Pathologies of the Public Sphere

  • Jeremy Green

Abstract

Nowhere in the fiction of the 1990s does the figure of the blocked writer appear more vividly than in Don DeLillo’s Mao II.1 Bill Gray, DeLillo’s supremely reclusive novelist, has spent 22 years on a book he finds himself unable to finish. His dissatisfaction with the text over which he has labored so long is only in part aesthetic; something in the culture at large, from which he has done everything possible to insulate himself, undermines his faith in the novel—the particular novel he is trying to complete, and the novel in general. It is not that he lacks readers. Indeed, he supports himself and his two assistants on the royalties from his two earlier novels, now classics. He still receives mail from his readers, and is well aware that the release of portrait photographs will cause a stir throughout the world of letters. Bill Gray’s self-imposed isolation has guaranteed that his fame, rather than diminishing in the years since his last publication, has grown precisely because of the mystique of his reclusive anonymity. Yet, all of this provides Bill Gray with confounding evidence of the writer’s loss of cultural authority. Bill’s fame had its beginnings in his writing. But in the last decade of the century, it derives from his refusal to participate in the media culture he considers entirely dominant. As Bill sardonically observes, “When a writer refuses to show his face, he becomes a local symptom of God’s famous reluctance to appear” (36). His cultural recognition is in inverse proportion to his visibility. This equation tells Bill that the writer’s place is now inextricable from iconicity, from the power of his image—or the absence of his image—as a signifier in the circuits of an all-pervasive commercial culture.

Keywords

Assure Sponge Agglomeration Bleached Stake 

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Notes

  1. 1.
    Don DeLillo, Mao II (New York: Viking, 1991 ). References will be given parenthetically.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Don DeLillo, “The Power of History,” New York Times Magazine (September 7, 1997): 63. Subsequent references will be given in parentheses (“Power”).Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    In his essay about the Kennedy assassination, “American Blood: A Journey Through the Labyrinth of Dallas and JFK,” Rolling Stone (December 8, 1983): 24, DeLillo makes a similar point about the actions of John Hinckley and the Secret Service men assigned to protect President Reagan: “Hinckley sees the act on television even as he commits it. (As do, conceivably, the Secret Service men, judging by a certain choreography of gesture that day in Washington, a self-conscious flourish of cocked weapons, as though the documentary history of the shooting was already running though the minds of one or two of the men on the scene.)”Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Several critics have explored the implications of DeLillo’s work in the light of Benjamin’s classic study of art and technology. See John Duvall, “The (Super) Marketplace of Images,” Arizona Quarterly 50.3 (1994): 127–153;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. John Duvall, “Baseball as Aesthetic Ideology: Cold War History, Race, and DeLillo’s ‘Pafko at the Wall,’” Modern Fiction Studies 41 (1995): 285–313.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. 6.
    Mark Seltzer, Serial Killers: Death and Life in America’s Wound Culture ( New York: Routledge, 1998 );Google Scholar
  7. Hal Foster, “Death in America,” October 75 (1996): 37–59;Google Scholar
  8. Michael Warner, “The Mass Public and the Mass Subject,” The Phantom Public Sphere, ed. by Bruce Robbins ( Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993 ), pp. 234–256.Google Scholar
  9. 11.
    Don DeLillo, “American Blood: A Journey Through the Labyrinth of Dallas and JFK,” Rolling Stone (December 8, 1983): 24.Google Scholar
  10. 13.
    Don DeLillo, End Zone (New York: Penguin, 1986 ). Future references to this text will be parenthetical.Google Scholar
  11. 14.
    Don DeLillo, Great Jones Street ( New York: Penguin, 1994 ).Google Scholar
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    Don DeLillo, The Names ( New York: Vintage, 1989 ).Google Scholar
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    Don DeLillo, Libra ( New York: Viking, 1988 ).Google Scholar
  14. 17.
    Michael Oriard, “Don DeLillo’s Search for Walden Pond,” Critique 20.1 (1978): 5–24, associates these retreats with the Thoreauvian desire in American culture to turn from society to deliberative individual self-sufficiency. Yet, as Mark Osteen has astutely noted in an essay on Great Jones Street, DeLillo’s protagonists find their isolation to be dominated by the seriality of the mass-market. Mark Osteen, “‘A Moral Form to Master Commerce’: The Economies of DeLillo’s Great Jones Street,” Critique 35 (1994): 157–172.Google Scholar
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    Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form: Twentieth Century Dialectical Theories of Literature ( Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971 ), p. 248.Google Scholar
  16. 21.
    Don DeLillo, White Noise ( New York: Viking, 1985 ).Google Scholar
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    Mary Ann Doane, “Information, Crisis, Catastrophe,” Logics of Television: Essays in Cultural Criticism, ed. by Patricia Mellencamp ( Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990 ), p. 231.Google Scholar
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    Jean Baudrillard, “The Ecstasy of Communication,” The Anti-Aesthetic, ed. by Hal Foster ( Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983 ), p. 129.Google Scholar
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    Adam Begley, “The Art of Fiction CXXV: Don DeLillo,” Paris Review 35.128 (1993): 301–302.Google Scholar
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    Don DeLillo, Americana ( New York: Penguin, 1989 ).Google Scholar
  21. 33.
    Samuel Weber, Mass Mediauras: Form, Technics, Media, ed. by Alan Cholodenko (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996 ), p. 101.Google Scholar

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© Jeremy Green 2005

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  • Jeremy Green

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