#LitBeat: Listening to Don DeLillo
By Adam Daniels
Thursday night Don DeLillo lamented the state of modern fiction in front of a packed auditorium at the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago. “Young people of artistic ambition are still drawn to the novel as the most challenging and rewarding form,” he said. “The question is: Is anybody listening”?
DeLillo had been presented with the Carl Sandburg Literary Award by the Chicago Public Library Foundation the previous evening and on this night was reading a portion of 2011’s The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories and discussing his career and work with Booklist’s senior editor Donna Seaman (their conversation can be heard in full on WBEZ’s Amplified).
DeLillo initially seemed a bit stiff, but as the evening went on he cultivated a spry wit and developed an almost saucy rapport with the moderator and audience, occasionally playing coy about remembering his own characters and motifs from two and three decades prior. When told the atom bomb was a recurring theme is his literature he deadpanned, “Is it?” This dry orneriness, plus a well-timed Robert Pattinson joke, played well with the crowd, allowing us to see a slightly more accessible side to the man whose words have so often felt as dazzling as they are deliberate.
DeLillo and Seaman spoke a lot about language. “I like to think I’m writing in three dimensions,” he said, “I have to see it and describe what I see and then an almost metaphysical connection occurs between what I’m seeing and the language I’m using.”
Because DeLillo lived in Greece for a time he had to learn the alphabet simply to read road signs. He said that he quickly began to view it as visual art and this had a big effect on the way he viewed and used language. Hearing these things felt oddly comforting, like this is exactly how you hoped someone like DeLillo would describe the value in language, displaying all the care and concern the nuance and emotional intricacy of his writing implies.
The award being a sort of lifetime achievement aided the discussion in some sense, not marooning the audience in a literary version of the fear that their hero will never play “Born To Run.” DeLillo’s career now spans 15 novels and over 40 years, and the range of the discussion paid tribute to that breadth. One of the more memorable aspects of the author’s reminiscing shed light onto several of the the visual moments of inspiration that inevitably led to full-fledged novels: two identically-sized 1951 New York Times headlines of vastly different substance that led to Underworld, an inauspicious photograph of a man holding a briefcase walking through the rubble of the 9/11 attacks that would become Falling Man,or a visit to the MoMA to view Douglas Gordon’s “24 Hour Psycho” installation that spawned Point Omega. The way he excitably spoke of these visual elements and the creative awakening they provided felt at times contagious to an impressively varied crowd that spanned from young teens to plenty whose age far eclipsed DeLillo’s.
The question DeLillo attempted to answer on the state of fiction is a looming one that he admitted with visible wear he couldn’t answer. He said the problem today isn’t in personnel, as there are plenty of great writers of the moment, but came back to the concern that maybe no one is listening any longer. At least for one cold evening, a large amount of Chicagoans had come out to see one of the great ones and do just that.