During the 2008 US Presidential Election, The Onion ran a series of blog pieces purporting to be by Don Delillo (whose new novel Point Omega is just out), commenting on the political conventions in Minneapolis. There were several reasons why this seemed unlikely. The first was that The Onion is a satirical newspaper, famous for having articles whose headlines are punchlines in themselves (‘Massive Earthquake Reveals Entire Civilisation Called “Haiti”‘; ‘Man Who Enjoys Thing Informed He Is Wrong’), whereas Don De Lillo— one of the most lauded authors of his generation —has rarely been associated with either comic writing or direct political comment. The second was that the tagline for the author read ‘Master of Postmodern Literature’- surely too immodest a title to be taken seriously. Though an entirely accurate (and respectful) bio accompanied each piece (‘Don DeLillo is considered one of America’s greatest living novelists. His works explore themes of consumerism, alienation, and decontextualization, and include such towering postmodernist classics as White Noise, Mao II, and Underworld’), and though I wanted to believe that Don Delillo was writing for The Onion (The British equivalent of J.G. Ballard writing for Private Eye), in the end what convinced me that this could only be a fond parody was that one of the pieces began ‘He speaks in your voice, American’. This is the opening phrase of Underworld, Delillo’s best-selling (and most praised) novel to date, and thus not a phrase he seemed likely to re-use. However, after reading through the pieces again, I had to conclude that they were at the very least a fair imitation of Delillo’s style:
In the air, invisible information. Uploads, downloads. Waves and radiation. Surrounding us both, on every side of the lobby, dozens more do exactly the same, typing with their thumbs into tiny silver death machines.
Whilst I hoped that this was a piece of self-parody, a wink at the notion that in postmodernity every text is a pastiche, even if it is only of your own work, I and most other commentators concluded that it had to be a hoax. The only indication to the contrary was an item in the New Yorker, said ‘to be from the writer himself.
Yes, I posted a blog for The Onion, but this was four years ago at the Republican Convention in New York. Evidently the report has been orbiting the blogosphere all this time. Note the prophetic reference to Sarah Palin.
All this did was muddy the waters, albeit of a debate that was somewhat less pressing than the questions being asked of the US electorate. Even if Delillo had written those pieces, and thus reused his opening phrase, did it really matter? The answer, I decided, was that it did not. And then Obama won.
But yesterday, whislt reading a collection of tributes to the late David Foster Wallace, I came across a piece by Delillo. At the end of his moving and appreciative eulogy (the pieces were first read out on 23 October, 2008 at New York University) there is a familiar phrase.
The words won’t stop coming. Youth and loss. This is Dave’s voice, American.
The idea that one should always avoid repetition in one’s work may be helpful for begining writers (‘the big dog chased the big man into the big field’ is probably not a good sentence) but done deliberately, as for example, throughout Faulkner’s work, repetition can be a very effective device. Whilst there is an argument that a writer should always be looking for new ways to test the language, it is also true that sometimes the best way to express something has been said before, not only by others, but also oneself.