Is there a David Bowie of literature?—such an asinine question, as dumb as asking, “Is there a Virginia Woolf of music?”—arguing against it arguably as asinine as answering it at all, even on its own terms, which is to say, which “David Bowie”? which “literature”?; not to mention the problem of even locating a “there” with any kind of certainty, and of establishing what and/or where or whatever “Is” in this case is.
Here’s the introduction I delivered before John Domini’s reading at Brown University’s Literary Arts Department’s Demitasse on March 21, 2013:
Don DeLillo once characterized his work as a series of reflections about “men in small rooms.” Like those desperate men, vacillating between doubt and action, navigating between the elusive and the allusive, the characters in Domini’s Bedlam also find themselves in these selfsame rooms, like the cold anonymity of motel rooms found in “Over 4000 Square Miles,” a fiction positing representation as transgression, where a battle-fatigued soldier, fueled on cannabis and no small amount of hubris, if not outright fear, visits an in-progress reenactment-for-television of his famed escape from the enemy, and ends up entering the Everglades, intending to wrestle an alligator. There is also the “silent and empty kitchen” of “The Return,” a liminal space, where a recently murdered couple visit a surly former-stockbroker. Yes, the so-called barriers between so-called reality and so-called fantasy in this collection are porous. “Laugh Kookaberry, Laugh Kookaberry,” for instance, features a garrulous demon reflecting on twisted intimacies, and so Bedlam might as well have been called Pandæmonium, referring back to the name of the palace built in the middle of John Milton’s vision of Hell, viz., the “high capital of Satan and all his peers,” in Paradise Lost. “Special Instructions, Special Instructions” finds another man in a small room, this one an office, rejecting the ladder climb. He states: “Why should I weasel around after my own office, and then a larger office, and then another that’s still larger? After a certain point’s reached, they’re only rooms,” believing it more important to “know who you are and exist accordingly.” In “Thirty Spot, Fifteen Back on Either Side,” we find another business man, reflecting on a certain salacious episode in another small room, thinks the following: “he’d wanted to come by means of this experience to a more complete, more substantial idea of himself as an individual. Grissom alone, he’d wanted to see. Grissom as a separately defined person, as an intensely, separately defined person, something as unique and identifiable as a planet in a pale sky.” Domini’s Bedlam, with its ruined men, whether succumbing to PTSD-induced delusions or to their long-arrested imaginations, forced me, after reading it, to temporarily have difficulty distinguishing “suits” from ghosts and other spectralities.
I’m looking forward to reading the rest of Domini’s books, which include the novels Earthquake I.D. and A Tomb on the Periphery, the former of which, in its Italian translation, was runner-up for the Rea prize, the latter of which was cited in 2009 at the London Book Festival as among “the best of international publishing.”
I’m in the middle of a Don DeLillo marathon, reading his books in chronological order. I just came across this famous passage in Libra.
Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move toward death. He believed that the idea of death is woven into the nature of every plot. A narrative plot no less than a conspiracy of armed men. The tighter the plot of a story, the more likely it will come to death. A plot in fiction, he believed, is the way we localize the force of the death outside the book, play it off, contain it.
We need to read Don Delillo slowly.
Not because his prose is dense or complex or difficult. Quite the opposite, his prose is usually quite simple, reliant more on familiar words than strange or unexpected ones. Sometimes the rhythms of his writing are unexpected in written prose, hesitating, repeating, dodging back and forth through the thought; but since this echoes the relatively unstructured character of our thought and speech this does not make it difficult to follow.
No, we read him slowly because we sense there is something going on behind the prose. His stories are not crystal clear but rather frosted, translucent; through them we discern shapes that are slightly blurry. Rather like Gerhard Richter’s image of Ulrika Meinhof that lies at the heart of the story ‘Baader-Meinhof’. Continue reading
Do you feel a duty to read and acknowledge your literary, theoretical, and musical foremothers?
I’d argue that most people have no idea who their artistic forebears are. For example: students tell me all the time that David Foster Wallace is their favorite novelist. And when I see their work, they’re indeed writing very DFW-influenced stuff. But they rarely know anything about DFW’s own inspirations, or the lineage(s) he inhabits.
This is only natural; we all of us live artistic lineages backward. (I’m no exception; my initial influences were G.I. Joe and X-Men comics.) And this is why I’ve been saying for a little while now (polemically, mind you) that Ulysses is no longer all that influential a novel: not many people sit down and actually read it, let alone get direct inspiration from it. (“I discovered stream of consciousness by reading Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, and now I use it in my work.”)
Rather, people read more contemporary authors, like DFW and DeLillo and Franzen and Pynchon (to name authors of a particular type), and they imitate them. And so they get a lot of Joycean influences, but only indirectly, and mainly through those authors. (E.g., they see DFW or Pynchon shifting narrative registers, but they don’t see how Joyce did a lot to pioneer that trope in Ulysses.)
This is always happening. People imitate Lydia Davis without reading the Symbolists. People (used to?) imitate Vonnegut without reading Céline. And so on.
On occasion, The New Yorker gets it right. This time, it’s “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” a story by Don DeLillo. Lots of choice sentences here like this subtle observation of when reading becomes total absorption, how a book can metabolize you, remake you in its own image:
I placed the book on a table and opened it and then leaned down into the splayed pages, reading and breathing. We seemed to assimilate each other, the characters and I, and when I raised my head I had to tell myself where I was.