which include End Zone, Great Jones Street, Players, and Running Dog. The second category, which Cowart describes as "superb fictions," consists of White Noise, Libra, and Mao II. Finally, there is the third category of novels in which DeLillo's "achievement is greatest" (7). These are the novels Americana, Ratner's Star, The Names, Underworld, and The Body Artist. Cowart's categorization signals that DeLillo has achieved literary greatness throughout his writing career; one of his best novels is his first. It is refreshing to see a critic avoid the usual schematization that shows how a novelist improves steadily over the years as a writer.
Cowart offers his readers some interesting and thoughtful interpretations of the twelve novels DeLillo has written. In his reading of End Zone, for example, he accepts DeLillo's open invitation to draw parallels between the...