For our Marginalia web feature, we ask writers to introduce us to their favorite works of literature by way of a short piece of prose. This week, Cally Fiedorek—whose story “Fright Night” appears in our Winter 2020 issue—examines a scene from Americana by Don DeLillo.
In an interview with Alexandra Alter for the Wall Street Journal, Don DeLillo said that his first novel, from 1971, probably wouldn’t get published today, and I think he might have been right. Americana is a Mad Men-era workplace satire turned trippy cross-country vision quest, lacking the narrative torque or big-heartedness to quite nail either. It’s a book shaggily made, with a women problem, a blankly unsympathetic narrator, and a penchant for intellectual dithering that would make Reese’s book club gag. No, it almost certainly wouldn’t make it. But I’m so glad it did.
I saw a group of women standing by a station wagon. There were seven of them, pushing cartons and shopping bags over the open tailgate into the rear of the car. Celery stalks and boxes of Gleem stuck out of the bags. I took the camera from my lap, raised it to my eye, leaned out the window a bit, and trained it on the ladies as if I were shooting. One of them saw me and immediately nudged her companion but without taking her eyes off the camera. They waved. One by one the others reacted. They all smiled and waved. They seemed supremely happy. Maybe they sensed that they were waving at themselves, waving in the hope that someday if evidence is demanded of their passage through time, demanded by their own doubts, a moment might be recalled when they stood in a dazzling plaza in the sun and were registered on the transparent plastic ribbon; and thirty years away, on that day when proof is needed, it could be hoped that their film is being projected on a screen somewhere, and there they stand, verified, in chemical reincarnation, waving at their own old age, smiling their reassurance to the decades, a race of eternal pilgrims in a marketplace in the dusty sunlight, seven arms extended in a fabulous salute to the forgetfulness of being. What better proof (if proof is ever needed) that they have truly been alive? Their happiness, I think, was made of this, the anticipation of incontestable evidence, and had nothing to do with the present moment, which would pass with all the others into whatever is the opposite of eternity.
—Don DeLillo, Americana
Some novels are good not because they’re great but because they are endearingly, enchantingly, instructively not great—they’re living, teeming documents of emergent minds still learning their own power, still writing checks they maybe can’t totally cash.
David Bell, an avowedly great-looking twenty-eight-year-old television exec at an advertising firm in New York sets off across America with a camera and a ragtag crew of travelers to fashion his own kaleidoscopic vision of the heartland (DeLillo himself had recently quit his job as a copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather to start writing full-time). Some of the musings on art and consumerism are cringingly obtuse. The novel’s too long, often straining under the weight of its influences. The prose is almost hypercinematic, and seems to want very badly to be what it’s not: to have a direct, immediate vein-tap into atmosphere and capital-b Beauty—here a stab at the glamorous desolation of a Stephen Shore photograph; there a Doors song, dark anthem of the American highway; here the haunted ordinariness of a Hopper painting—and to do all this without skimping, of course, on the written form’s much cruder, more boring implements: story, scene and character.
Americana doesn’t totally make good on its own evocativeness. I’m not sure the personality of David Bell has enough traction to make him a worthy vessel for DeLillo’s perceptions. He’s kind of a dick, and not in a good way—not conflicted like Don Draper, too glib and princely to be Kerouac. But the failed-gestalt quality of the book has tremendous cautionary value. It reminds me of a Flannery O’Connor quote from Mystery and Manners: “One of the most common and saddest spectacles is that of a person of really fine sensibility and acute psychological perception trying to write fiction by using these qualities alone.”
Certainly, this work edges dangerously close to that ubiquitous kind of first novel—a Collection of the Sensitive Young Author’s Smart, Interesting Observations About People and Stuff. But in DeLillo’s case, his talents are more than hefty enough to avoid the “sad spectacle” of which O’Connor warns us. I always come back to Americana when I’m in a rut—which I frequently am—more than any of his other books. The author’s narrative muscle, his sense of character and consistency of tone would improve over the years, but the painterly attention, the gimlet-eye for the absurd, it’s all right here, fully formed. It gives me hope. It makes me think maybe it’s enough to just turn the camera on and see what comes into the frame. You might not be as good or clear-eyed as DeLillo, and whatever you capture will barely constitute a fraction of the work ahead, but maybe somewhere, beneath the surface of those many sherbet-colored shots, is a story worth teasing out—truer and bigger than even the movies can contain.