The rhythm of jazz on a typewriter
TWENTY years on, I can still remember the exact thrill of reading Don DeLillo’s novel White Noise , the fluorescent white light of his descriptions of shopping malls and muzak, of consumer life in urban America, of the airborne toxic event.
I met DeLillo at the launch party of the PEN World Voices Festival in New York earlier this year. Leaning against a marble pillar, he clutched a glass of water and looked like he wanted to melt away into that cold white stone, uncomfortable with so many people around. He’d lost his voice and spoke in a whisper. DeLillo is trim and wiry. His lips are thin, turning slightly downwards at the corners, and his eyes follow the same curve. He looks serious, with a streettough edge. But not mean, not unapproachable.
Two days later, backstage at New York’s Town Hall, sucking on a lozenge to soothe his still inflamed and raspy throat, DeLillo said with a smile: ‘‘ Why are you dancing, Caro?’’ I was excitedly jumping up and down. ‘‘ I’m happy,’’ I said. ‘‘ We have a full house, and you are here.’’
Since he rarely agrees to public events and his throat had actually improved enough for him to make it, I figured I had two counts for dancing on. I opened the heavy velvet curtain. ‘‘ You’re on.’’ He coughed to clear his throat and walked out on to the stage, greeted by the rapturous applause of 1500 New Yorkers.
The child of Italian immigrants, DeLillo was born 71 years ago in an Italian- American neighbourhood in the Bronx. However, he looks no older than 55. Author and critic Joyce Carol Oates has described him as ‘‘ a man of frightening perception’’. And an antithetical nature, it seems. He told the Paris Review in an extended interview in 1993 how at 18 he got a job as a Bronx playground attendant. He was told to wear a white T- shirt, brown pants and shoes and a whistle around his neck. He wore blue jeans and a checked shirt. His whistle stayed silent in his top pocket while he ‘‘ just sat on a park bench disguised as an ordinary citizen’’, reading Faulkner and James Joyce, collecting a weekly pay packet.
To the British writer Martin Amis, DeLillo is ‘‘ the poet of the paranoid’’ and he has been criticised for a gloomy, conspiracy- laden view of the US. Many of his novels have a dark core: a toxic spill ( White Noise ), Lee Harvey Oswald and JFK’s assassination ( Libra ), the Cold War ( Underworld ) and most recently, in Falling Man, the September 11 terrorist attacks.
As The Paris Review interview reveals, DeLillo is driven to write novels that try ‘‘ to be equal to the complexities and excesses of the culture’’. A pair of ‘‘ mated headlines’’ in the October 4, 1951, edition of The New York Times inspired him to write Underworld , the work that confirmed his status as an author of immense and lasting importance.
‘‘ Top of the page. Same typeface, same type size. Each headline three columns wide, three lines deep,’’ as he explained in an essay published in the newspaper in 1997. One was about a ball game, the other about a Soviet atomic test. ‘‘ A fiction writer feels the nearly palpable lure of large events and it can make him want to enter the narrative,’’ he wrote.
Lured by the attacks on the twin towers, DeLillo is back on stage with Falling Man. The novel opens after the collapse of the first tower. Keith Neudecker has escaped with minor injuries, and in a zombie- like auto- pilot shock, covered in dust and with glass- cuts to his face, an injury to his hand and the blood of others soaking his shirt, he finds himself back at his former home, the residence of his ex- wife Lianne and ‘‘ the kid’’, Justin. Rather than delve into the bigger political story of this catastrophe, DeLillo takes us into the deeply domestic, tracing the personal fallout of the attack on his characters.
The writer’s impact can be felt in unusual ways. There’s a scene in the novel where Keith discovers that one of his best buddies obsessively counts the toes of women on the subway, hoping to find one with fewer than normal, whom he’d ask to marry on the spot. Riding the New York subway two weeks after I finished reading the novel, eyes transfixed on the feet of a young woman wearing pink open- toed shoes, I realised I’d been counting toes ever since. I sent DeLillo a fax telling him I’d found a woman with nine toes. The next day, my mobile phone rang. It was DeLillo echoing down the crackling line. He was laughing. ‘‘ Ahh, the power of literature! I’ve got you counting toes on the subway,’’ he said.
DeLillo works on a manual typewriter. He doesn’t email. He sends faxes, uses the postal service or he phones. He produces draft after draft after draft of each of his works.
For The Names he typed each paragraph — even short ones — on a single sheet.
‘‘ No crowded pages,’’ he told The Paris Review . ‘‘ This enabled me to see a given set of sentences more clearly.
‘‘ It made rewriting easier and more effective. The white space on the page helped me concentrate more deeply on what I’d written.’’ At some point in his writing life, he says, he ‘‘ realised that precision can be a kind of poetry, and the more precise . . . I try to be, the more simply and correctly responsive to what the world looks like, then the better my chances of creating deeper and more beautiful language.’’
The rhythm and pace of DeLillo’s writing style is reminiscent of jazz.
‘‘ You want to let go. You want to lose yourself in language, become a carrier or messenger,’’ he says about his work, describing writing when it is going well as ‘‘ a kind of rapture’’.
Perhaps it’s also his age and background, but somehow DeLillo looks like a jazz guy.
When I asked him about it for this article he replied in one of his typed faxes: ‘‘ I listen to the same great music I listened to when I was discovering jazz . . . in the 1950s and ’ 60s.
‘‘ John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Thelonius Monk and others.’’ He points me to a piece he wrote in 2004 for the magazine Grand Street . ‘‘ A large photograph hangs on a wall in this room, where I work. It’s a picture taken in 1953, black and white, showing a jazz group in performance at a club in Greenwich Village. Monk, foreground, hatless, in a striped suit, mouth open, hands on keyboard. At extreme left, Mingus, head down, lower face in shadow, hands working on the strings of his bass. Deep background, Roy Haynes on drums, wide- eyed, face floating above the elevated cymbal. Just to his left, a mural of a reclining woman, naked, a figure out of the old bohemian Village. And far right, facing away from the group and looking out of the frame, white- suited, with sax, there is Charlie Parker, vivid as a blizzard in July.’’
There’s something deeply connected in the music he loves and the tap, tap, tap of his typewriter. Over and over again as he practices his scales, phrasing the notes of his words, the right word, the right sound and the look of it dancing on the page, ‘‘ recording what I see and hear and sense around me, what I feel in the currents, the electric stuff of the culture’’. Just like a jazz man, DeLillo sings back to us the music of our time. Caro Llewellyn is the director of the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York City.