Writing also means trying to advance the art. Fiction hasn’t quite been filled in or done in or worked out. We make our small leaps.
Don DeLillo, 1982
What becomes of the prophet when the prophecy comes true? This was the recurring question guiding the content and context of the recent University of Sussex conference, The State of Fiction: Don DeLillo in the Twenty-First Century. The principle provocation – that DeLillo is essentially all written out – was first posed by Professor John N Duvall (Purdue University) during his extended morning keynote, ‘DeLillo’s Apostasy: Where has the Humour and the History Gone?’, and returned to during the closing observations of University of Sussex’s leading academic on the possibilities and limitations of DeLillo’s fiction, Peter Boxall.
Duvall’s opening contention was that the seriousness of DeLillo’s more recent work belies a personal philosophy which has all but given up on the political possibilities of laughter, where 9/11, and the Harper’s essay ‘In The Ruins of the Future’, signify a major break with the historically-focused fiction of DeLillo’s past. Duvall observed “in late DeLillo, the personal is political”. His switch from the power of history and the humour of political dread to the consciousness-shaping power of visual art and slowed time has disappointingly produced a sequence of comparatively minor works (The Body Artist, Falling Man, Point Omega). The spirit of ‘major’ DeLillo, Duvall argued, is now to be found in writers such as Jarrett Kobek, whose presentation of Islamic otherness in his 2011 novel Atta moves the reader closer to the terrorist impulse than DeLillo’s “paper-thin” portrayal in Falling Man.
The remainder of the conference was framed around three core sessions containing papers which loosely adhered to their thematic framework: sessions on terrorism, the everyday and the visual image yielded some idiosyncratic and intriguing approaches to his work. Stephanie Lambert (University of York) departed from commonplace critical representations of DeLillo’s postmodernism to instead reposition his oeuvre alongside the ‘new sincerity’ of writers such as Jennifer Egan and David Foster Wallace. Drawing on the sociology of Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, Lambert proposed that DeLillo’s critique of Jamesonian depthlessness and ahistoricity can be found in the textual sensuousness of his treatment of everyday objects. A paper by Kirsty Hemsworth (University of Sheffield) considered DeLillo in translation as a means of gleaning complex ‘cognitive maps’ within the temporal, spatial and psychological terrain of his fiction. The paper stressed the hermeneutic value of reading across translated texts as a retroactive form of analysis, revealing and enabling competing and reciprocal concepts of identity to be negotiated across the translation divide. These two highly nuanced papers on the overlooked and marginal in DeLillo stood out alongside the usual explorations of the “curious knot” between terrorists and writers.
Two papers on DeLillo and the visual also stood out. Dr Ronan McKinney’s (University of Sussex) paper drew on the author’s empathic deployment of Giorgio Morandi’a paintings in the narrative of Falling Man as a means to overcome individual and collective trauma. McKinney drew upon the trauma theories of Butler, Caruth and Bersani to observe how these paintings were fundamental to the ‘counter-narrative’ presented in Falling Man in staging the psychological self-shattering and self-recognition needed to apprehend and abreact the traumatic experience of 9/11. The novelist and academic Jonathan Gibbs’ presentation on the reverse ekphrasis of The Body Artist, framed around the non-narrativised representation of the performance artist Lauren Hartke’s work, ‘Body Time’ – which we see in the text through ‘neutral’ journalistic language rather than that of narrative prose – as gesturing towards aesthetic revelation by withholding the negligible comprehensibility of the performative artwork. Both papers pointed towards a new ethical position to DeLillo’s late work –satire ceding ground to seriousness – albeit a position arguably problematized by its presentation in supposedly ‘minor’ texts.
The closing plenary session drew tight the loose strands of the conference, with Peter Boxall identifying the problematic classification of DeLillo’s work (major/minor, early/mid/late), and a revisitation of the author’s ongoing difficulties in establishing an effective and coherent counter-narrative to Islamic otherness and the internet, as two of the more pressing concerns for admirers of DeLillo. The plenary panel agreed that while the posthistorical moment necessitated a new aesthetic mode, the likelihood that DeLillo would the one to provide it was discussed with skepticism. Responding to speculation that another DeLillo novel might be ‘in the works’, John Duvall wryly remarked ‘let’s hope it’s another short one’.