Monday, July 17, 2006


I just finished reading the Don DeLillo novel that nobody talks about. No, not Cosmopolis; I'm referring to Amazons, written by DeLillo in collaboration with a woman whose name isn't known under the pseudonym "Cleo Birdwell."* (See here for more details.) The book's subtitle is "An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play in the National Hockey League," which pretty much describes it (especially the "intimate" part; see below). It's narrated by "Cleo Birdwell," making it DeLillo's only novel with a first-person female narrator (and, until The Body Artist, his only novel with a female protagonist, if I'm not mistaken).

Scott Eric Kaufman has on more than one occasion expressed his dislike of DeLillo's work. What his critique ignores (in my opinion, of course) is that DeLillo can be quite funny. And Amazons is perhaps the funniest of his works, because its primary aim is comedy. Here's an example, where Cleo's agent's associate is trying to convince her to do a commercial whose script Cleo has objected to:

"'You realize this is stupid.'
"'I know it's stupid, Glenway. What I've been saying is stupid. Very stupid.'
"'It isn't stupidity that troubles me, Cleo. There is stupid everywhere. In this business, one eats and drinks stupid. One has stupid with one's coffee. There are massive doses of stupid coming from every direction, virtually around the clock. One dissolves two stupids in half a glass of water. So I don't mind stupidity. What I object to is misplaced stupidity. Do you see the distinction? You are using your stupid in an unworthy fashion. Your stupid deserves better than this. You are wasting it in a sense. You are misusing it. No one will see it for what it is." (pp. 87-88)

Its structure is somewhat similar to the first and longest part of Ratner's Star, one of DeLillo's serious, early works. Both consist mainly of the protagonist meeting a series of more or less strange people, who all want to show him/her something or asks him/her to do something; this interspersed with the protagonist's recollections of his/her past. One big difference is that Billy, the protagonist of Ratner's Star, usually responds by escaping the scene, while Cleo as often as not has sex with whoever it is. In fact, there's a lot more sex than hockey in the book. (Always heterosexual, though, despite the book's title: Cleo is the only female athlete in the book.) There are also more dispassionate descriptions of penises in this book than in any other novel I recall reading.**

If you look closely, you can find "themes" in Amazons, such as the idea of language as an attempt to impose order on the chaos of existence. This is most clearly exemplified by Cleo's recollections of the seasons in the small town of Badger, Ohio where she grew up, where everything happened at precisely the time it was supposed to. But DeLillo never forces any "themes" on the reader, as I'll admit he does in some of his other works. In fact, DeLillo pokes fun at his thematic inclinations here, as Cleo periodically worries that there isn't enough "major thematic material" in her book. (146)

Earlier, I had reread Ratner's Star, which is also a funny book. In fact, it's my favorite book of DeLillo's except perhaps for Underworld, which I'd have to read again to decide where I'd rank it. (I may be biased by the fact that, like its protagonist Billy Twillig, I was a child prodigy at math, though not nearly to the extent that Billy is supposed to be.)

Ratner's Star is divided into two parts, of which the first is longer. And both parts are "experimental" in different ways. In the first part, no character except Billy appears in more than one chapter, even this part lasts only a few days and Billy pretty much stays in one place The second part is more conventional in this respect, with a few characters interacting repeatedly. But DeLillo occasionally does something very strange in this part: he'll shift between two scenes, or two characters' perspectives, or even two characters' thoughts, within a single sentence. Here's a comparatively simple example of this last: "...Billy felt this was a man intent on compressing every second in order to discover the world-point within, a serious man, look how he enjoys his sitting, watch his scraping feet, see him exist, a man (Softly mused, of sitting men in general) concluding an infinite sequence of states of rest to begin this period of self-limiting motion." (p. 290, 1976 Knopf hardcover) As you can see, the second part can be heavy going at times; the first part is much easier reading.

It must be admitted that Kaufman's complaint that all DeLillo's characters talk alike has some validity for Ratner's Star, though not for Billy himself. But DeLillo clearly did not intend a realistic portray of social interaction.

*When I say that nobody talks about it, I'm exaggerating, but not by much: two monographs on DeLillo I looked at each devote a paragraph or two to Amazons.

**That is, the number of dispassionate descriptions is greater. I don't mean that the descriptions are more dispassionate than any other dispassionate descriptions of penises, although that might be true too.

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