DeLillo wins the PEN/Saul Bellow Prize

by Kevin T. Dugan

The PEN American Center announced this week that Don DeLillo, a man who lives in Long Island, won this year’s PEN/Saul Bellow award for American fiction. Over here at Armchair, we have had a few bar-room debates about the DeLillo’s place, whether White Noise is as good as everyone says it is, etc. etc. Personally, I think that his place is well-deserved. His writing in Underworld in particular is so resonant that when I re-read it (like in the PEN citation, which is below), I get nostalgic flashbacks to when I first read it, back in the summer of 2006, in an un-airconditioned Crown Heights apartment with no circulation. Keep in mind, this is a fucking huge novel with a metropolis of characters, reticulate with plot lines, and yet, it’s like some song that I hadn’t heard since high school has come on the radio and I can recall these very visceral moments, like life was the backdrop for the art rather than the vice versa.

I haven’t had the chance to go through the majority or even a hefty plurality of his works (White Noise twice, Libra, Underworld, just for the disclosure), and his later works don’t strike me as very appealing because, well, they seem incredibly DeLillo-esque. No one sounds like him, or if they do they’re ripping him off. Sometimes, it really does get tiring.

But what makes him great is not that he owns his voice. I’ve always admired his ability to take the terrors of Cold World-era America and just pound them through like a Richard Reich composition. (“Hypnotizing:” you hear this word a lot w/ DeLillo reviews.) I also really love his renderings of New York City, but that’s bias.

Anyway, this is the second PEN award for the author (the first was the PEN/Faulkner for Mao II). The Saul Bellow award is very much in the spirit of, “you’ll be dead soon! So thanks!” (the two other winners–it started in 2007–are Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy). Below is the whole citation, which can explain his importance and beauty much better than I ever could. And if you haven’t read Underworld, do yourself a favor and block out a few weeks for it. It will ring in your head through the rest of your life.

The judges [ED: Joan Acocella, Philip Roth, and Nathan Englander] write in their citation:

“It is fitting that an award established in honor of Saul Bellow should be given to Don DeLillo. Bellow was old enough to be DeLillo’s father, but literary material doesn’t go away so fast. Both men were historical novelists who, in their most ambitious works, dealt with American life the mid- to late twentieth century, after World War II, and with the dark knowledge we acquired therein.

In DeLillo, though, because of his later place in time—he was born in 1936—the knowledge is graver, and crazier. Two forces loom over his book Underworld, the H-bomb and garbage. This seems a comical pairing, but the garbage is actually as threatening as the bomb. Much of it is nuclear waste, which, in one amazing chapter, an American waste management company pays the post-Soviet Russians to eliminate. The Americans pack the trash into airplanes and fly it to Kazakhstan; the Kazakhstanis bury it in a mountain and blow it up—nuclear waste destroyed by nuclear bombs. (This costs up to twelve hundred dollars per kilo of garbage.) Toxic detritus also figures prominently in White Noise. And of course there is an important explosion in Libra.

That’s a lot of what DeLillo thinks of our way of life—that it is expensive, dangerous, and very strange. The strangeness creeps into Underworld gradually. First we get regular realism: the stoop culture of the South Bronx in the fifties, when it was a Catholic working-class neighborhood, with hopscotch and veal chops and widowed old women. We see Sister Alma Edgar, who teaches sixth grade and smells of carbolic soap. Soon the socioeconomic level rises and we watch J. Edgar Hoover in his bathrobe, getting ready to go to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball at the Plaza in 1966.

But then comes the non-realism, the hallucination conjured in DeLillo’s brain by our recent history, and the astonishing linguistic performance that this unleashes. After Sister Edgar dies, at the end of the book, she seems to be on her way to heaven, but she gets caught in the Internet, where she is watched by a teenager sitting in front of his personal computer in Phoenix. As he goes from link to link, dragging the nun with him, he hits the home page for the H-bomb, and Sister Edgar witnesses the explosion:

She stands in the flash and feels the power. She sees the spray plume. She sees the fireball climbing, the superheated sphere of burning gas that can blind a person with its beauty, its dripping christblood colors, solar golds and reds.… The mushroom cloud spreads around her, the pulverized mass of radioactive debris, eight miles high, ten miles, twenty, with skirted stem and smoking platinum cap.

The jewels roll out of her eyes and she sees God.

No, wait, sorry. It is a Soviet bomb she sees, the largest yield in history, a device exploded above the Atlantic Ocean in 1961, preserved in the computer that helped build it.

It is for that combination of terror and comedy and sheer song that everyone wants to give Don DeLillo an award. Tonight it’s our turn.”

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