Thursday, August 5, 2010

DeLillo’s Americana: A Pre-DFW David Foster Wallace Novel

Don DeLillo's debut novel Americana seems like one of those novels whose influence cannot be overestimated. When it was released in 1971, high-caliber writers must have been driven to awe and despair. Here John Updike encountered a writer who wrote as pretty as he did but who had something more than sex on his mind (which, admittedly, sometimes just meant that the sex scenes weren’t as well done). One can imagine Joseph Heller, four years away from publishing another masterpiece, wringing his hands at the first third of the novel--the satire of DeLillo’s depiction of a white-collar community--which is just as incisive as Something Happened and accomplished in about a fifth of the pages.

A lot of top-flight contemporary novelists seem to have been taken with the novel and its influence on their work is evident. Consider:
--The blending of family life with larger societal themes is territory Jonathan Franzen’s mined for his whole career.
--The passage in which bystanders are performing for a camera wielded by the narrator (“They all smiled and waved . . . Maybe they sensed that they were waving at themselves . . . there they stand, verified, in chemical reincarnation, waving at their own old age . . .” [Americana, 254 (All citations will refer to the 1989 Penguin Books edition)]) reads like a summary of the idea propelling Richard Powers’s first novel, and Americana’s prevailing theme of how images and technology shape our perception of ourselves is a major preoccupation of Powers (see Galatea 2.2, Plowing the Dark, right up to Generosity).
--Joshua Ferris’s cribbing of the first sentence (“Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year”) for the title of his first novel.

And then there’s David Foster Wallace. DFW was clearly a DeLillo disciple, calling him the “best fiction writer alive” and describing his prose as something that just clicked. Wallace even singled out Americana as one of his favorite DeLillo novels. Which makes sense. There are some interesting parallels with Americana in his own work, particularly Infinite Jest, which just as easily could have been called Americana. (Conversely, Americana could've maybe in a weird way been called Infinite Jest. There are at least 9 instances of some form of the word “infinity” in Americana, which seems notable in a not terribly long book of 377 pages.)

Take the language of the office executive types in Americana. Their diction and cadence are similar to the way a lot of Wallace characters speak. It’s a type of speech that’s a bit too formal, a bit verbose, pretty funny and weirdly eloquent. Compare:

“Of course you have. No inference meant or intended. But the problem is there and we have to face it. Pressure is being exerted.” [Americana, 62]

“But has he definitely committed?”
“I would say he has just about definitely committed.”
“In other words we have rounded the buoy.”
“Weede, I would go even further than that. I would say he has just about definitely committed.” [Americana, 65]


‘--like conservatively two hours for the matches. Conservatively . . . That’s let’s call it five hours of vigorous nonstop straight-out motion.’
‘Sustained and strenuous exertion.’ [Infinite Jest, 103 (refers to any version of IJ; all extant editions have the same pagination, be it hardcover or paperback, domestic or foreign. God bless you Little, Brown.)]

‘I gather now the Dad’s trying to restructure the original deal all of a sudden.’
Pemulis undid his belt. ‘The dangled carrot’s snatched away, the brass ring plays hard to get, to coin a maxim.’ [IJ, 1068]

And if that ain’t convincing, I’m just gonna admit that this isn’t the most rigorous monograph on the subject. If the DeLillo lines don’t seem like something Wallace would write, you’re just gonna have to trust me on the whole dialogue thing.

Another point of similarity is both authors’ obvious love and knowledge of movies. DeLillo refers to Godard, Buñuel, and Kurosawa, Wallace to Scorsese, Tarantino, and countless others. Movie-making is a major component of the plot in both books.

Also there are interesting character symmetries. Each book has a mother character who is a grammarian shrouded in familial mystery with incestuous overtones. There is a Zen professor in Americana--

Hiroshi Oh was an alarmingly fragile man. In the lecture hall he would ease into his chair in careful stages, always on the verge of blowing away, and then he’d smile desolately at his children . . . I always enjoyed that opening smile. It was the smile of the bored Orient, tired of truth, bound in inland stillness, indifferent to westernization. [Americana, 174]

--who bears a resemblance to the oiled guru Lyle in the weight room at ETA:

And I like how the guru on the towel dispenser doesn’t laugh at them, or even shake his head sagely on its big brown neck. He just smiles, hiding his tongue. [IJ, 128]

There are late night/early morning radio show hosts who drift along free-associatively in both books:

Time to pluck the lint from your omphalos. Time to gnaw at the legs of chairs. I know you’re out there in mamaland, tens of thousands of you, humped up on the floor whimpering, licking the cold steel of the barrel of your shotgun. The agon begins. Time to scream into the pillow. Time to brainpaper the walls. But if we make the next ten minutes we make the night. Three in the morning and werewolves slink in the parlor. American Mean Time. You came home from work to find your wife in bed with your sister. Curiously refreshing. [Americana, 231]

Those with saddle-noses. Those with atrophic limbs. And yes chemists and pure-math majors also those with atrophic necks. Scleredema adultorum. Them that seep, the serodermatotic. Come one come all, this circular says. The hydrocephalic. The tabescent and chachetic and anorexic. The Brag’s-Diseased, in their heave red rinds of flesh. The dermally wine-stained or carbuncular or steatocryptotic or God forbid all three. Marin-Amat Syndrome, you say? Come on down. [IJ, 187]

There's a reference to St. Dymphna in both books: a blind tennis player in IJ, a school in Americana. Moving on, there is a description in Americana of a type of film that sounds like a cross between James Incandenza’s concept of Found Drama and his film The Joke:

In my little home movie . . . what I’ve reduced is movement, the kind of movement that tells a story or creates a harmony. I want language to evolve from static forms. . . . What I’m shooting now is just a small segment of what will eventually include more general matter--funerals, traffic jams, furniture, real events, women, doors, windows. . . . Actors, people playing themselves . . . When I’m done I’d like to put the whole thing in a freezer and then run it uncut thirty years from now. [Americana, 288-289]

There is the same reference to the holes in telephone receivers:

There were thirty-six small holes in the mouthpiece of my telephone. They were arranged in three circles of six, twelve, and eighteen holes each. There were only six holes in the earpiece. This disparity seemed significant but I didn’t know exactly why. [Americana, 96]

A traditional aural-only conversation--utilizing a hand-held phone whose earpiece contained only 6 little pinholes but whose mouthpiece (rather significantly, it later seemed) contained (62) or 36 little pinholes. . . [IJ, 146]

There are also parallels and little similarities to other DFW texts. The second half of Americana consists of a number of dialogues in a question-and-answer format and a few of these segments sound like a brief interview with a hideous man:

But I think the worst thing of all was when I was walking on a crowded street. . . . One day I was trying to get around an old man who kept drifting toward the curb and blocking my path and suddenly I found myself shouting at him in my own head, shouting inwardly and silently: LOOK OUT! LOOK OUT! I never actually spoke the words. I just shouted them out mentally. I began to do that all the time. . . . Then one day a woman slowed down suddenly and I almost crashed into her. I found myself shouting a new word in my head: DIE! . . . After several months of this I tried to make a conscious effort to stop shouting the word. But it was too late. It just popped into my head automatically. DIE! DIE! [Americana, 218]

There’s a television exec talking about something disgusting he wants to put on the air--

“Just once I’d like to see somebody on TV take a tremendous steaming piss. . . . I wouldn’t care where the camera was. We could stay on his face. The important thing is the sound. If we could just get that sound on the airwaves, just once, I honestly think we could take credit for expanding the consciousness of our nation to some small degree.” [Americana, 66]

--who sounds a lot like the television exec in The Suffering Channel who wants to broadcast a person who can excrete little crap figurines:

‘My point is that the whole embarrassment and distaste of the issue is the point, if it’s done right. The transfiguration of disgust. . . . The triumph of creative achievement in even the unlikeliest places.’ [Oblivion, 245]

Even a tiny reference like “I was feeling good and loose, on the verge of inspired dialogue, drink number four, a pale flame rising” (Americana, 226) connects with Wallace’s Kenyon commencement speech (“. . .and the two are arguing about the existence of god with that special intensity that comes after about the fourth beer” [This Is Water, 18]).

There are probably countless other fun little connections. But that’s all I got.

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