Don DeLillo is an American author who has published 13 novels. His debut, Americana appeared in 1971, and his most recent (short) novel The Body Artist, was published in 2001. DeLillo has attracted many academics to his work, in particular to the novels White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), and Mao II (1991). He is often mistaken for a so-called 'post-modern' writer and it is easy to write about him in this way. Thus the lazy student, or academic researcher, can fill pages without much effort. However, DeLillo is both more and less clever than that, and should be approached (especially by post-modernists) with caution.
Less well-known is his authorship, under the name Cleo Birdwell, of Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League (1980). It's a funny book, not very much about hockey, but quite a lot about a strange condition known only as 'Jumping Frenchmen', as suffered by a retired Canuck hockey player. Jumping Frenchmen is like a Touret's Syndrome of the body, characterised by uncontrollable Strangelove-like body movements, which fellow sufferers involuntarily mimic.
There is some speculation as to the genesis of Amazons, its purpose, its inception, and why it is published under a pseudonym. Mark Osteen, the editor of the Viking Critical edition of White Noise, informed a DeLillo email discussion group that when he was working on the bibliography for the volume, DeLillo specifically requested that Amazons not be included. This begs a number of questions, but whether the author is distancing himself from this work (which carries no hint of his name in its pages) for entirely personal reasons or because he is playing a complex game, is irrelevant from one point of view. What is interesting about Amazons, apart from some of its finer passages and funnier moments, is the unmistakable style of its author.
DeLillo's main strengths lie in his sentences, and in his ear for dialogue. He has an ability to provide information about a character by simply switching two words around, or by interjecting a word or phrase that immediately grounds the characters in time and space. So much in DeLillo is tied up in the language he uses, that it would be foolhardy to try to write of his themes and concerns without including language itself. Words for DeLillo have a physical presence, like carvings in stone. Added to this is DeLillo's remarkable facility for capturing jargon and feeding it back in a stylised form, making it funny and portentous at the same time. He is a wonderful mimic, not just of patterns of speech, but of writing styles, too. Which is not to say that he 'does' other writers, but that he can make you believe you are reading a particular genre of writing, even when you are not. Here, DeLillo, 'does' a sports broadcaster; meaningless air-filling commentary with a twist:
Toby, what do you think of this Birdwell, an all-white woman like this? If we gave you a running start, it would still take you two weeks to lick her white body from head to toe. She's that tasty, right? You'd linger. You'd spread a second and third coat.
- Birdwell, Amazons, p90.
Casual sexism is here, yes, and casual racism, too ('an all-white' woman), so what are we to make of this? DeLillo is always aware that language is never casual, and that we are always on a search for meaning. And later, as Cleo is called upon to advertise a savoury snack called Amazons, DeLillo (who briefly worked in advertising before becoming a full-time writer) 'does' the irritating repetition of the commercial message:
That's right, the new crackle-snackers from Kelloid's. Amazon Ringos, Amazon Discos, Amazon Nuggets, Amazon Noshes. Women-tested Amazons. The snack we packed for women. Every age, every size, every make of woman.
- Birdwell, Amazons, p315.
Does this concern with language relate at all to the idea of a female pro-hockey star? Probably not, and yet, Amazon women were a Classical Greek myth, and the word (especially in advertising) is loaded with meaning; and Clio, with an 'i' was the Greek Muse of history.
Cleo Birdwell becomes concerned as she writes her memoir with the way things keep happening, interrupting what she hoped would be a narrative with shape, like those in 'The American Girl Book of Sports Stories' of her youth. She becomes concerned not only with the nuts and bolts of her narrative but with what we will think of her for writing what she does. And her alter ego, DeLillo, immediately after publishing Amazons, goes (where else?) to Greece and writes his next novel, under his own name, called The Names, drawing our attention, among other things, to the importance of names, in a book also concerned with historical events like the Iranian hostage crisis. The book is set primarily in Athens.
Buried in the wash of hilarity and misdirection is the hidden pearl of Jumping Frenchmen of Maine, and characteristic long digressions on unrelated subjects. What seems extraordinary now is that DeLillo cannot have imagined, in 1980 when the book was published, that less than 20 years later it would be the matter of a couple of mouse clicks in a web browser to discover that Jumping Frenchmen is a real condition:
'Jumping Frenchmen' is a disorder characterised by an unusually extreme startle reaction. The startle reaction is a natural response to an unexpected noise or sight. This disorder was first identified during the late 19th Century in Maine and the Canadian province of Quebec... 'Jumping Frenchmen' is suspected to be a genetic disorder and/or an extreme conditioned response to a particular situation possibly influenced by cultural factors. Symptoms tend to improve with age.
- National Organisation for Rare Disorders (NORD) 1987.
This account of the origins of Jumping Frenchmen reads like a description of one of those fabled all-too-human reactions to modernity, the (literal) shock of the new. But what would also appeal to DeLillo is the double-talk surrounding the unknown causes of the condition. Whereas DeLillo creates in Dr Sidney Glass a character forthright enough to say, 'We don't really know what disease is', here we are told by NORD that Jumping Frenchmen could be a genetic disorder or a conditioned cultural response. In other words, they have no idea.
In addition to Cleo, the muse with the stick, we have a sports writer by the name of Murray Jay Siskind who says profound things such as, 'athletes are people with bodies', and who professes, wouldn't you know it, to hate sports. It seems he'd rather be writing the novel about the Mafia that he carries everywhere with him, or be in the kitchen, making a cheesecake, which, according to Murray, should 'hurt a little' as it 'sits in your stomach like a gold bar. That means it cares' - Amazons p265.
This character, Siskind, turns up five years later in DeLillo's breakthrough book White Noise, relinquishing his journalism career (but not his corduroy) to take on academia and Elvis. It is almost as if DeLillo is playing an intricate game. Here we have a man writing as a woman who plays professional hockey with men; writing also about a disease so extraordinary that it seems as one with the fiction, except it is real; and refusing to be associated with a novel that features one of the best-known characters from his best-known work.
But this is just to get started with Don DeLillo. Perhaps it is best to let Cleo have the last word for now:
Athletes are searchers for meaning. Behind the easygoing facades and the put-down humour, we are all a little restless with our lot. The games we play are sometimes beautiful. But there is more to life, and also less, as I think this book will demonstrate.
- Birdwell, Amazons p2.