Finding reason in an age of terror

Special to The Times

Not long after the fall of the World Trade Center, an essay entitled "Don DeLillo and the Twin Towers" began to circulate on the Internet. Written by the critic Vince Passaro, the piece focused on DeLillo's sense of "the fragmented narrative of modern violence," the way that, alone among our major novelists, he had not only seemed to see Sept. 11 coming but had written the possibility into the very marrow of his work.

"True terror," Passaro quoted the author as saying, "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." This infiltration appeared to extend even to the packaging of DeLillo's fiction; the cover of his 1997 novel "Underworld" -- an epic about the Cold War and the end of history -- featured a shot of the World Trade Center shrouded in smoky fog, as off to the right, a large bird, wings extended like those of a jetliner, angled toward the towers' height.

Today, DeLillo is in a restaurant at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, sipping from a glass of mineral water and squinting in the late afternoon sun. At 65, he is physically unassuming, a slight man wearing a pressed green work shirt and bifocals, hair brushed back off his forehead in a shock of white.

DeLillo is in Southern California for a single evening, to read from his 13th novel, "Cosmopolis," a lean, compact book that traces one day in the life of 28-year-old billionaire fund manager Eric Packer. Yet with American troops in Baghdad, and anxiety over renewed terrorist attacks at a crescendo across the nation, the issues of violence, of security, can't help but assert themselves.

"Terror," the author says in a low monotone, "is now the world narrative, unquestionably. When those two buildings were struck, and when they collapsed, it was, in effect, an extraordinary blow to consciousness, and it changed everything."

What this means remains undetermined; the circumstances are too nascent, too unresolved. For DeLillo, however, it all comes back to the relationship between art and terror, and our collective entry into what the author calls "the Age of Terror."

"For many years," he says, "probably since the late 1980s, I've thought it wasn't novelists who were writing the world narrative anymore. It was terrorists. It seemed that the air -- that the news itself but, beyond that, the air -- was filled with that kind of threat and that kind of violence. It's not as though novelists ever had that kind of effect, but there was a time when you could think of the world as having been created in a piece of fiction or a body of work."

In many ways, of course, DeLillo is absolutely right; how can a novelist measure up to a world in which office towers are destroyed by commercial airplanes, and children turn themselves into walking bombs or die at the hands of reckless governments? The irony, however, is that he remains one of the few contemporary writers who has consistently managed to pull this off, to absorb that world and redefine it on his own terms.

In his 1973 novel, "Great Jones Street," he writes of a Bob Dylan-like rock star named Bucky Wunderlick, who retreats from fame only to discover that his humanity is less important than his image. "White Noise," on the other hand, uses an industrial accident -- an "airborne toxic event," in DeLillo's phrase -- as a metaphor for all the lost promises of America, the way the balm of technology may turn out to be a kind of poison in the end.

"I don't believe writers are prophetic," he says. "I believe what we try to do is see what's really there. Just see what's there now, that other people don't see."

Still, among the many vivid aspects of DeLillo's novels are their prescience; the fate of Wunderlick ("I want to become a dream.... I'm tired of my body. I want to be a dream, their dream. I want to flow through them.") is eerily reminiscent of John Lennon's, while "White Noise," with its chemical cloud, seems to presage the disaster in Bhopal, India, which happened a few months after the book came out.

Nowhere is this more striking than when it comes to terrorism, a motif that arose as early as the 1977 novel "Players," with its imagined attack on the New York Stock Exchange, and came to full fruition 12 years later in the brutally rendered Beirut of "Mao II."

"For the first time in American history," DeLillo says, "we have a much greater sense of our own peril, of our own mortality, a sense that the future is not secure. We've always owned the future, at least in our lifetimes, and now we don't anymore."

Given the acuteness of DeLillo's vision, "Cosmopolis" is surprising for a couple of reasons, not the least because, for the first time in his fiction, he appears to be looking backward, rather than ahead. Taking place in April 2000 -- on the exact day the dot-com boom ended -- the novel is a fairly straightforward bit of allegory, a heightened journey down 47th Street, from the international district along the East River to the automobile graveyards and chop shops that mark its bleak and derelict western end. At the heart of the book is the issue of money, which DeLillo evokes in subtle, yet pointed, ways.

Packer lives in a 48-room triplex, complete with lap pool, shark tank and Borzoi pen; he spends much of the action ensconced in the spacious passenger compartment of his white stretch limo, with its wet bar and club chairs and floor of Carrera marble, while associates come to him. He is, in other words, very much a figure of a lost time, a different century, of that brief moment after the Cold War when we could entertain the illusion of living outside history.

"Between the end of the Cold War and the beginning of the Age of Terror," DeLillo says, "there was this period, essentially one decade, the 1990s, and in it, there was one theme, and the name of the theme was money. People spent days and nights looking at their computer screens to watch their money growing, increasing, developing character."

What makes such a comment resonate is the way it offers up a context for "Cosmopolis" in the arc of DeLillo's career. Although some reviewers have read the book as an example of what happens when events outstrip a novelist's imagination -- including Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times, who called it "a major dud" -- the closer you look, the more continuous the book seems.

Fiction, after all, doesn't have to be up-to-the-minute to be relevant; DeLillo waited 25 years to write "Libra," his novel of the Kennedy assassination, and "Underworld" begins with the 1951 New York Giants-Brooklyn Dodgers playoff game in which Bobby Thomson hit his legendary home run.

"I'm not sure I trust fiction that's written in direct and immediate response to an event, however significant," DeLillo claims. "I think a novelist's subconscious has to have a period in which to create something. And I trust my middle-of-the-night thoughts more than I trust the newspaper."

Equally important, "Cosmopolis" touches on a number of definitive DeLillo obsessions, most prominently that of disconnection, which consumes Eric Packer as it did Bucky Wunderlick and Bill Gray, the writer protagonist of "Mao II." As Packer's limo crawls along 47th Street, he monitors his progress on a series of video displays, which also bring him images of the outside world. Even caught in an anti-globalization riot in Times Square, he interacts mainly through this electronic filter, only emerging when a protester lights himself on fire.

There are any number of ways to make sense of such a moment, beginning with the lengths to which Packer must go to feel. Yet more to the point, DeLillo is saying, some acts are so extreme, so beyond our comprehension, that they exist outside the realm of social transaction and cannot be contained. In the vanished world of "Cosmopolis," this may be an alien concept, but we occupy a landscape now where it has become the defining narrative, where the impact of such incendiary terror is never far away.

"Terrorism," DeLillo says, "is outside the absorption machinery. Certain things are. In Prague recently, a young man set himself on fire. Thirty-five years ago, another young man did the same thing, protesting the incursion of Soviet tanks into Prague. This kid did it to protest the excesses of capitalism. In 35 years, this is the terrible symmetry that's taken place. I don't think that's absorbable."

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