The rhythm of jazz on a type­writer

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - MY JOUR­NAL CARO LLEWELLYN

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.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Jock Alexan­der

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