Don DeLillo: The quiet American

Don DeLillo is one of the biggest noises in US literature, but the man behind the masterpieces shuns the limelight. John Freeman is granted an audience
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The Independent Culture

Don DeLillo is not an easy author to spot on the streets of New York. It's not that his author photo is decades old, but rather that it doesn't capture how small he is, how slight. Perhaps this is why on a recent afternoon, the author of Underworld, White Noise and other future classics of American literature was temporarily barred entry from the offices of his New York publisher. Apparently, DeLillo didn't produce proper ID, or wasn't assertive enough about his right to be there. After much huffing and rolling of her eyes, the security guard waved the 69-year-old novelist through the gate toward the elevator bank. As DeLillo passed, she looked over his shoulder at me, with eyebrows raised, as if to say: "See the grief I get from yahoos like this?"

As it turns out, DeLillo prefers things this way. While some writers cosy to the medal stand, he would rather lurk on society's margins, noticing without being noticed. This doesn't make for easy interviewing. Moments after passing the security gauntlet, DeLillo is ensconced in an empty office, in a chair pressed up against the wall. The position ensures that he remains partially obscured by a computer, his voice a disembodied whisper. "What do you really see? What do you really hear?" DeLillo ruminates, when I ask how he stays tuned in to the dream waves of American life. "That's what in theory differentiates a writer from everyone else. You see and hear more clearly."

DeLillo has had his ear to the ground of late. The result is his fourth play, Love-Lies-Bleeding (Picador, £8.99), a three-act drama about a dying man and his family's struggle to decide whether to keep him on life support, which opens in Chicago next week. At the centre of the action is Alex Macklin, a landscape painter brought low by a second stroke. Alex's ex-wife, Toinette, has not seen him for some time, and thinks he should be put out of his misery. Alex's son, Sean, is not so sure, but his illusions have long since run out. "He's not aware of you or me or anything else," he tells Lia, Alex's current lover and care-giver. "He can't think. He doesn't know what you're saying to him. You are not Lia. He is not Alex."

Once again, DeLillo has scooped American newspapers. On the day of our conversation, the US Supreme Court upheld Oregon's assisted suicide law, the only such rule in the country. When DeLillo finished the play, a year-and-a-half ago, Terri Schiavo was in the news, as if summoned by his imagination. Many Republicans argued that ceasing her life support would be premature. Schiavo's husband, Michael, insisted it was the right thing to do. He won the public battle and Schiavo died 13 days after her feeding tube was removed. "I didn't have her in mind particularly," says DeLillo, skirting the debate, wincing at how it became a political football. "But I did learn some things from that event."

DeLillo would prefer politics be left out of this discussion. That's how he wrote the play. "They are in a state of stark isolation," he says of his characters, "outside of the influence of lawyers, doctors and clergymen. I wanted them to be dealing simply with their own feelings, emotions and predilections." Throughout the play, Alex sits on the stage like a silent witness to his own trial.

There is almost no medical equipment. America's most outspoken critic of technology has steered clear of it here. "I wanted a minimum of systems," DeLillo says. "There are feeding tubes, but I didn't want a hospital or a hospital bed. I wanted him sitting in a chair."

The starkness of this situation gives Love-Lies-Bleeding an eerie, astringent feeling, reminiscent of DeLillo's great 1985 novel, White Noise. That book told the story of a "Hitler Studies" professor on a Mid-Western campus terrorised by an airborne toxic event. Here the penumbra is personal and the more characters talk, the more it seems to loom. In the play's final crescendo, a flashback, the emotions that lay buried rise up out of Alex's foretelling of his death. "You're the one blessing I know," he tells Lia, one year before the final stroke comes. "The last of the body."

Plays are becoming an increasingly large part of the only body DeLillo cares to share with us: his work. Though probably best known as the author of novels such as Americana (1971), the story of a television executive looking back on his life, and Libra (1988), which told the tale of John Kennedy's assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, DeLillo's work for the stage has earned him comparisons to Beckett and Pinter. I ask him about these influences and he is flattered but confused. "I've seen some reviews that mention Beckett and Pinter, but I don't know what to say about that. I don't feel it myself."

In writing Love-Lies-Bleeding, DeLillo says he borrowed lines and structural elements from his first play, The Engineer of Moonlight (1979), published but never produced. "I wrote it experimentally," says DeLillo now. "I understood it was not producable, particularly in act two, which is very, very, very abstract."

DeLillo's later plays were only nominally less abstract. The Day Room (1986) is a curious two-act drama in which characters in a hospital room conduct a conversation that, in act two, is revealed to be a play itself. Valparaiso (1999) concerns a man who stepped onto a plane going to a city in Indiana but wound up in Chile. At the end of the play the man is murdered on stage.

Death overshadowed both of these plays, but it was more of an abstraction, an idea - here it is real. "I suppose this is a play about the modern meaning of life's end," DeLillo says. "When does it end? How does it end, how should it end? What is the value of life? How do we measure it?" His talk skitters along these questions for a while, then slides down a shale hill of silence into a full-blown reverie.

"Just yesterday," he says, "I remembered that in one of my earlier novels, I think it's in Great Jones Street if I didn't edit it out, there's a reference to patients in British hospitals being assigned to beds that are marked NTBR: not to be resuscitated. When I learned this, in the early 1970s, I thought it sounded like the bleakest landscape out of some futuristic novel. Now it is widespread, the idea of people not being resuscitated."

DeLillo has never had to make such a decision. "If I did, I would probably speak of it only privately." As he says this, his gaze cannons out from behind the computer with intimidating intensity. Through large, slightly out-of-date glasses his eyes are huge, fierce without being spiteful. Just when I think I have blown it, the lines around his eyes break and soften, and he looks away. He is happy to go on to the next question.

It's odd to imagine this man sitting in the front row, listening to his words being read by actors, but that will happen soon. The Steppenwolf Theater, Chicago, has a production opening next Thursday, featuring Louis Cancelmi, John Heard and Penelope Walker. Amy Morton directs. Without any false modesty, DeLillo admits he is already indebted to them. "The deceptive element is that, well, it's only dialogue after all. And much of the work will be done by others. A playwright realises after he finishes the script this is only the beginning. What will happen when it moves into three dimensions: this is the test and surprise."

DeLillo greets this spring with another surprise. A script he wrote 15 years ago has finally given birth to a film, Game 6. It stars Michael Keaton, as a playwright on a journey across town to confront a critic he worries will ravage his new play on opening night. "So here I am with a play coming out, and a movie about this situation," says DeLillo, the first real smile spreading across his face. As soon as the talk shifts to baseball, he grows more comfortable. "My baseball memory goes back a long way," Delillo says. A longtime New York Yankees fan, he has grown disillusioned with the club's massive player payroll. As serious as he is about baseball, he will not make exceptions for it these days. He attends one game a year, and he does not watch it continuously on television.

DeLillo slowly backs out of the conversation, unrevealing himself piece by piece, until I'm not sure what, exactly, we are talking about. Or how we got there. When his publicist comes to retrieve him, DeLillo has become an almost avuncular presence, joking with her that we didn't really do an interview but simply played cards. So persuasively has he disappeared that, when I get home, I expect my tape to be blank. Somehow, I think he wins every hand he plays.

Biography

Don DeLillo was born to Italian immigrant parents in the Bronx, New York City, in 1936. After studying "communication arts" at Fordham University, he worked as a park keeper and advertising copywriter before starting to write fiction. He has written 15 novels, including Americana (1971), White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Underworld (1997), The Body Artist (2001) and Cosmopolis (2003). His plays, which have been produced by the American Repertory Theatre, in Cambridge, Massachussetts, are: The Day Room (1986), Valparaiso (1999) and Love-Lies-Bleeding. Game 6, the film of a screenplay he wrote 15 years ago, will be out later this year. DeLillo was awarded the Jerusalem Prize in 1999. He lives in New York City.

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