Thursday, June 14, 2007

Jokeless prose

Andrew O'Hagan has a fascinating essay on Don DeLillo's 9/11 novel in the latest issue of the New York Review of Books.

I haven't read the DeLillo (I'm agnostic to negative on DeLillo--I thought the opening sequence of Underworld, for instance, one of the best things I've ever read, but the jaded knowing tone of the later segments and the, oh, slightly embarrassing datedness and self-seriousness of the art stuff--or maybe I always would have been one of those people who was rolling my eyes at gallery shows which my alternate-universe 1970s self would only have attended for the free wine...--struck me as distinctly annoying, and I think White Noise is one of the most overrated novels of the second half of the twentieth century) but have a strong suspicion I will respond the same way if I do.

DeLillo and Cormac McCarthy have virtually nothing in common as writers but neither one of them is funny and in the end that just kills the pleasure for me! I imagine there are non-funny writers that I'm fond of (but who are they?!?), but DeLillo's knowing affectless cleverness and McCarthy's histrionic masculinity just make me want to punch somebody--or at least to go and read something less status-conscious, more playful or more demented.

(Also I think in the end I am not really interested in death as a topic, or at any rate death-and-modernity-kind-of-death which is central to both these guys' work--I am more on the Terry Pratchett line with the death thing. I like my serious non-funny novels--oh, Kazuo Ishiguro, that's someone whose writing I absolutely love who really cannot be said to be a funny writer...--to be strange, unsettling, uncanny rather than self-conscious. You get the feeling sometimes reading DeLillo and others [hmmm, the name David Foster Wallace springs to mind] that irony in the serious intellectual novelist's mode is virtually incompatible with having a sense of humor.)

Here are the crucial paragraphs of O'Hagan, at any rate, who has made a much better-informed and better-phrased argument about style and history than I am currently capable of putting together:

The hallmark of those novelists who have tried to write about the attacks is a sort of austere plangency—or a quivering bathos —that has been in evidence almost from the moment the planes hit. Those authors who published journalistic accounts immediately after the event failed to see how their metaphors fell dead from their mouths before the astonishing live pictures. It did not help us to be told by imaginative writers that the second plane was like someone posting a letter. No, it wasn't. It was like a passenger jet crashing into an office building. It gave us nothing to be told that the South Tower came down like an elevator at full speed. No, it didn't. It collapsed like a building that could no longer hold itself up.

Metaphor failed to do anything but make one feel that those keen to deploy it had not been watching enough television. After the "nonfiction novel," after the New Journalism, after several decades in which some of America's most vivid writing about real events was seen to be in thrall to the techniques of novelists, September 11 offered a few hours when American novelists could only sit at home while journalism taught them fierce lessons in multivocality, point of view, the structure of plot, interior monologue, the pressure of history, the force of silence, and the uncanny. Actuality showed its own naked art that day.

DeLillo the novelist prepared us for September 11, but he did not prepare himself for how such an episode might, in the way of denouements, instantly fly beyond the reach of his own powers. In a moment, the reality of the occasion seems to have burst the ripeness of his style, and he truly struggles in this book to say anything that doesn't sound in a small way like a warning that comes too late. Reading Falling Man, one feels that September 11 is an event that is suddenly far ahead of him, far beyond what he knows, and so an air of tentative rehearsal resounds in an empty hall. What is a prophet once his fiery word becomes deed? What does he have to say? What is left of the paranoid style when all its suspicions come true? Of course, a first-rate literary intelligence can eventually meet a world where reality acknowledges the properties of his style by turning them into parody, and in these circumstances, which are DeLillo's with this particular novel, the original novelist may be said to be a person quietened by his own genius. This is another American story—the story of Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles—and it gives us a clue to the weakness of Falling Man.

But the novel itself is packed with clues, the first and most obvious being the author's inability to conjure his usual exciting prose. In his best novels, DeLillo is pretty much incapable of writing unexcitingly—but September 11 vanquishes the power of his sentences before he can make them linger. Good prose in a novel depends on its ability to exhale a secret knowledge, to have the exact weight of magic in relation to the material, the true moral rhythm. DeLillo had all of that in many of the novels he published before September 11—so much magic, indeed, that it was initially difficult to absorb the events of that day without thinking of his writing. On September 11, however, novelists of his sort ceded all secret knowledge to the four winds: to CNN, to the Web site of The New York Times, to CCTV, and to the widespread availability of video cameras in Manhattan, each of which captured the event in real time.

This is criticism of the first order: thought-provoking, stimulating, suggestive.


  1. That is interesting, and I share your aversions to DeLillo and McCarthy, but I did think the excerpt from Falling Man in the New Yorker was just superb, so I wonder if I will like it better...or if it was just a very well-chosen excerpt...

  2. After reading this I've been trying to decide if I find Aciman funny - ironic, certainly, because there's no way I can read that peach episode without imagining the author's tongue in his cheek, for example (and I think it would be very difficult to pull it off with a third-person narrator).

    And I think we are going to disagree entirely about death.

  3. I found White Noise hilarious and assumed it was deliberately so. Been getting less sure about that ever since.