Monday, May 2, 2011

Americana - Don Dellilo

Don Dellilo's works have been described as novels of ideas and I agree with that. Several of his novels have an idea/concept/contemporary social more as the base and the characters in the novel serve as props for that. (It could be consumerism/threat of nuclear warfare in 'White Noise', power of the mob/television in 'Mao II'. )However this is not to give an impression that Dellilo is trying to shove things down the readers throat, not at all. On the other hand, it seems to me like he has something to say and instead of using the non-fiction format he is writing novels. I don't claim to understand his novels fully (can we claim that of any work of art at all?) nor can I say that I enjoy reading this works (enjoy as in it's most basic meaning). But he engages me, I feel he has something to say to me, something which I have not noticed, something that I may have noticed but cannot articulate it in the way he does. That's why I keep going back to his works. I see that I am writing more about the man than about the novel which the post is about. That's because as I have said in the beginning his novels are in several cases novels of ideas and so an introduction into the author is as needed as about the work. Another thing that I noticed is that his works are sometimes rooted to America or a particular time period in America, so it could be a bit off putting to readers. For example 'Libra' is about Harvey Lee Oswald. The reader has to have some basic information on the Kennedy assassination and probably some interest in it to read it. Else it would probably not have the same impact. Or, the prologue in 'Underworld' which is a 60 page description of a baseball playoff game set in the 50's. I had to slog through it, not knowing about the base ball rules and also the context of the game which is apparently a part of American sporting folklore. (Let me put it this way, an American would have felt the same had he read a novel in which the prologue is about India's 83 world cup final match and winning it. He would be completely out of the loop isn't it).But by and large his novels address a bigger world view and we can relate to it from anywhere. Again you need to be in a certain mindset to read him (from my personal experience). If you are in no mood to read about the television images and it's impact you would probably miss the point of Mao II. (like what happened to me first time round). Considering all this, Americana Dellilo's first novel, published in 1971 is the best place to start him off. It also conforms the most to what could be termed as a conventional novel. The novel is split into 2 parts, the first part is of the office novel genre and the second part is of the road novel genre.

The protagonist of the novel is 'David Bell' who is also the narrator of the novel. A film student and an executive at a television studio. He is young, highly successful with the possibility of going given higher in his profession and the future looking rosy. With all the success he has, he is looking over his shoulder to see if any younger guy is on the horizon who could overtake him and at the same time looking forward to see the persons whom he has to overtake. Like Janus of the myths, he is looking both ways. He seems to be living in a vacuum. The beginning of the novel itself tells us about his current mindset 'Then we came to the end of another dull and lurid year.'  (P.S Joshua Ferris's first novel is named from the first part of this line 'Then we came to end'). As the novel progresses, David settles into a sort of ennui. He sort of loses interest in his work, does not care about the ratings and generally settles down into a stupor of blank emptiness. He knows that he is ignoring his work and it would have serious ramifications, but he is beyond caring. It's like sitting on a ticking bomb or going at great speed in car towards the mountain cliff. You know you are going to crash, but are so beyond caring about what is going to happen. (Shades of this mood could be seen in Eric Packer of Dellilo published in 2003, somethings don't seem to change over the years isn't it). This part of the novel is funny at times with lots of black humor, but nothing really new if you have read other novels in the office novel genre ('Something happened' comes to mind). At the end of the first part, David finally loses wakes up from his ennui goes on a road trip with a video camera, officially to work on his job, but on a personal quest in reality. This is the second part of the novel.

Armed with his camera, David sets out to the heart land of America, to basically a nowhere land. He meets various people. As his trip progresses, David starts using his camera becomes a voyeuristic tool capturing people at a most primitive level with all their defenses down . People are willing to bare their most inner most thoughts on families, friends, relationships in front of the camera. They are ready to perform sexual acts in front of the camera. It's not just about voyeurism but also says something about the willingness of people to be the object of the voyeurism. This is something that is very related in today's times of reality shows, mms scandals et all. In some ways Dellilo seems to have prefigured in the 70's ,what's happening today. David becomes more and more distanced from the reality of his professional life which is spiraling towards disaster and becomes more and more obsessed with the trip and camera itself, capturing not only people, but also the american landscape and having reminiscences about his childhood. The novel runs all over the place (much like the protagonist) and ends with David going off to Dallas to the place of Kennedy's assassination. (again a more American 
pre-occupation from the 60's and 70's about Kennedy's assassination). 

Check out this link ( of a Dellilo short story. 

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