A Rare Encounter With Don DeLillo in Lisbon

The same haunting sense of searching for that which is beyond our grasp reappears in Don DeLillo's newest yet unpublished work, or at least in the extracts the distinguished author read last night to a small audience here in Lisbon.
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Searching for that which cannot be found is a persistent theme in Don DeLillo's work, whether it's the lost dog or cat announced in the neighborhood posters in the early novel White Noise (1985), or Jessie, the main female character in his more recent poetic opus, Point Omega (2010), who goes missing, to her father's horror, never to come up again, except in a flash of memory. The same haunting sense of searching for that which is beyond our grasp reappears in Don DeLillo's newest yet unpublished work Zero K, or at least in the extracts the distinguished author read last night to a small audience here in Lisbon. Zero K presents a science fictional universe in which the narrator's father has invested in a way to freeze the human body post-death, with the hope to eventually bring mind and body back together. The nightmarish extract DeLillo read to us--in his earnest determined voice--concerned the narrator searching for his "room" down a corridor, anxiously trying one door after another: one of which opens to three men in turbans burning themselves alive, another to a strange woman in a veil. "I think I have the wrong room," the narrator explains. "Every room is the wrong room," his respondent says.

I had more luck with my own personal search. I met Don DeLillo earlier that day, in his sumptuous hushed hotel, high on the hills of the historic town of Sintra, overlooking the ocean. This rare opportunity to have a conversation with DeLillo (notorious for not giving interviews) was, in fact, a main reason I flew twenty hours to this year's Lisbon-Estoril film festival, an extraordinary venue renowned for bringing together artists, film directors, writers and intellectuals in an intimate setting.

DeLillo stood modestly in the lobby, with a hint of a welcoming grin, a hint of friskiness in his pose, reminding me of the energy of his prose. I was surprised as he moved forward and waved a hand to recognize in his gestures the body language of an Italian (my own roots are Italian).

"It can't be true that you began writing late, in your twenties," I said to him, as we sat down in an 18th century drawing room, a chandelier high over our heads. "The way you write--with such verve and passion--it seems you have language generating in you from birth."

The morning sun coming through the tall windows lit the acclaimed author's whitened hair, as bright as the light in his merry eyes.

"It is true. I did not read serious fiction early, not even as a child, when I only read books like I Escaped from Devil's Island. I did not read serious fiction until later when I discovered, in reading books like James Farrell's novels set in Chicago, that literature could be about the places where I was living. When I discovered that one could write about places I know."

"You too enjoy using words to render a place?"

I loved DeLillo's raps with words: his lists of objects in spaces, from toothpaste and pillboxes in a bathroom, to the texture of a baseball field. As if the words--in their sensuality--could create and hold on to something that was just transiently there.

"Yes, I do like to write about places," DeLillo responded, and went on to enthuse about the joy he takes in "places": from the pleasure of returning to locales he knows from long ago, like a restaurant in the Bronx, with friends he knew as a child, to that of embracing America as his field of writing. In becoming a novelist, he confided, he was in essence repeating the voyage of his parents' journey to America from Abruzzo, the implication being that writing about America was his own form of immigration, assimilation and appropriation. His first writing was about the Bronx, turning the place to words.

"I made a leap when writing my first novel," he smiled, referring to his 1971 work. "That's why it's called Americana. Then in Underworld [1997], I rediscovered the Bronx; it became a pleasure to write it, to share memory. Nobody knows these things better than I do, these streets, these people.... When I get together with the guys I grew up with, we go to a restaurant--the same restaurant!--and that language comes back. The people in the restaurant are the people one would associate with Arthur Avenue in the Bronx. It's a remembrance, a revisitation."

As for the pleasure in language:

"It all starts with the alphabet! The shapes of the letters have a meaning that I could not even attempt to describe. How does this alphabet lead us to a theme, to fiction, which always refers to death in a broad sense? I don't have an answer. I don't explore my work philosophically."

It was apt that DeLillo spoke of death. Death is a strong presence in all of DeLillo's work. It is what some of his early characters fear with such dread that they turn to pharmaceuticals to deny its presence: or kill in order to shift the focus from their own mortality. Or they might get a haircut, turn to a woman's breasts for comfort, put groceries away in the fridge.

I wondered if this longstanding obsession---and DeLillo's own personal view of mortality--had shifted over the last forty years of writing, especially now that (as the writer admitted) he is "closer to death than before." In his last published work, Point Omega (2010), in fact, one can detect, rather than terror about mortality, a sublime sense of attraction to the prospect of "becoming a stone", the body gone.

Could DeLillo have gone through the same sea-change?

"I don't feel the menace of death," DeLillo said. "Yes, it is always there. People attempt to transcend it. [But for me] death is a word. The word death has power, visually on a page, thinking it, thinking of the letters in my mind. Death is a strong word, at least it is in English. Death. But as for death as a metaphysical concept, no I do not think about it. As for the people I have known who have died, this does not make me think about 'death' per se. My thoughts are about them, about missing them. 'Death', on the other hand, is a word. A very strong word."

For a man who is so linguistically inclined, it was fascinating to learn that his books often start with a visual image: either something he has actually seen (like the exhibit of Hitchcock's Psycho in slow motion at the Met, which inspired Point Omega) or an image he has imagined in his head. Even Libra, his 1988 bestseller about the Kennedy assassination, is inspired, to some extent, by an image: the video of Kennedy's death. It was a moment that changed the world, DeLillo exclaimed. "The split second of death on film."

The room we were sitting in was now blazing with light---the noon sun high over the Portuguese coast.

It reminded me of its contrary: the sunset, one of DeLillo's enduring tropes.

"You realize you have a thing for sunsets in your work..." I said.

"No, I did not realize that," DeLillo said, his eyebrows rising.

I quoted a few of his lines: written 25 years apart.

"Some people are scared by the sunsets, some determined to be elated, but most of us don't know how to feel, are ready to go either way [....] Certainly there is awe, it transcends previous categories of awe, but we don't know whether we are watching in wonder or dread, we don't know what we are watching or what it means, we don't know whether [the sunset] is permanent, a level of experience to which we will gradually adjust, into which our uncertainty will eventually be absorbed, or just some atmospheric weirdness, soon to pass."

"For Elster, sunset was human invention, our perceptual arrangement of light and space into elements of wonder. We looked and wondered. There was a trembling in the air as the unnamed colors and landforms took on definition, a clarity of outline and extent...."

"All of these sunsets express something similar. A certain cynicism," I said. "About our awe with sunsets."

With DeLillo's sunsets, one does not just feel awe; one is conscious of the human construction of our awe.

"Cynical is not the right word," DeLillo corrected me.

"No it's not," I agreed.

I pointed to the noon sun outside. "Could you please now describe a sunset--the last one you saw--one here in Portugal, perhaps over the ocean? I mean, have you seen a sunset here since you've come?"

"Yes, I did see a sunset here," DeLillo mused, in remembrance...

"Could you please describe it?"

Like a boy engaged in his favorite game---words---DeLillo's eyes lit up.

"A sunset can remind us of the fact we are on a planet, and it can remind us of the fragility of life, in such a circumstance, [that ours is] one planet in the solar system, a system that contains human consciousness. I think this is something one might automatically interpret from certain sunsets. There is a star 93 million miles away......"

"That's not cynical at all," I said, amazed at how DeLillo shone like a child, imagining his sunset.

"No, it's not."

"It's full of wonder," I said.

As DeLillo got up to go, shaking my hand (a very nice handshake), he noted, with a smile, his joy in "poetic human possibility."

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