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Reading DeLillo

by Thomas Murray

Don DeLillo’s prescient interpretation of American culture has consistently held a mirror to the population’s fears and wrestled them before they became international crises. His novels and plays have taken on matters as extreme as airborne chemical disasters over middle America to matters as prosaic as reality-based television. But it is the way these sundry events force characters to confront their own mortality that refl ects the human condition in DeLillo’s works. Anxiety over death is fertile soil for many works of literature and drama, especially since dying is rarely an individual affair—the tremors of one person’s death ripple outward among loved ones with visceral intensity. DeLillo’s critically acclaimed novel White Noise, which won the National Book Award in 1985, revolves around the Midwestern family of Jack and Babette Gladney. He chairs the department of Hitler Studies at a liberal arts college, while she reads tabloid magazines to the blind community in her spare time from homemaking. On the eve of an epic chemical disaster that will ignite the community’s worst fears, Jack grapples with the way that his existence is tethered to his wife and his precocious children: “Who will die first? She says she wants to die first because she would feel unbearably lonely and sad without me, especially if the children were grown and living elsewhere. She is adamant about this. She sincerely wants to precede me. She discusses the subject with such argumentative force that it’s obvious she thinks we have a choice in the matter. She also thinks nothing can happen to us as long as there are dependent children in the house. The kids are a guarantee of our relative longevity. We’re safe as long as they’re around. But once they get big and scatter, she wants to be the first to go. She sounds almost eager. She is afraid I will die unexpectedly, sneakily, slipping away in the night. It isn’t that she doesn’t cherish life; it’s being left alone that frightens her. The emptiness, the sense of cosmic darkness.” The engulfing abyss of loss and loneliness following the death of a spouse is the frame of DeLillo’s 2001 novel The Body Artist. After performance artist Lauren Hartke loses her husband to suicide, an uninvited visitor who has the mysterious means to channel her late husband appears within Lauren’s house. Their revelatory conversation focuses her self-awareness as she tries to rebuild her shattered life on a desolate New England coast: “Why shouldn’t the death of a person you love bring you into lurid ruin? You don’t know how to love the ones you love until they disappear abruptly. Then you understand how thinly distanced from their suffering, how sparing of self you often were, only rarely unguarded of heart, working your networks of give-and-take.” Steppenwolf’s previous dramatic collaboration with DeLillo—the 2000 production of Valparaiso directed by ensemble member Frank Galati— follows a businessman whose erroneous journey to Chile’s Valparaiso rather than the intended Indiana municipality is exhibited on a national television talk show. In front of the unforgiving eye of the camera, Michael Majeski confesses to trying to take his own life in the aircraft lavatory before landing in the unintended Valparaiso—buckling under the mounting guilt of having permanently debilitated his son in an alcohol-related automobile accident: “Where is wife Livia at this point? She’s in the living room on her exercise bike, doing demon repetitions. She is smoking her third herbal cigarette of the morning. She chain-smokes herbs and spices. It’s the morning after the night. Her eyes are pouchy. Face is drained. This makes me feel some unaccountable guilt. I pour a cup of coffee and take it in to her. I don’t know what to say. I can’t fi nd a way into some ordinary warmth. Something easy and agreeable. And I drink, which doesn’t help. It helps but it doesn’t. Does this make sense? Because I’ve kept on drinking even after the car crash. Because I’ve kept on drinking because of the car crash. Because she drinks because I drink.” Now, in Love-Lies-Bleeding, a new terrain of the human-death relationship is explored. An invalid artist, supported by feeding tubes after a second stroke, is surrounded by his young wife, his estranged ex-wife, and his son. The play transpires not in a hospital surrounded by doctors, lawyers, and clergymen, but in his home in the arid Southwestern desert. It is not professionals who are determining the course of the end of this individual’s life; it is those who have been intimate with him who find themselves exploring and negotiating what it means to be alive and when and how life ends. “Not that he’s alive. Not that he’s dead. No longer and not yet. This is where he is. Try to understand.”