I’ve had mixed success with award-winning American author Don DeLillo. I abandoned the first one I tried (The Body Artist) but I was very impressed by Falling Man (see my review) even though it’s a challenging book to read. I picked up Americana (1971) when I stumbled on it at the library because I have just bought a copy of award-winning Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah from the Africa Book Club – and I wanted to see if she drew at all on DeLillo’s novel with a similar sounding name…
DeLillo’s Americana is his first novel, and it’s one of those subversion of the ‘American dream’ novels. But it also subverts genre: in Part 1 it subverts the workplace satire, and in Part 2 the road novel genre. DeLillo says himself that it’s a ‘shaggy’ novel – and it is, but it’s still interesting to read.
It begins with a portrait of office life which presents the intensely competitive male employees endlessly trying to analyse office politics to identify the real hierarchy which lies beneath the veneer of equality. All things have significance in this hothouse: even the type and colour of office furniture and doors and other symbols which denote who’s who. The men pump the secretaries for information about plots and counter-plots, and they all covertly watch each other at the drone-fests which achieve nothing at all.
The style of Part 1 is very familiar to 21st century readers but the sardonic wit still works. Through his narcissistic narrator David Bell, DeLillo captures the irony of opinion-makers in a TV network themselves having no idea about the current affairs docos that they’re supposed to be producing. David’s project about the Navaho Indians is predicated on breath-taking ignorance, and their stance on China shows that they are focussed only on the visuals and the logistics of producing it, not the content.
Their insular attitudes are inevitable given their obsessions. Weede, for example, is a ‘master of the office arts, specialising in the tactic of reaction’ (p. 15). David admires his decapitation of a rival, a subordinate who over-decorates his office with his wife’s paintings. Weede’s response is to remove all his pictures and replace them with one small detail from the Sistine Chapel. ‘The almost bare walls were Rob Claven’s death sentence. The Michelangelo was the dropping of the blade’.
Taste, impressions, being ‘cool’ is what matters to everyone else, so David disingenuously tells us, but not to him, because he’s an observer. He goes to parties only to count the people there, separate from the current girlfriend, talk to people and then reunite to talk about how awful it was. He’s puerile, announcing his ‘child’s petty genius for reprisal’, to get the reaction from the reader that he deplores others for needing. The ‘observer’ is at all times a participant too, because he considers himself to be a victim of his own handsome good looks and his cleverness.
For to be neither handsome nor unattractive, neither ruthless nor clever, was to be considered a hero by the bland, a nice fellow by the brilliant and the handsome, a nonentity by the clever, a homosexual by the lunatic fringe of the unattractive, a bright young man by the ruthless, a threat by the dangerously neurotic, an intimate friend by the alienated and the doomed. I did my best to keep low. (p. 13)
We learn about David’s imprudent marriage to Meredith, his affairs, the way he wastes his time at work, and his interest in Warburton, the ‘elder statesman’ of the network. Nobody else pays any attention to Warburton’s mild attempts to raise standards because he ‘elevates issues to a cosmological level … making it easier to ignore them because they’re not fit to deal with moral questions’ (p. 63).
Inevitably David is too cool to stay in his job any longer so he sets off on a road trip with three companions, Brand, Pyke and a woman called Sullivan. His ‘project’ is to make a biographical film of his life, out in the ‘real’ America, but it’s a sacramental journey because they don’t know where they are even when they get there … and they hang around in one place for ages which subverts the whole idea of the road novel/movie. Not only that, his frequent phone calls back to his secretary Binky show that he’s keeping his options open at all times, so he hasn’t really burned his bridges at the office and rejected the whole American Dream anyway.
Needless to say, David manages to star in his own voyeuristic movie wherever he goes, due in part to his flashy camera which ‘implies meaning where no meaning exists’. In between bizarre episodes where he inveigles hapless locals into believing they are participating in something meaningful, there are stories from his past and his companions’ – but he finds their stories ‘boring’ (and he tells them so).
A couple of episodes unnerved me a bit. Having read Tears in the Darkness (see my review) I didn’t find the Bataan Death March a topic for black humour, and the orgy at the end was beyond unpleasant.
But overall, this is an interesting book because of the way it plays with genre and uses a narrator whose immaturity should repel the reader, but doesn’t.
Author: Don DeLillo
Publisher: Penguin, 2o11
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library
BTW I highly recommend the Africa Book Club as a source for great new contemporary fiction from the continent. If you sign up for their newsletters you get notice of special offers and competitions, and they feature interesting bios and articles about the great range of African titles. And guess what? unlike most other online bookstores, if you contact them, a real live person called Daniel will contact you back! Americanah is just one of the books I have bought from them …