Don Delillo and the Towers



8th Ave & W 42nd St, New York, NY 10036

Neighborhood: Times Square

Last week ABC and Ted Koppel had on a panel of authors to comment on what has happened to our city and our world – the always-awful Maya Angelou, the cliché-laden David Halberstam, and two better sorts, NPR-favorite Bebe Moore Campbell and Jonathan Franzen. Whether it was Koppel or the facts that proved too much for them no one can tell, but they added little to the available pool of wisdom.

There are a couple of authors whom we suspect COULD add to the available pool of wisdom on what is happening right now, but they won’t be invited to do so, at least on ABC. Gore Vidal is one, because he is able to speak honestly about the specific sins of American politics; and Don DeLillo is the other, because he alone among living American writers has made a career of understanding the fragmented narrative of modern violence. His 1979 novel, Players, was about a bombing of the stock exchange; his next book, The Names, centered on violence and terror in the Middle East; White Noise covered “an airborne toxic event” and Libra did the Kennedy assassination; Mao II was about the relationship of terrorism to art. Finally, Underworld took in all of these, in the way of the masterpiece, and moved across the landscape of violence and waste that characterized the twentieth century. They are stark, haunting, prescient works.

As for what he might say about the past week, you can look in the archives and get the idea. He once was quoted as saying, for example: “People who are in power make their arrangements in secret, largely as a way of maintaining and furthering that power. People who are powerless make an open theater of violence. True terror is a language and a vision. There is a deep narrative structure to terrorist acts, and they infiltrate and alter consciousness in ways that writers used to aspire to.”

Told last week that, in the aftermath of the towers, his name was on many people’s lips, DeLillo said simply, “Well, I wish it weren’t.”

Last night, a friend called me. He is a newspaper reporter and was stationed somewhere down in the new military zone that has been created south of Canal Street: ‘ground zero,” or “command and control”, I can’t remember which.

“I only have one thing to tell you,” he said, after we’d talked for a while about the events of the day, Giuliani, Bush, Osama, etc. “I just called to say, have you taken a look at the cover of ‘Underworld’ recently?”

The image came back like lightning: I went out to the hall and pulled the book from the shelves, and there it was, the two towers, dark and enshrouded (by fog, much as they had been by smoke early last Tuesday morning); before them, the stark silhouette of the belfry of a nearby Church (perhaps St. Paul’s Episcopal, down Broadway; perhaps the now-partially-destroyed St. Bernard’s, I don’t know the churches down there well enough to say); and off to the side, a large bird, a gull or a large pigeon, making its way toward Tower One. It’s eerie and religious. At first DeLillo, after finding the image, thought it too religious, according to his editor, Nan Graham at Scribner. A photo researcher was hired to find an image for the cover of the book; she came back with the same image DeLillo had found on his own. In the context of the past week, the image is deeply disturbing, one more bit of testimony to his remarkable tuning.

And then this morning, on the way to work, in the mini-plaza beside the new escalators in the Times Square subway station (which are occupied in normal times by musicians and painted humans performing as statues and the bizarre guy who tangos with the lifesize rubber woman-doll), I came upon a memorial site. The square, tall, tiled columns (roughly similar in shape and relative dimensions to the Trade towers) now host the many flyers of the missing and people were gathered in threes and fours around them, reading them, or perhaps a better word would be ‘internalizing’ them. We are, we readers, obstructing the shortcut from the 1 line to the R line (neither of which line now runs the 1 or the R trains at Times Square, but that’s another story). We read them for all the desperation and grief that they reveal; we do it as a salve or a food, I can’t tell which, for our own sense of desperation and grief.

Flowers and candles surrounded the bases of the columns – it would have been difficult to imagine in our past life how a flame of any kind would be a welcome sight in the Times Square subway station, but there they are, and we find them welcome. They add a religious air to the place, inescapably.

Much of New York in its reaction to this enormity of death has shown itself to be far more religious than we had ever imagined it to be, far more religious in this first week than patriotic. Later, on the BMT platform, a man is handing out small volumes, well-printed and perfect-bound, the complete Gospel According to St. John, the one that opens, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It is the most poetical and abstract of the four Gospels; and it is surprising how many of us on the platform are taking the books from him rather than waving him off. They are shiny and of a pleasing size to the hand.

But — down the platform a bit a woman is reading a physically larger book, an old hardcover. I cruise by. I have a professional interest — or so I always tell myself, in the face of my obvious and occasionally intrusive voyeurism– in what people are reading on the subway.

It is “The Names,” by Don DeLillo.

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