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Don DeLillo at UT's Jessen Auditorium, Feb. 10

By Jess Sauer, Fri., Feb. 25, 2005

When the University of Texas announced last October that its Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center would house the Don DeLillo archive, a small but significant controversy arose. There is little argument against DeLillo's being a quintessential New Yorker, and some critics were angered by what they viewed as New York's intellectual property being sent to, gasp, Texas. Never mind that UT has one of the largest academic libraries in the United States, or that no New York institution had bid for the archive: Salon.com writer Scott Thill had a miniconniption and said the move was a "coup reminiscent of Michael Jackson's outbidding of Paul McCartney – a freakin' Beatle! – for part of the Fab Four's catalog." Thill then joked that he would take bets on the fact that George W. Bush would never read Libra. Archivist Katherine Pelletier responded in a letter to the editor, calling Thill's conflation of UT and our current administration a "sophomoric jab" and affirming once again that "not everyone in Texas is benighted and toothless."

Luckily for the fully toothed audience at DeLillo's reading on Feb. 10, the only controversies present seemed to be whether "DeLillian" or "DeLilloesque" was the superior adjective, and to which exact literary school DeLillo belongs. Michael Adams, acting director of UT's Michener Center for Writers, observed that the author of 11 novels has been called "visionary, postmodern, modern, un-postmodern, post-secular, and the most important writer of our time." After DeLillo's reading of passages from Libra and Underworld, the author held a brief Q&A session.

Scholars have struggled to pin down DeLillo's style since his first novel, Americana, was published in 1971, but it seems no one can find a definitive adjective, not even the author himself. When an audience member suggested that DeLillo's work was Ignatian, perhaps owing to his Italian Catholic upbringing, DeLillo responded, "There's something about a Catholic childhood. ... The ritual becomes a part of one's consciousness, and I wonder if somehow that affected the way I write. There's also the fact that I'm a show-off Italian, and these things may combine in ways I'm not sure I can explain, to explain the prose style that comes so naturally to me. There's probably something in the deep background, to borrow a Watergate phrase, that makes me write the way I do."

DeLillo is also frequently called a political writer, and he responded to this idea, as well: "I'm not quite that political, but somehow it enters my work, and it's not really something I intend to do, it's just there. I'm always surprised when I'm called a political writer; I don't feel that, myself." Nevertheless, DeLillo did venture into the political sphere when speaking about Mao II, saying, "I became aware of what seemed to me to be an odd phenomenon, that if there's such a thing as a world narrative, then it has been passed from the novelists to the terrorists, and to the dictators and the tyrants." The theme of terrorism, and terrorism as a form of creation, is prevalent in DeLillo's work.

Ultimately, DeLillo said, on describing his work, "It's very hard for to me to analyze, because it's so deep, and a little like breathing, or like seeing."

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