Don DeLillo: Fiction, Paranoia, and Empire (In-Person)
411 South 5th Street
Brooklyn, NY 11211
Lauded as one of the most skillful practitioners of what might be called the paranoid style in American fiction, Don DeLillo captures with keen detail and hypnotic prose the casual recklessness of Americans in the world, uncertain of the levers of power that secure and undergird their self-importance. Coming “of age” artistically in the 1980s, DeLillo drew on the atmospherics of three decades of Cold War and U.S. superpower to construct characters and plots that embody and exemplify the contemporary American condition: opaque, suspicious, violent, fantasy-laden. In two novels in particular, The Names (1982) and Libra (1988), DeLillo offers character studies of American “innocents abroad,” moving through the medium of U.S. power, yet always unsure—of friends, enemies, and purpose. In The Names, the fictional James Axton, a risk analyst adrift in the turbulent Eastern Mediterranean of the late ‘70s, assesses the terroristic threats that menace his corporate clients; while, in Libra, the historical Lee Harvey Oswald, perennial enigma at the heart of the Kennedy Assasination, travels the road of political illusion, disillusion, and eventual co-optation by the CIA. Subject to large, shadowy forces, both Axton and Oswald raise questions, for themselves and the reader, about meaning, knowledge, identity, and the nature of power. Reading DeLillo, we encounter new connections between geopolitics and postmodernity: In what ways is U.S. superpower, in its overwhelming diffusion, a force for destabilization—not simply of enemy regimes, but of norms, unities, meanings and narratives?
In this course, we’ll read both novels in full against the backdrop of the second phase of the Cold War and the political and economic structures that defined that period. Starting with The Names, we’ll situate the expansion of American corporate power into the Middle East during the period of the Islamic Revolution, as risk is used to hedge resistance and upheaval while Americans abroad sort through the countercultural legacies of the Sixties. At once fascinated by science, language, and information in the ruins of ancient civilization and drily satirizing the self-absorption of expat culture, DeLillo’s narrative marks the neoliberal turn of the 1980s on the eve of American ascendency both in the region and globally. With Libra, we’ll track back to the beginning of this period, with DeLillo’s scrupulous, ambivalent retelling of Oswald’s path to historical destiny, from bitter poverty in the Bronx (growing up near the young DeLillo) to his leftist turn in the U.S. military, subsequent defection to the Soviet Union before becoming an unwitting tool in the CIA’s machinations against Kennedy. Uncovering the loam of social history that shaped Oswald, DeLillo considers the complex set of forces and unmanageable totality that lies beyond all of his characters. A practitioner of what one critic calls the “systems novel” and another the “paranoid chronotope,” DeLillo helps us to understand the world system of the Cold War—and today—as manifested through American hegemony. In addition to the two novels, we’ll read Cold War historiography by Charles Maier, Andrew Bacevich, and Odd Arne Westad, as well as theory and criticism by Immanuel Wallerstein, Tom LeClair, and Frida Beckman, plus interviews with DeLillo himself.
Course ScheduleThursday, 6:30-9:30pm ET
April 11 — May 02, 2024