Tag Archives: 9/11

“To be seen or not seen”: Art and Artifice in Don DeLillo’s ‘Zero K’

At 79 years old at the time of writing, it seems fitting that death looms large for Don DeLillo in his most recent novel, Zero K. Fitting also is DeLillo’s pseudo-scientific subject matter in an era driven by high-techological consumerism and the concomitant concerns regarding the potentially insidious role technology may play in our future.

“All plots move deathward” (221) DeLillo wrote in LibraZero K, however, “reverse[s] the text” (128), beginning with death as its subject and never leaving it. In Zero K death is not thematically revealed through plot, but takes center stage from the outset as DeLillo gets his teeth into the great existential debate of cryogenic freezing, whereby wealthy patrons can come to a scientific facility called Convergence to “Rewrite the sad grim grieving playscript of death in the usual manner” (76).

Critical responses thus far have tended to see Zero K in biographical terms as a repository for an ageing DeLillo’s own time-end meditations, or as prophecy of our society’s movement towards so-called “faith-based technology”(9). While there is certainly much ground to cover on both of these subjects, I would suggest that the novel’s central question has less to do with death or the sciences, and a great deal more to do with the position of art itself in the postmodern world – a question, perhaps, all the more intensely pondered by man acutely aware of the reality that his art will outlive him.

As a facility, Convergence lies somewhere between a laboratory, a chapel, and an avant-garde art installation, described as “a model of shape and form, a wilderness of vision, all lines and angles and jutted wings” (229). DeLillo’s protagonist, Jeffrey, leads us through a series of bare, sterile rooms and endless halls with pastel doors that appear to open on to nowhere. Jeffrey is keenly aware of the artifice of the whole spectacle, remarking on the “museum quality” (122) of the carefully constructed walled garden and asking the man he meets if he thinks the garden “suggests a kind of mockery” (123).

Indeed, this sense of fabrication and imitation is embodied by the very characters themselves: Ross and Jeffrey Lockhart carry a borrowed name whimsically chosen, while Ross’ wife – the archaeologist who leaves behind a life of uncovering the past for a presumed future – is saddled with the most obviously loaded first name, ‘Artis’. DeLillo’s choice of title also reveals much about his conception of the novel as a cultural artifact, “Zero K” being in itself a stylisation based on a scientific phenomena which is not even part of the cryogenic process: “The term, then, was pure drama” (143).

In all the novel’s self-aware artifice, DeLillo is engaging with postmodern theories of art and images, such as that of Signs and Simulacra in which Jean Baudrillard argues that we live in a state of hyperreality and can no longer distinguish reality from simulation.

“Simulation is no longer a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreality.” (Baudrillard I)

The notion of hyperreality is explored in the novel through the screens in the Convergence hallways, projecting a torrent of images of catastrophe. The introduction of these images to the story raises powerful questions of how violent images become embedded into our culture to the point of desensitization. Vietnam Monk

Jeffrey, although frequently overwhelmed by what he perceives to be his “role” to “watch whatever they put in front of [him]” (139), recognizes that these images are exactly that: “computer generated, none of it real” (152). Artis, too, is aware of this and it is precisely to escape this indefinite “referral of signifier to signified” (Derrida 25) that she turns to Convergence.

“We’re seeing only imitations. The rest is our intervention, our way of constructing what is actual, if there is any such thing, philosophically, that we can call actual.” (45)

The Convergence promises that its subjects will be reborn into a “deeper and truer reality”, with a new language based on “objective truth” (130).  In this way, DeLillo’s conception of Convergence presents an imagined escape from the intellectual cul-de-sac of postmodernism and its trappings of self-referentiality. Yet Artis’ soliloquy following her ‘death’ points up the utter fallacy of the Utopian notion of objective truth altogether: in her disembodied state the language her consciousness calls up is divorced from any meaning and exists only as words in the ether, “open prose of a third-person voice that is also her voice” (272).

In Zero K DeLillo comes to largely ignore the many debates initially posed by his science-fiction premise. Instead, he sets out to question the very nature of art itself, setting it up against science and death only to reclaim it as a means of representing and organizing reality. As DeLillo himself stated, “art is one of the consolation prizes we receive for having lived in a difficult and sometimes chaotic world” (qtd DeCurits 74). There is no beauty to be found in death, no art, and it is with this assurance that the novel comes to a close – with the rejection of “heaven’s light” (274) and the abundantly alive cries of a young boy.

Citations

Baudrillad, Jean. Signs and Simulacra. Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1994.

DeCurtis, Anthony. “An Outsider in this Society: An Interview with Don DeLillo”. Conversations With Don DeLillo. Ed. Thomas DePietro. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995.

DeLillo, Don. Zero K. London: Picador, 2016.

DeLillo, Don. Libra. London: Penguin, 1989.

Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1976.

Image Citations

Browne, Malcolm. “The Burning Monk”. Rare Historical Photos. 2nd April 2017 http://rarehistoricalphotos.com/the-burning-monk-1963/

Domesticated Crisis: The Changed ‘routine moment’ in Don DeLillo’s Falling Man

Reflecting upon the atrocity of 9/11 in his 2001 essay ‘In the Ruins of the Future’, Don DeLillo writes:

Terror’s response is a narrative that has been developing over years, only now becoming inescapable. It is our lives and minds that are occupied now. This catastrophic event changes the way we think and act, moment to moment, week to week, for unknown weeks and months to come, and steely years. Our world, parts of our world, have crumbled into theirs, which means we are living in a place of danger and rage (33).

Later on in the essay, he assesses that ‘the event [9/11] has changed the grain of the most routine moment’ (39). DeLillo palpably traces these changes facing the ‘routine moment’ in his 2007 novel, Falling Man, to depict the place of ‘danger and rage’ which we occupy in the age of terror. DeLillo’s novel is in many ways the embodiment of Richard Gray’s statement: ‘crisis is, in every sense of the word, domesticated’ (134). In the novel, Keith Neudecker, survivor of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, notes how ordinariness is ‘so normally unnoticeable’ (51), but now ‘things were ordinary as well’ (my emphasis, 67). Thus I wish to offer some insights as to what ‘as well’ might mean: analysing how we have changed the way we think and act and how the ‘routine moment’ has changed, according to DeLillo.

Lianne Neudecker, wife of Keith, ‘lived in the spirit of what is ever impending’ (212). She is firmly situated in the ‘place of danger and rage’ and her actions act as manifestations of its affective atmosphere. In the following example, Lianne engages in the same type of thought processes which in a political context, lead to pre-emptive measures so essential to characterising and justifying American foreign policy after 9/11. She imagines the negative outcome of what might happen but significantly, does so in an entirely domestic and almost trivial situation. In this way, DeLillo addresses how the political atmosphere of fear produced by 9/11 now begins to violently infiltrate the domestic, changing the ‘routine moment’: ‘She wondered what the kid would make of the mango chutney she’d bought, or maybe he’d had it already, had it and hated it, at the Siblings’ because Katie talked about it once, or someone did’ (22). In this example, DeLillo’s carefully chosen language incorporating modality (‘would make’), (‘maybe’), and unspecificity (‘someone did’), suggests that what lies behind this ‘danger and rage’ is crippling uncertainty.

Such doubt does not only instil fear. It also inspires our impulsive need in the twenty-first century, in the face of crisis, to analyse and criticise everything:

Everything seemed to mean something. Their lives were in transition and she looked for signs. Even when she was barely aware of an incident it came to mind later, with meaning attached, in sleepless episodes that lasted minutes or hours, she wasn’t sure (67).

In the era of terror, it becomes difficult to remain on autopilot whilst performing everyday mundane tasks. To exemplify, Lianne attaches meaning even when she flushes the toilet: ‘She didn’t flush the toilet to make others think she’d left the living room for a compelling reason. The flushing toilet wasn’t audible in the living room. This was for her own pointless benefit, flushing’ (48). This obsessive analysis is another characteristic of the changed ‘routine moment’ but is not ‘pointless’. To elaborate, Keith desperately attempts to cling onto the idea of routine by religiously maintaining his physical regime, finding it ‘restorative’, and is comforted by repeating the phrase ‘gentle fist’ used on his instruction sheet (40). Keith’s comfort exists in this scenario because these exercises are precise and clinically proven, non-interpretative, and in the wake of the unbelievable, there is a desperate need for validation and coherence. As Keith and Lianne watch one of the endless repeats televising the unimaginable moment in which the first tower hit the World Trade Centre, they conclude that ‘it has to be’ (135) an accident. The need for validation and coherence is so desperate precisely because as Baudrillard observes we can ‘try retrospectively to impose some kind of meaning on it, to find some kind of interpretation. But there is none’ (30).

DeLillo’s most compelling illustration of the changed ‘routine moment’ is revealed in the episode involving Giorgio Morandi’s still life paintings. In his influential text Looking at the Overlooked (1990), Norman Bryson writes that ‘no-one can escape the conditions of creaturality, of eating and drinking and domestic life, with which still life is concerned’ (13). When Martin and Lianne see the towers in what are seemingly vases, DeLillo integrates terror into domestic life, into the ordinary which still life is supposed to depict. Terrorism is now, like the ‘routine moment’, inescapable, and thus the two must disturbingly co-exist. However in addition, this moment is connective for Martin and Lianne. Therefore, whilst DeLillo exposes and addresses the implications of the changes occurring to the ‘routine moment’, he simultaneously suggests that art is helpful to work through trauma, or further, redemptive. Our newfound inquisitiveness (previously identified as a characteristic of the changed ‘routine moment’) draws us to art. Lianne, having dismissed the second line of a haiku, later recalls its importance. Investigating those minute details present in art or literature, and decoding what they signify as a whole, be it within a still life painting or DeLillo’s Falling Man itself, provides comfort and purpose. DeLillo responds to that which others will not, or simply cannot – but crucially, throughout the text, he enforces the fact that he does not exclusively own his work. When Lianne suggests increasing the number of sessions for the Alzheimer’s patients, Dr. Apter warns ‘It’s theirs’, ‘Don’t make it yours’ (60). Instead, echoing pragmatist John Dewey’s Art as Experience (1934), DeLillo invites us to attach our own meaning to his work: ‘Turn it into living tissue, who you are’ (210). Falling Man is thus DeLillo’s offering – something to claim in all that has been lost.

By Guest Blogger, Sarah McCreedy.

Bibliography

Baudrillard, Jean. The Spirit of Terrorism and Other Essays. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso, 2002.

Bryson, Norman. Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting. London: Reaktion Books, 1990.

DeLillo, Don. Falling Man. London: Picador, 2007.

—. “In the Ruins of the Future.” Harpers Magazine. Dec. 2001: 33-39.

Dewey, John. “Art as Experience.” Art and its Significance: An Anthology of Aesthetic Theory. Ed. Stephen David Ross. New York: State University of New York Press: 1994. 204-220.

Gray, Richard. After the Fall: American Literature Since 9/11. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.

Image Credit

Giorgio Morandi, ‘Natura Morta (Still Life)’, 1956 (oil on canvas) via www.artyfactory.com

The Road to salvation?

Paul  McArdle offers a review of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as a cautionary post-9/11 tale.

In a post 9-11 context, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road  presents to the reader  through the characterisation of the ‘man’ and the ‘boy’, a quest for survival against the backdrop of a pillaged and desolate post-apocalyptic landscape. McCarthy creates a world which has been decimated, and the writer’s depiction of America specifically as a barren wasteland in which; “The Road was empty. Below in the little valley the still gray serpentine of a river. Motionless and precise” (4) communicates to the reader a sense of fragility and unease  in relation to the precarious nature of twenty-first century living. Indeed, the years directly following the 9-11 event and arguably, the global events leading up to the present time are a hybrid of social and political uncertainty and unease. The issues concerning the degradation of the environment, coupled with the political aftermath of the events off 9-11 have perhaps characterised many works in the past decade, and specifically, McCarthy’s The Road. Therefore, it is this global sense of unease which I believe is captured in McCarthy’s narrative, and is perhaps translated in the plot of the narrative as a possible consequence to the unsustainable twenty-first century way of life.

The imagery of “Human bodies. Sprawled in every altitude. Dried and shrunken in their rotted clothes” (48) undoubtedly conveys a disturbing scene to the reader, and through evoking a sense of hysteria from the reader, McCarthy depicts the possible consequences of unsustainable social and political ways of life. The underlying sense of motionlessness in the novel signals an end to the twenty-first century way of life effectively, and bemoans a loss of human interactions and societal conventions. Indeed, McCarthy presents America in the aftermath of an extreme, cataclysmic event which we cannot deny is directly related to the loss of humanity which is an underlying theme throughout the novel in its entirety. McCarthy presents an end to ‘normal’ twenty first century human conventions as the narrator claims in relation to the ‘man’ that: “This is my child. I wash a dead man’s brains out of his hair. That is my job” (77) conveying a complex scene of survival in the in juxtaposition to paternal bonding.

Significantly, the cataclysmic event which triggered the alternative reality McCarthy creates in the novel is presented to the reader as an effective end to time. It is claimed in the novel therefore that “The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions” (54) which creates a sense of obscurity in relation to the catastrophic event, whilst signalling an end to the human measurement of time and  thus, any resemblance to social reality in the twenty-first century. Again, throughout the novel as a whole, there is an evident loss of humanity and civilisation, “the richness of a vanished world” (147) and this sense of loss appears as a direct consequence of unsustainable ways of twenty-first century living.

Yet, in a post 9-11 context, it is my critical opinion that whilst McCarthy effectively conveys a deep loss of humanity in a post-apocalyptic landscape, to some extent, we cannot deny that there is an inherent sense of hope for the survival of humanity and of normal social conventions throughout the novel as a whole. The characterisations of the ‘man’ and the ‘boy’ represent the lost humanity through being referred to as ‘the good guys’. Despite killing for survival, there is a sense of an uncompromising desire to uphold pre-apocalyptic attitudes and morals, and this perhaps evidenced through the boy’s desire to “carry the fire”. 

Therefore, I argue that whilst McCarthy respectively creates an alternative apocalyptic reality which mirrors the consequences of unstable twenty-first century living, it is through his protagonists that there is an evident  quest for the survival of humanity.

Image: Dorothea Lange, 1938.

Blank Spaces: America Reimagined

In this Talking Point, Sarah McCreedy considers blank spaces and shifting territories in post-9/11 American fiction.

Michael Rothberg demanded a change in the post-9/11 novel.  He acknowledged that ‘an intellectually and politically mature literature must leave national-domestic space behind for riskier “foreign” encounters.’ (157). Writers on the module* so far including Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, George Saunders and Maureen McHugh have met this demand unconventionally. Their ‘riskier foreign encounters’ are constructed by  blank spaces, worlds never encountered before, in which America can be reimagined and redefined. Such environments provide a safe distance in which to critique America. Behind the comfortable laughter we experience reading stories like Saunders’ Jon, is the frightening realisation that America is currently only a few miles away from these turbulent realms.

In The Road, McCarthy’s blank world is composed by its complete namelessness, and its breakdown of language. The boy asks his father, ‘Where’s the neighborhood?’ (100), and should we not be asking in the digital age, where is our neighbourhood? Are we becoming McHugh’s ‘sightless’ (7) zombies whose communities are reduced to virtual ones? Saunders’  Jon observes, ‘Maybe we can come to be normal,’ (60). However, even in his moments of supposed authenticity, ironically, Jon bandwagon advertises his own philosophy, ‘isn’t that how it is with our heads, when we are in them it always makes sense, but then later, when you look back, we sometimes are like, I am acting like a total dumbass!’ (47). Is this humorous? Or is it a prediction of the future for Americans? Or have we already reached this point?

In DeLillo’s Point Omega, Jim notes how Elster is situated, ‘somewhere south of nowhere in the Sonoran Desert or maybe it was the Mojave Desert or another desert altogether.’ (25). Are we truly in America in this novella? The landscape is of course intentional, the anonymity of Jessie’s ‘killer/kidnapper’ ambiguous, and the unsolved nature of the case reminiscent of the fact that war in the Middle East is ongoing. In addition, in McHugh’s ‘The Naturalist’, Cahill imitates an Islamic terrorist, becoming that individual, sacrificial force, driven by ‘suicidal craziness’ (11), fighting against those ‘Zombie businessmen’, (12), or, American capitalism. America subconsciously rejects this simulation of Islamic terrorism in its own territory and thus Cahill is rescued and reappropriated back into American ‘civilised’ society.

In these blank spaces, these ‘riskier foreign countries’, masquerades in the form  of, for example, missing person cases or  zombie breakout narratives can be decoded to reveal much more important social and political commentaries, which magnify the cracks in contemporary America. Trauma is remembered in these dream-like environments, these distorted images of America. In these texts, America is outside America, and inside America, all at the same time.

*MA Module: Literature in Crisis: American Writing in the 21st Century

 

Bibliography

DeLillo, Don. Point Omega. London: Picador, 2010.

McCarthy, Cormac. The Road.  London: Picador, 2006.

McHugh, Maureen F. “The Naturalist.” After the Apocalypse.  East Hampton, MA: Small Beer Press, 2011. 1-29.

Rothberg, Michael. “A Failure of the Imagination: Diagnosing the Post-9/11 Novel: A Response to Richard Gray.” American Literary History. Vol. 21, No.1. (Spring 2009), 152-58.

Saunders, George.  “Jon.” In Persuasion Nation. Riverhead Books, 2006.  23-61.

[Image by Alanthebox (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons]