On the Road with Don DeLillo

I think Don DeLillo is a pretty cool guy. He writes stuff that some might consider pretty wanky; achingly postmodern stuff about the emptiness at the heart of modern capitalist living and an anxiety about death that stops you living meaningfully. I love this kind of stuff, and when I was young and trawling through Wikipedia filling my head with a list of Old White Dudes that sounded like they had similar concerns and anxieties to me (a Young White Dude), DeLillo was near the top of the list. I hated being a Young White Dude a lot. I often felt the kind of pain only people who grew up (mostly, in my case) securely and safely can feel, a pain about pretty much nothing and then, also, everything. See what I mean about wanky? I read White Noise about the same time I read Camus’ The Stranger and I was deeply effected/affected and was miserable for quite a while. That I found the first fifty or so pages of Americana dreadfully boring probably says more about my growth than it does about the novel’s quality. I ended up coming back though. I wish I’d spent more time with Conan Doyle than Camus when I was younger.

Mostly I thought Americana was a really boring version of American Psycho. For the first few chapters it was the same kind of narcissistic assholes sexually harassing their secretaries and listing brand names and feeling *very* despondent about their incredibly easy, well-paying jobs. There was none of the interest of the Pure Fucking Evil lurking below, though. Maybe I want more human novels, now? In all likelihood I didn’t get the joke, being a working class person who lives in East Anglia. That I realised this means I probably have grown up. A bit.

I put the book down for a few months. I wrote a bit about it here. I went back to Americana because I don’t like leaving books unfinished (he says, about 20 to 30 pages in to twenty or so different books). I wasn’t exactly gripped, but I wasn’t repulsed, and that was enough to keep me reading pretty much straight through until I finished it. Yep, it certainly was a book about the emptiness of modern life and the need to strike out in some unconventional way and create your own meaning. Once David Bell’s family came in to it there was a bit more to hang on to. His parents, at least, faced problems that were actually problems, and DeLillo does a neat little job of telling a family drama in weirdly framed flashbacks and monologues. The jokes get funnier. The one about the zippo surviving the Bataan death march was particularly funny. He also writes the truest representation of being a young boy and feeling the gaping emptiness at the heart of a summer evening I have ever read. There is some truly impassioned writing, if you can slog through the fifty or so pages that really don’t do much, but I guess were necessary all the same.

As David Bell gets in to his road trip and the novel descends in to weirdness, the book I thought of was On the Road. Americana exposes the vacuousness of that book, or at least the solutions it offers. This is what On the Road *really* is, drinking and drugging oneself in the heart of the American weirdness, beatific visions exposed as art that is representational because it is incomprehensible. DeLillo attacks the kind of consumerism that On the Road promotes even as it disparages it. There is a reason Burroughs said that On the Road sold Levi’s and espresso machines. I love the beats, but they were full of shit, and DeLillo roundly calls them on it here.

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