Feeling about Don DeLillo currently runs high, and the word that probably characterizes the feeling best is ‘imminent’. It has been his fate to be imminent for what is by now an unconscionably long time. When DeLillo’s first novel, Americana, appeared in 1971, it was natural to bracket his name with the names of Barth and Pynchon – a bracketing which has, over time, acquired a certain mordancy. For while the Barth dissertations and the Pynchon theses have been piling high in the vaults, it hasn’t always been easy to find editions of DeLillo, or Purdy, or many others who are beginning to look like a lost generation, left stranded by the decade’s urge to pantheonize. It may turn out, of course, that DeLillo’s work will remain always about to arrive and never arriving, for all time. But in case there is the chance that DeLillo’s admirers are holding back because of difficulty in finding the right discourse to suit his production, it may be worth setting off in a definite direction, if only to find out later that there is a better route.

Perhaps the most striking feature in DeLillo’s novels is the extraordinary nature and importance of their dialogue, evident not only in what is said by one character to another, but in the intricate, fluctuating address of speaker to speaker, the stances chosen by the speakers in relation to each other and to the language they use. The stances prove to be as insistent upon the reader’s attention as the primary or foregrounded topics the conversations move around. The world of DeLillo’s fiction is essentially acoustic; the characters, though set within a notional materiality, are presented chiefly as voices in fugato. Within this acoustic, individual voices – vital, strident, ruthless – compete to be heard in an environment already deafened by an excess of human speech. To be heard at all, an individual must present an auditory profile which will be recognized at once as uniquely his: exaggerating his set of specific differences from the myriad other voices around him, and where this fails inventing further differences to supplement those he already possesses. And, throughout, DeLillo’s characters behave as though aware in advance that even when they succeed in finding audience, the hearer is likely to reply in kind, with his own desperate idiolect, in dialogue but not in communication. DeLillo’s domain is the voice: how it responds to those around it, how it is employed in strategies of self-protection and irony, of wilful survival and embattled self-expression, of aggression and parody. For DeLillo, humanity exists in so far as it speaks; but its speech is at every point threatened by forces which conspire to dehumanize it, by drowning it out or by supplying modes of discourse which take the speaker over – deforming his language, making him a verbal grotesque, a monster or plaything of the word.


DeLillo’s early work charts routes of escape for those caught within a dehumanized or inhuman force-field of languages. End Zone (1971) and Ratner’s Star (1972) claim that escape is still, on the whole, viable. End Zone’s subject is American football. Its characters are the not too talented team at Logos College (no comment), massacred in the big game by the gang from Centrex – terrifying Rollerball thugs who reduce them to pulp in minutes (‘It’s like taking on a major power’). Much of the book explores, with relish, the rich absurdity of the language of sport: coaches obsessed with Führenprinzip, foaming at the mouth at pep-talks; team warm-ups of primitive grunts and war cries; ‘jocks’ communicating strategy in impenetrable dialect; mystical players of the Inner Game describing their epiphanies in the field; apprentice sportscasters glued to televised games and manically articulating their progress.

Each character is in his own way a word-grotesque, a language-creature deformed by specialized function into bizarre, idiotic, delightful misshapenness. At the same time the book includes a sufficient number of non-sportif characters, similarly deformed, to suggest the misshapenness as a generalized condition (at least in west Texas). If the characters are not crazed by the language of the game, they are crazed in other ways and by other discourses. These are various. Myna is addicted to sci-fi pulp and especially to the work of Tudev Nemkhu, a mad Mongolian whose trilogy on the Nautiloids occasions one of the book’s funniest parodies. Zapalac, Logos College lecturer in what seems to be astro-chemistry, intercuts his visionary accounts of creation with paranoid disquisitions on the persistence of fascism. Anatole Bloomberg, the narrator’s room-mate, is trying to free himself of his Jewish ‘Europicity’ and to ‘desemitize’ his speech (‘Some names possess a smell. I didn’t like the way my name smelled. It was like a hallway in a tenement where a lot of Bulgarians live’). The text is periodically interrupted by lectures – addressed to the narrator – on the art of thermonuclear warfare.

DeLillo’s sense of the absurd has a way of circling into territory where humour treads at its peril. Beneath the comic tone there are at least two sets of anxieties. One concerns violence and the other the nature of narrative. The novel is narrated by Gary Harkness, who, before arriving at Logos, has killed a player on the field; the eager recipient of the thermonuclear lectures, Harkness is obsessed with the language of holocaust: firestorm, burn area, hostage cities, orbital attack. Similarly his co-captain, Taft Robinson, is preoccupied with the literature of genocide. Together, Harkness and Robinson provide the centre around which the novel develops its black comedy; but there is always a sense that both characters are going too far, doing more than what the novel can adequately and comically recuperate. DeLillo is a master of brinkmanship; we watch to see where the humour which bravely ventures into the terrain of the horrendous will cross that frontier beyond which things are no longer funny.

Humour of the grotesque presupposes an ideal or at least a norm against which deviation can be measured; yet DeLillo’s work in this and other novels precisely questions the certainty of such measurement. End Zone is analogous to the engraving in Hogarth’s Line of Beauty which shows a line of dancing couples of which the first is graceful, perfectly fashioned, ideal; behind stands a second pair, less Italianate, less fashioned, a sort of zero point on a scale which then slides into full deformity. To the back of the second couple is a third, as far behind the zero point as the first couple was ahead, and so on, through varying graduated degrees of unloveliness until at the end we come to the openly teratological, the prancing beasts. What is unsettling about the image is its relativization of the series: at any point on the scale there will be beauty above and ugliness below, at each and every point ‘normality’ is obtainable. For the viewer, the second couple are about neutral, a common denominator of humanity. But for the dancers absolute normality does not exist: it depends who your neighbours are; and, as a consequence, the viewer’s selection of the zero point is dislocated, challenged as arbitrary. The analogy applies to DeLillo’s posture as mediator of the deformed, misshapen idiolects that fill his pages. He does not, and it’s a conspicuous feature of End Zone, contain the competing and specialized dialects of his speakers within a stabilizing master-discourse. The voice of the narrator is only primus inter pares, and for a number of reasons his vocalization seems as subject to implicit criticism as that of the more frankly grotesque minor figures.

The text is divided into three parts, the second of which is an extended description of the catastrophic game against Centrex. Since the events there are set in spectacular, stadium space, one might expect the writing at this point to move from idiolect to sociolect, to a communal or choric style – which option the text entirely rejects and at the cost of becoming nearly inaccessible to the reader unable to decode the arcane terminology it brings to its descriptive task.

Each play must have a name. The naming of plays is important. All teams run the same plays. But each team uses an entirely different system of naming. Coaches stay up well into the night in order to name plays. They heat and reheat coffee on an old burner. No play begins until its name is called.
Middle-sift-W, alph-set, lemmy-2.


The vocabulary throughout the novel’s central section becomes so technical that it must perforce lose the majority of its readers. But the effect is, I believe, very exactly calculated. At the precise point which demands the narrator’s mediation and his secession from the particularized, out of shape discourses of the players, the novel withholds the central median voice which could represent the reader in the text. To return to the Hogarth illustration, it is the effect of losing the point of insertion at which to place the normally and normatively human. The novel provides no such absolute discursive centre, and this dislocation renders highly uncertain the comedy of the grotesques. The misshapen crew is mocked, but the question is by whom and by what standards. Not by the characters, for they are all weirdly confined within their private phatic zones. And not by the narrator, who when he steps forward to tell us about the big game provides us with a recital from which it is impossible to reconstruct what he sees.

The absence of a central, flexible, embracing voice crucially affects how the reader hears the vocal lines. He knows that they are all deformed, ridiculous, radically incomplete; but he cannot say from where he knows this, because no speech within the text provides the triangulation points by which he can take his bearings. So far as each speaker is concerned, there may be no deformity; the discourses may be fully naturalized. By what right, then, are the words presented or taken as absurd? Who sees the absurdity? It is around this point that the set of anxieties centring on the issue of violence meets with the set which centres on discourse. Language can retrieve from the horrors, from the ovens and blast zones, a certain measure of humour, because from the point of view of a human norm – whose existence is attested to by the success of the humour itself – the horrors are deviant, lapses out of humanity, dark mishaps and mishappenings of the human spirit. But beyond a certain point the humour is incapacitated by our realization that the horrors are us. As DeLillo’s humour crosses the frontier into what is no longer easily amusing, our habitual self-definitions and self-images begin to dissolve. A moment ago we were laughing: if we weren’t exactly sure who we were, we were at least sure who we were not; we were not like the monsters, the satanic prancers. That the laughter has died suggests that it came from a false conception of ourselves which could not encompass the dark side of our history, our ritualized aggression. We know we are not like the idiolects, the idiom-lunatics, the speech-defectives. But we have no representative within the text to speak in our place, no norm against which to gauge the consoling otherness of the manic crew.

Disoriented within a discourse, we are not, after all, so different from the caricatures within the novel. They too exist uncertainly in a background of voices where they must define their identity: they sense they are not like the rest, and they will not speak like the rest. Moreover – and more important – there is the sobering suggestion that the characters may have voluntarily entered their particular niche in the ecology of the voice. They may be cultivating not just a style, but Style: a wilful excess wherein they express a perverse mastery of the discourse by which, from another perspective, they seem so completely mastered. With most of the characters in this novel, DeLillo may be saying that a man’s style is as much willed and controlled as his game. Just as on the field there is room for finesse – for a display that goes beyond the functional into excess, and in the excess the player’s transcendence of the game appears, a glimmering of heroic stature; so it may be that in their cultivation of the unique acoustic profile, the odd ball speakers are expressing their rejection of standard, centrist, golden mean discourse. DeLillo presents their case ambiguously: they are heroic individualists; they are freaks. The narrator is responsible for the comedy, at their expense; or the characters are responsible, and the narrator is only a scribe. We are normal people and dissociate ourselves from the threat we witness; or we are formless, endlessly malleable creatures, our monstrosity hidden from us only as long as our fiction of a centre, of the norm, remains plausible.

Part of the fascination of End Zone comes from the way it manages to suggest these concerns in such a narrow compass, and without recourse to portentous shading or inflation of tone. This is a quality shared also by Ratner’s Star (1972), a novel which takes as its linguistic provenance the language of science, and which at first sight seems to follow the same line of comedy as End Zone, depicting the absurdities of an enclosed, crazily specialized community of speakers. The characters are international scientists, gathered together at Field Experiment Number One, a research institute devoted, with demented energy, to the furtherance of human knowledge. Even more episodic in construction than End Zone, Ratner’s Star takes the form of a conducted tour of the Experiment. Our guide is Billy Twillig, a fourteen-year-old mathematician from the Bronx called away from his work on zorgs and twilligons to decode a radio message picked up from a region in space near the star of the book’s title. The verbal caricatures are now altogether wilder than End Zone’s teamsters – we have progressed much further down the line of beauty’s or reason’s dancers: Henrik Endor, Twillig’s predecessor in the ‘decoding’, who having drawn some terrible and unnamed conclusion from the stellar transmission now lives in a hole; Shazar Lazarus Ratner, renowned astronomer and cabalist, whose work currently lies in a field somewhere between the en-sof and giant dwarfs; Orang Mohole, inventor of ‘value-dark dimensions’ and purveyor of sleazy erotica; Maurice Wu, historian turned speleologist whose ‘contralogical’ theory of cultural evolution is tested in remote, bat-infested caverns.

The satire works on two levels. On the first, we witness simple parody, accounts of scientific discourse shown in aberration: we are invited to relish the zaniness, accompanying our guide through the verbal menagerie where the curious beasts perform their tricks. The thumbnail sketches of the book’s characters above illustrates the insistence and simplicity of the book’s official satire: positions us safely on this side of the cage. On another level, Ratner’s Star draws us within its own hysterical confines. The novel, like End Zone, never gives us a standard we can trust as reliable: our narrator’s work on ‘zorgs’ sounds no less absurd than any other project we encounter. And the narrative voice – separable, in this text, from that of the narrating character – speaks without any apparent principle of organization. Here is a description of a helicopter descending:

Free, unswerving, and independent of friction, the plunge was like a childhood sigh, devoid of obedience and rote, never evolving, nowhere close to the boned-out howl of those voices departed to the edge of the pure word, evident in the sequence of related sounds only as a timeless sigh – not of this woman in murmurous bliss or that man half leaping in her arms in the spangled blaze of bird-fish symmetry and delicate brute creation, but of a child, only that, a child is all, his sigh a knowing contemplation of time and place and all those darker energies that constitute his peril.

The syntactically dominant idea is that the plunge of the craft was like a child’s sigh – a difficult image, but far less difficult than what follows it. No yoke of grammar detectably holds together the subsequent working out of its implications. Suggestions and connotations fly outward from the simile’s centre, moving centrifugally into widening spirals, diffusing ideas and obfuscating their expression: only, in the end, to move, without apparent logic or coherence, back to the original image – ‘a child, only that, a child is all, his sigh’ – and to an idea without reference: ‘darker energies’. If this is the authority we find in the narrative, what is its effect on the text as a whole? How can this voice mediate among the discourses which the text presents?

Ratner’s Star and End Zone do, as I suggested earlier, posit possibilities of escape from linguistic onstriction. In End Zone, speakers may volunteer for specialization, and by sheer virtuosity go beyond idiolect into bizarre, heroic Style. And while the possibility of this escape is questioned by what remains of the humour of title grotesque – inviting a perception of the characters as caricatures – it is also reinforced by the book’s ‘relativization’ of speech, so striking in the arcane version of the Centrex football game. The removal of ‘normal’ speech – and thus the curtailment of a centralized policing of language – is essentially permissive, paralleling the anti-authoritarian, anarchic lifestyles of the players. Ratner’s Star suggests a different way out. With no central court of linguistic appeal to inhibit or manage the scientists’ speech, each man is responsible only to himself: speak and let speak. There is, however, a new urgency, an anxiety not present in the earlier novel. The style of the narrative – and the sentence depicting the helicopter’s descent is perfectly representative – seems to be engaged in a compulsive fight to deny priority in syntax and ‘ideation’ (a word uniquely appropriate to this book). Despite affinities with free-association, sentences in this book seem to reach for a linguistic freedom accomplished by untying the bonds of association: the individual sentences seem to change direction the moment a set direction appears; as though fleeing their own shadow.

Ratner’s Star is more complex than End Zone , its tone deeper, and is so, I am suggesting, because its style is informed by a paradox inseparable from the paradox of its subject: the tendency of language to create cages or prisons around the very speakers who use it. To describe that tendency, DeLillo must himself use language, language which at every point may be turning hard on him, crystallizing, blocking his mobility. The effort of the writing must then be directed towards disengagement from its own designs. We thus have to review our attitude towards the word-bound characters: they may simply be projections of the author’s paranoia in language, phantoms at the edge of his freedom, and always closing in.

In Players (1977) and Running Dog (1978), DeLillo moves away from remote, eccentric communities of speakers to the language of the metropolis. At the same time, he shifts from narrative characterized by the episodic – and its particular sense of the improvised – to a narrative of intricate plots and classical unities, used (I am reminded of Bajazet) in a fashion that heightens the sense of confinement. It is an extraordinary change. End Zone and Ratner’s Star were aerated, expansive texts, admitting into themselves all manner of vagary and digression. DeLillo’s description in Ratner’s Star of the work of Nobel Prize-winning fictionalist Chester Dent can serve as an assessment of his own achievement at that time: ‘Piquant disquisitions on the philosophy of logic, the logic of games, the gamesmanship of fiction . . . handblocked in a style best characterized as undiscourageably diffuse’ (my italics). The urban novels are claustrophobic, their characters hemmed in by the skyscrapers, locked in bolted apartments, prisoners of the discourse. They are also more aggressive: the city’s middlemen, pushers, fixers, killers, moving in on their prey. They’re still the basic DeLillo crew, frantically idiosyncratic voices caught up in manic plans. The difference is that they have now broken into the real world.

Players concerns an inner-city marriage gone dead. It opens with a scene which acts as proem to the whole action: passengers on a plane to New York are watching an in-flight movie whose subject is terrorism, opening with a game of golf and ending in carnage. And the passengers are unmoved throughout, sipping drinks and adjusting the headsets while a piano player provides a camp, silent movie accompaniment: moral and sensory queasiness smoothly suppressed. The novel’s couple are jaded, burnt-out, anaesthetized and self-anaesthetizing. Pammy works (in the World Trade Center) for Grief Management, an organization devoted to helping the bereaved cope with their pain, to lessening, that is, the general awareness of death. Lyle likes to watch re-run pornography shows on TV, to feel desire, it seems, not more but less intensely. Each realizes the marriage has died, and each has discovered a way of escape: for Pammy, it is escaping to the ‘real’ outside, to a cabin in Maine. For Lyle it is doubling his career on the Exchange with undercover, semi-official investigation of a group of urban terrorists, a secret life of danger and camouflage. DeLillo handles both plots in a hard, witty, deadpan style which offers few clues as to how we should view the couple’s activities. Lyle’s adventures inevitably prompt the reader to wonder how he can possibly think involvement with violence redemptive: it only extends the stage of numbness it seems meant to overcome. And we are given enough information about Pammy’s solution to know in advance that she is likely to commit adultery with one of her friends, a bisexual. From what we see of the couple whose life she invades we can predict the outcome will be disastrous: given the book’s preoccupation with violence, the suicide of her partner comes as no surprise.

Absence of surprise is, however, very much part of the book’s disquietingly deadpan method. And DeLillo’s refusal to comment on or judge the actions of his characters is disturbing: we don’t have to be Leavisite throwbacks to expect a novelist to be a more sensitive and observant version of ourselves; DeLillo’s narrator – in a way analogous to the narrators of Ratner’s Star and End Zone – is continuous with his morally amorphous characters. I don’t think it fanciful to say that Players is spoken by the voice of the city itself. What that voice challenges is our expectation that the novel will somehow transcend the city, transcend itself and provide some moral framework against which to see the behaviour of the characters as aberrant.

Players is full of figures on the make, out to extort from the world whatever it is they need m oney, sex, attention, belief; and by repetition the book shows how the city dweller habitually copes with their perpetual solicitation. He reacts by deliberately lowering the threshold of what is acceptable, by deliberately violating his own innocence, and by engaging with the figures only as far as is necessary to prevent more violent forms of importunity. DeLillo’s dialogue of the urban novels explores the vocal strategies of people forced to function in an environment becoming increasingly infernal. They seek languages which will contain the brutality, brutal dialects to match the brutal outside. They aid and abet each other in the general quest for speech commensurate with the horrors around them. They turn the quest into a formal, bantering game and above all by wrapping the dialects in an enveloping, unfocussed irony – by trying always to seem to be quoting from some base repertoire of speech – they try to maintain the genteel fiction that they remain, through everything and despite all the odds, uncontaminated.


What gives the dialogue in DeLillo’s urban novels its edge is the absence of reciprocity: the speakers are not initiating speech or expressing what is unique within their subjectivity. Instead they play at shared monologue: they define their positions to each other obliquely, by agreeing to secede, together, from a discourse that is standardized, unintelligent, or exhausted. The style of floating irony offers them a position of safety always available; and when a speaker ventures too far – towards self-revelation and therefore vulnerability – he or she can return to the steady disengaged stage at once. The game of ironic cleansing from the taint of baser discourse acts as a kind of mutual grooming by which the speakers attain a bonding of a very limited sort: the essential and most intimate communication between one character and another is ‘I know you are not the words you use.’

But what is DeLillo’s position in all this? I have mentioned his reluctance or refusal to supply a moral framework by which we might ‘place’ the actions of his characters; at the same time I seem to have described a highly moralistic novel. It is this duplicity which, I think, provides the link between the two very different fictional styles DeLillo uses, the urban and the ‘pastoral’. Players can be seen as a moralistic or crypto-moralistic novel; at the same time its narrative voice is deeply implicated in the corruption it describes. It is possible that the style in which the novel is cast – sophisticated, compassionless, amoral – is to be seen as the final product of the same process of self-violation and will anaesthesia which it has charted through its characters: an inverted City of God, an account of the journey by which the text’s present condition of grace/depravity was reached. And it is equally possibly that the text omits the moral framework only because to supply that, under the present circumstances, would be too easy a solution: the reader must decide for himself what his attitude towards the novel’s events shall be, unassisted by authorial guidance – a sort of Lehrstück.

Running Dog is even more difficult to ‘locate’. The title refers us to the political coordinates from which the subject and dramatic personae of the novel might be quite confidently condemned. It is a narrative of the terminally decadent Western city, its characters drag queens, cops, prostitutes, ex-Nazis, intelligence agents running private criminal baronies, senatorial disciples of the double life. All are joined together in quest for the allegedly ultimate fix, the original and only copy of a movie shot in Hitler’s bunker during the final days of the Third Reich. The novel, however, despite its title and its subject, withholds the political/moralistic discourse which might place the quest and the questers in the context of an overall explanation; far from condemning or even analyzing the events and the people it explores, the novel implies that the discourse of politics, if embraced, would add only one more derangedly vital, recruit-seeking world-view to those already represented. ‘Capitalist lackeys and running dogs’ – the style of that discourse is not so different from the other styles used to define the characters’ verbal grotesqueness, their capitulation to the urban paranoia. The mark of madness in DeLillo is to surrender before discursive pressure, to embrace without irony a dialect – any dialect – that promises to pattern the chaos of city and world: the placarding crank in Players, the Logicon projectors in Ratner’s Star, the crazies swarming the sidewalk in DeLillo’s play The Engineer of Moonlight:

They’re in the libraries.
They’re in the subways . . .
They like to talk. They talk out to people. This is their way. They talk from inside out. They don’t gather data. It’s what’s inside them.
They use themselves.

Sanity might reside in refusing the solace of the totalitarian vocabulary; yet DeLillo’s prognosis for the sanity of refusal is far from sanguine. The reluctance or the inability to place the self within discourse has already been seen in Players as symptomatic of urban alienation: systematic irony, though a useful survival strategy, is experienced finally as part of the general numbness, the inability to feel horror or love. Running Dog organizes its plot around an object which promises to lower the threshold of tolerance to its nadir. Those chasing Hitler’s film are shown as fugitives from experience, scurrying around the last curves of descent until they finally reach the lake of ice where there will be no more pain. If the metaphor seems too Dantesque or archaic to apply to DeLillo’s updated City of Dis, consider the following:

The man sitting on the step near the toilets hadn’t stopped talking about the FBI. He was able to see cameras and listening devices. They were installed everywhere he went. If he went to another bar around the corner, they would be there. If he took a bus uptown, he’d see the little bugging devices, the little cameras under the seats and along the metal edges of the windows. People kept telling him that he had DTs. But the DTs were when you saw rats and birds and insects. It was little cameras he saw. Tiny transmitters. And they were everywhere.

DeLillo conceives of the urban regime as one of perpetual surveillance and intrusion, and in Running Dog the bugging devices and tapes are everywhere: in his version of the città dolente there is no escape from those who watch, listen, film. The metaphor at the heart of the novel is that of celluloid: the ‘empty’ substance which by its very emptiness instates a spectacular distance between self and world. That distance is what the characters most desire – a distance continuous with, and indistinguishable from, the ironic interval across which they address and perceive the world. The greater the interval, the greater their release; the greater the interval, the greater their alienation.

DeLillo is certainly offering diagnosis: what he sees is deformity in the social organism, a perversion of growth. At the same time his own position in relation to the deformity is far from clear. Like Warhol, he is unusually sensitive to the hidden beauty to be reclaimed from the urban waste. And Running Dog’s unnerving neutrality can perhaps be attributed to the paralyzing encounter between a moral sense which seeks to denounce the American Babylon and an aesthetic sense which seeks to celebrate and make sacred the weirdest Babylonic phenomena. The book as a whole can be placed within the aesthetic Warhol provides, in that it defines itself by its relation to the twin poles of the trivial and the sensational – of boringness and freakishness. At times reading Running Dog I had the feeling that in DeLillo’s New York almost any crime could be absolved if executed with sufficient elan, and that the lament about de-sensitization and self-administered anaesthesia was merely dutiful. At other times, the book’s neutrality seemed to emanate from a sensibility appalled by the degree to which it had become unable to feel, genuinely afraid that some part of it had died. In this concern for what happens to ‘sensibility’ in the decadent or decaying inner city, Warhol and DeLillo part company. The cultivated blandness with which Warhol protects himself from the freaky isn’t at all like the tormented and disquieting neutralism by which DeLillo seeks to contain his particular vision of Dis.

For DeLillo, as for the photographer Diane Arbus, urban monstrosity is less interesting in itself than the way in which it is viewed. The Arbus people are the freaks and pariahs of New York, the inmates of the welfare hotels, the competitors at the drag contests, the addicts, the jokes of nature and of culture (recall, for example, her photograph entitled ‘A Jewish giant at home with his parents in the Bronx, NY, 1970’). But what is unnerving about the Arbus images isn’t their content but their address to the viewer. The subjects are not caught at unguarded moments. They have posed for the camera, and they have composed themselves. They don’t seem to be suffering at all; they are in certain ways just like us. DeLillo’s crew are the same people, talking. Arbus saw the flaws. (‘You see someone on the street and essentially what you notice about them is the flaw’); DeLillo hears them. And to hear so accurately he must to some degree have engaged with these voices as an equal, mixed his own voice with theirs, entered into confidences, just as Arbus must have become intimate with her sitters to have persuaded them to display their flaws to her camera so ingenuously. DeLillo has gone out into the underworld and mingled with the grotesques, and in this he is, of course, in a hallowed tradition that included Baudelaire and Manet and Dreiser. But the questions of association and dissociation are much more difficult for DeLillo to solve than for his predecessors. To go out so far towards monstrosity and to engage with it in parity is either to become monstrous oneself, or – what is more disturbing – to lose the category of ‘the monstrous’. And in a sense, that category is the most important in any cognitive taxonomy: against it the world acquires its intelligibility. To lose the right to label what doesn’t fit the taxonomy as the grotesque or as madness or as the dehumanized is to dissolve the system by which beauty, sanity and humanity are defined. On the other hand, to recoil from aberration into a sophisticated, inscrutable cool is to enter a realm of increasing numbness: the self begins to go dead, and the only way to keep it alive is to feed in ever more intense sensations, wilfully violating and traumatizing the organism. The perfect statement of this process is the snuff-flick, the ruling metaphor of Running Dog: the terminal cases can go to it to feel they are still alive, just; but in so far as they are alive and refuse to identify with what is being displayed, they widen the interval between self and world so far that almost nothing more can reach them. One step further and the world is ice. Penultimate man.

The Wife
The Weightless Characters of William Styron