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Aug 22, 2007



I read DeLillo's book but hadn't thought of it in that way. You seem to really focus on the finer points of grammar. Do you feel that DeLillo's work has influenced your own writing? And how conscious are you of your own grammar when you write?


Matthew - thanks for a thoughtful essay on Falling Man, which I just read this summer. A longtime Delillo fan, I am a sucker for his cubist language, as you call it. But I wondered if Falling Man was indeed equal to dealing with 9-11 in fiction, and for me, ultimately, it was not.

One of the major frustrations I had with the book was in the texture of the language (which you've given such careful analysis) my problems was specifically in how all the characters spoke. Their broken grammar is no problem -- geez, how many stops and starts do we hear/speak throughout the day -- but in the fact that they all spoke exactly the same way. Each character's dialog was exactly like the others', and all of them seemed to be talking in the close-third narrative voice used for Kevin, which was an awful lot like Lianne's.

So since you've paid such careful attention to language, did you notice the similar dialog in Falling Man? (Maybe it's just me). And, from the authorial perspective, do you think others can pay homage to his writing style without simply creating Delillo pastiche?

Jacob Russell

A fine analysis on the transformative power of apposition in Delillo's prose.

Defenders of book grammar in fiction remind me of the armed guards in those little outhouses by the driveways at the borders of Gated Communities. They stand posted to serve the interests of literature as the guards stand to serve the interests of greater humanity.

In the attacks on Delillo's prose, I perceive a deeply conservative and parochial fear of contingency, of the conditioned and relative nature of authority. His sentences tear down the hedgerows and fences that protect us from an open and unguarded encounter with the world; by freeing us from _comprehention_ they expose us to _apprehension_, which the conservative mind experiences as intolerable anxiety.

I hope that Mathew Sharpe won't mind my linking this post on my blog, and perhaps quoting a few passages.

Steven Augustine

"Their broken grammar is no problem --(...) -- but (...) they all spoke exactly the same way."

But are characters in DeLillo ever really "characters" much as they are lines of reasoning?

Matthew Sharpe

Megan and Carolyn and Jacob, thanks for your comments and questions. Megan, yes, DeLillo's work has influenced me in a number of ways. The first book of his I read was White Noise, and I was struck by how anthropological it was: how he was doing a kind of poetic ethnography of campus life, small town life, American life; how he was attempting to figure out the meaning of TV, of supermarkets, of tourism ("the most photographed barn in the world"); how he was trying to understand the modern American nuclear family with its private language, its house shapes, even the way moms and dads and kids position their bodies in relation to each other. And of course fear, modern fear, DeLillo's big subject, the fear that gets more primitive the more advanced civilization supposedly becomes, as he has said.

And then I was also struck by the rhythms and melodies of his sentences, the beauty of this combination of foregrounded lyricism and analytical urgency. My father is a publisher and my mother and older sister are musicians, so attentiveness to the musicality of language, the possibilities for the sound of language to be in itself the bearer of meaning, these things are in my blood, you might say, and DeLillo is one of the writers--though by no means the only writer--who offered me a model for how to do this. And Carolyn, to answer your last question first, I think it would be a bad idea for younger writers to pay homage to his prose style with their own, but the standard of beauty and incisiveness that his style represents can be really useful.

Am I conscious of my own grammar when I write? Yes and no. Writing for me is a paradoxical activity in which abandon and control are always in tension. I guess I’ve tried to learn the bejesus out of the grammatical and syntactical possibilities of English so that when I'm writing, the sentences will flow out my fingertips without too much interference from the part of my mind that's concerned about the rules.

Carolyn, about the question of the characters in Falling Man all talking like each other and like the third-person narrator of the book, I agree and disagree. On the disagreement side, I think each of them says things none of the others would say. When Lianne chides her mother for disrespecting Keith's wildness only because he's not an artist by saying, "Tell me this, what kind of painter gets to behave more unspeakably, figurative or abstract?," only she could have said that line. When Keith's adulterous lover, Florence, greets him at Macy's by telling him he's right on time and he replies, "You're the one who's on time. I've been here for hours, riding the escalators," that's Keith's sui generis sense of humor. So I do find each of them to be highly specific and individuated characters, and I find their lives and considerable struggles moving. But here's where I agree with you: DeLillo is an emphatic stylist, and his distinctive cadences do inflect every sentence he writes, so yeah, the way his people talk is stylized, not naturalistic and, I think, not meant to be. I can see where this would frustrate you, and maybe prevent you from connecting with the characters, but it didn't frustrate me. A way more wacky version of this business where the characters talk the way no real person could, and kind of all sound like some refraction of the author, is Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, which I also love. I guess I'm just built that way.

Jacob, though DeLillo does indeed seem to be reviled by conservative readers, I have writer friends whom I admire and respect who actively dislike DeLillo, and these are people who are themselves deeply thoughtful and adventurous writers, not at all conservative, so go figure. But I like your point about DeLillo's relation to authority. I am also inspired by him as someone resistant to accepted ways of thinking and seeing, and resistant to entrenched power. As he said in a 1993 interview in The Paris Review, "We have a rich literature. But sometimes it's a literature too ready to be neutralized, to be incorporated into the ambient noise. This is why we need the writer in opposition, the novelist who writes against power, who writes against the corporation or the state or the whole apparatus of assimilation. We're all one beat away from becoming elevator music."

This is a long-ass comment, sorry, I'm new to blogging.

Johnny Origami

I agree with your analysis of Delillo's syntax. I loved the overall structure of the novel. I also re-read Underworld right after, and can almost see Falling Man as an extention of that work...


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John Caruso

Although this analysis does indeed reveal the attention to detail evident in Delillo's writing--especially his obsession with language games and grammar--Sharpe's advocacy for Delillo's rigor and felicity is strained to the point of incredulity by the very examples he chooses. As in the paragraph below:

“He began to think into the day, into the minute. It was being here, alone in time, that made this happen, being away from routine stimulus, all the streaming forms of office discourse.” There are several felicitous turns of phrase and modifications here-DeLillo is one of my favorite wielders of a comma among contemporary writers-but I will limit myself to suggesting that not only is the first appositive phrase, “routine stimulus,” given specific embodiment in the second, “all the streaming forms of office discourse,” but the repetitions of vowels and consonants that constitute the sentence's melody serve as acoustical underscore to the semantic doubling of the apposition. In other words, part of what makes DeLillo good is that his sentences sound good, and that the sound reinforces the meaning by giving it a physical dimension, as in music or poetry.

Of what felicitous turns of phrase is Sharpe speaking? "being away from routine stimulus"? This is hardly felicitous. Routine stimulus is pure abstract jargon (another thing writer's like Delillo are fond of collecting in their prose, like so many pills on a worn out bed sheet). This kind of jargon has often served Delillo as ironic commentary on corporate culture. Here I think he's caught (not in a moment of true rigor) rather infusing a moment of supposed instrospection with his pomo habit of empty jargon speak. Something more like rigor mortus has set in. It can be just as easily, and more plausibly, argued that what Sharpe loftily describes as semantic doubling is little more than unfocused repitition of abstract generalities. For "routine stimulus" and "all the streaming forms of office discourse" not only lack the poetic sonority and music Sharpe claims for them, but they are utterly vague as language. Sharpe's claim that "the first appositive phrase, 'routine stimulus,' (is) given specific embodiment in the second, 'all the streaming forms of office discourse,'” is, if not false, at the very least unproven by Delillo's words. For, a the first phrase is not given specific embodiment at all, because the second phrase is not specific about what the "routine stimulus" is and is itself a merely lengthier abstraction with the generic word 'office' as the only concrete noun thrown in. With abstraction following abstraction here, it is more just to remark on a lack of precision and discipline here than an excess of rigor.

By the way, if you need more proof that Delillo was asleep at the office discourse streaming device, stimulus should have been the plural stimuli, given that he invokes "all the streaming forms" in the second appositive phrase. Sharpe is also about to make a claim about why Delillo's his favorite wielder of commas, but he limits himself to the strained and hollow claim above--a rather sensible restraint, given how conventionally the commas are used in this sentence. They merely string together a series of vague, repetitious and lame abstractions mascarading as penetrating thought and rigorous technique. Yet, barring any grounds in the quoted passage for such a claim and lacking explication to boot Sharpe lets his extraordinary claim stand.

Sharpe's last claim in this paragraph is not only grandiose, but one he asserts without proof:

"the repetitions of vowels and consonants that constitute the sentence's melody serve as acoustical underscore to the semantic doubling of the apposition. In other words, part of what makes DeLillo good is that his sentences sound good, and that the sound reinforces the meaning by giving it a physical dimension, as in music or poetry."

First of all we have ample grounds for disputing that Delillo's jargon filled sentence sounds good or felicitous. Certainly 'routine stimulus' and 'all the streaming forms of office discourse' are not phrases rich in either music or poetry. Second, given the abstract and nebulous nature of what Delillo is communicating how indeed do the consanants and vowel sounds reinforce "the meaning by giving it a physical dimension"? Even read aloud sound has no more physical dimension than words on a page. And it is doubtful how consonant or vowel sounds can reinforce meaning. At most, certain sounds can enhance a mood or feeling, but Sharpe neither describes which sounds in particular convey this reinforcing effect. He doesn't because he can't. Delillo's sentence itself as a structure fails to deliver anything worthy of so much "rigor". Even Delillo's core thought in this sentence, the effect of "being away from routine stimulus" does not deliver an insight. Read: "He began to think into the day, into the minute..." Again abstractions. What does Delillo mean by thinking into the day, into the minute? That is the part of the sentence and the thought he leaves unplumbed--the truly interesting part about a transformation in his consciousness of time and even of himself is supplanted by a language game. Whether or not this game is the result of rigor or mental laziness is open to interpretation, but the presence of such extroadinary claims of specific embodiment, semantic doubling, felicity, poetry and music for a sentence that defies all evidence of the kind does not engender the kind of trust one would wish to place in a reviewer of such obvious skill and intelligence. Alas sometimes the overly zealous advocate unwittingly confirms the wisdom of detractors.


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Brad Listi

Great piece. Thanks for reminding me what "apposition" is.

I still say that the opening section of 'Underworld' is one of the best pieces of fiction ever written.

Or: Certainly the best piece of fiction involving baseball ever written.


Sarah Collins Honenberger

I"ve come so far from our article, through spam and wind and things that go bump in the night, I'm having trouble remembering what I felt so strongly about that I decided to comment. Ah, yes, refreshing to find a literary person, reviewer perhaps?, who listens for the melody of writing. Apostrophe placement aside, as a fiction writer, I find most writing today misses the mark completely on melody and I dance on my pillow when I find an author (or blogger) who pays attention to it. Thank you.

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