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Don DeLillo and Mean Hank James

April 24, 2009

I’ve been plotting this post for some time, since around the middle of Chapter 2 actually.   I’ve been hampered by the days it took to unearth a copy of Americana, by Don DeLillo, from the back of my closet.   Paging through, I remember why I didn’t like it, or finish it.

There’s a casual, caustic meanness and pettiness to the way the characters interact.   “It was a party and we didn’t want to talk to each other.  The whole point was to separate for the evening and find exciting people to talk to and then at the very end, to meet again and tell each other how terrible it had been and how glad we were to be together again.”  It may be that I should avoid reading DeLillo or watching Mad Men, but reading endless scenes of men groping secretaries who have “stereophonic tits,” and taking 3 martini lunches makes me feel grubby.

When he’s not writiting about awful people being awful to and about each other, DeLillo writes nearly lyrical prose about New York city itself.  “Thousands of men hurried toward Grand Central, moving in broken strides, dodging, marching down deep corridors…the warm trains waiting, long darkness, newsprint on every finger, the fight against sleep.”

Henry James offers a similarly disjointed pairing of mean, repugnant characters, and lovely atmospheric writing about New York.  Finally, digging into the third chapter, Hank James stops mocking his characters long enough to give me some scenery.    Dr. Sloper has a house in Washington Square, “a handsome, modern, wide-fronted house” (that is now probably part of the NYU camupus.)  Around the corner was the more august precinct of Fifth Avenue, taking its origin at this point with the more spacious and confident air which already marked it for high destinies.”

These passages, with characters and individual opinions erased, are lovely to read aloud.  Once you take both Henry James and Don DeLillo out of the nasty, petty scrutiny of individual people’s flaws and foibles, the larger scenic view has a reverence, maybe even a subdued joy.   I feel like I can relax into these lovely passages, until a character moves through, and I’m alert to the ways this one is going to get mocked, condescended to, or picked to shreds, by authors who seem like the gossipy popular girls of some slick, literary high school.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2009 9:53 pm

    I have to say, I LOVE Mad Men, for its wit and its style and its storytelling. I find their handling of the period fascinating, because they do such a solid job of inhabiting the era while still highlighting all the really repugnant things about society of the time in a way that reads like a supertext display at an opera. It’s a very stark show, and I admit I have a hard time watching it without Tim around to comfort me, but I find it gripping.

    That’s the thing about these types of period pieces – sometimes they go out of their way to create unlikeable characters and imperfect relationships in order to highlight certain social/political problems of the era. It makes them hard to stomach, but it doesn’t necessarily make them bad stories. (It does make them bad escapes though, since they offer no refuge.)

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