don delillo, book court 7 pm, 2/11/2010

Counterhistory Sometime after I emerged from the library basement, I learned that a certain picturesque foursome had been present at the ballgame in question. Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra, Toots Shor and J. Edgar Hoover. Three roistering night owls and one strait-laced man of the law. Sportsmen and cronies who wouldn’t want to deny themselves the aura of such a high-profile event. Hoover’s name was a surprise, the kind of lucky find that makes a writer believe he is astrologically blessed.

I used the ballgame as a prologue to what would eventually become a long novel, “Underworld,” and it was Hoover’s presence on the scene that enabled me to bring news of the Soviet atomic test into the Polo Grounds and to set an early tone for the shifting conflicts I hoped to examine. And the three other men, in their Irish, Italian and Jewish combustibility and their working-class backgrounds, became a collective herald of themes and characters that would flow through the novel proper.

When history offers up shiny gifts, the novelist begins to see the rightness of his enterprise. But how right is it actually? Doesn’t a fiction writer necessarily distort the lives of real people? Possibly not as much as the memoirist does, intentionally, or the biographer, unintentionally.

That’s the easy answer. The deeper reply begins with a man who distorted the lives of real people as a matter of bureaucratic routine.

J. Edgar Hoover makes several appearances in “Underworld.” He is not one of the central characters. These people are all inventions, whole or partial, issuing from the author’s memory and imagination, from the small gathered fragments of overheard voices and random faces glimpsed in the street.

Hoover is a disinvention, real, conjectured, gambled on, guessed at. Hoover in his taut and raging selfhood. Hoover in his impregnability, an incitement to the novelist’s perennial effort to detect the hidden nature of things.

Fiction will always examine the small anonymous corners of human experience. But there is also the magnetic force of public events and the people behind them. There is something in the novel itself, its size and psychological reach, its openness to strong social themes, that suggests a matching of odd-couple appetites — the solitary writer and the public figure at the teeming center of events. The writer wants to see inside the human works, down to dreams and routine rambling thoughts, in order to locate the neural strands that link him to men and women who shape history. Genius, ruthlessness, military mastery, eloquent self-sacrifice — the coin of actual seething lives.

Against the force of history, so powerful, visible and real, the novelist poses the idiosyncratic self. Here it is, sly, mazed, mercurial, scared half-crazy. It is also free and undivided, the only thing that can match the enormous dimensions of social reality.

It is almost inevitable that the fiction writer, dealing with this reality, will violate any number of codes and contracts. He will engineer a swerve from the usual arrangements that bind a figure in history to what has been reported, rumored, confirmed or solemnly chanted. It is fiction’s role to imagine deeply, to follow obscure urges into unreliable regions of experience — child-memoried, existential and outside time.

The novel is the dream release, the suspension of reality that history needs to escape its own brutal confinements.

Fiction does not obey reality even in the most spare and semidocumentary work. Realistic dialogue is what we have agreed to call certain arrays of spoken exchange that in fact have little or no connection with the way people speak. There is a deep density of convention that allows us to accept highly stylized work as true to life. Fiction is true to a thousand things but rarely to clinical lived experience. Ultimately it obeys the mysterious mandates of the self (the writer’s) and of all the people and things that have surrounded him all his life and all the styles he has tried out and all the fiction (of other writers) he has read and not read. At its root level, fiction is a kind of religious fanaticism, with elements of obsession, superstition and awe.

Such qualities will sooner or later state their adversarial relationship with history.

It is also true that power and renown tend themselves to diminish the distance between fact and fiction. A person sufficiently original and lustrous inspires his own transcendence, his space-launch out of strictly historical levels and his reimagining in fiction, myth, fairy tale and cartoon. Not so lustrous was Richard Nixon, but he functioned nonetheless in the glow of prodigious power and seemed in his unique and ghost-haunted way to carry into the public discourse such personal themes as loneliness, vindictiveness and acute suspicion. And in “The Public Burning,” by Robert Coover, Nixon exceeds the limits of plausible experience — Nixon, the Marx Brothers, Betty Crocker and the atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, all minced together and rematerialized in the textured paranoia that replaces history and marks an epoch’s direst and deadest end.

Ultimately the writer will reconfigure things the way his own history demands. He has his themes and biases and limitations. He has the small crushed pearl of his anger. He has his teaching job, his middling reputation and the one radical idea he has been waiting for all his life. The other thing he has is a flat surface that he will decorate, fitfully, with words.

Language can be a form of counterhistory. The writer wants to construct a language that will be the book’s life-giving force. He wants to submit to it. Let language shape the world. Let it break the faith of conventional re-creation.

Language lives in everything it touches and can be an agent of redemption, the thing that delivers us, paradoxically, from history’s flat, thin, tight and relentless designs, its arrangement of stark pages, and that allows us to find an unconstraining otherness, a free veer from time and place and fate.

The language of a novel — E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” say — can be so original and buoyant that it necessarily transforms the past. The tonal prose creates its own landscape, psychology and patterns of behavior. It is stronger than the weight-bearing reality of actual people and events. It has a necessary existence, while the source material is exposed as merely contingent. In “Ragtime,” history and mock history tool along together. They form a kind of syncopated reality in which diverse human voices ultimately come into conflict with a single uninflected voice, the monotone of the state, the corporate entity, the product, the assembly line. In this novel, language is a democratic experiment.

The novelist does not want to tell you things you already know about the great, the brave, the powerless and the cruel. Fiction slips into the skin of historical figures. It gives them sweaty palms and head colds and urine-stained underwear and lines to speak in private and the terror of restless nights. This is how consciousness is extended and human truth is seen new.”

excerpted from delillo’s essay “the power of history“, from the ny times, 1997

read the full essay here by clicking link above, illustration by josh gosfield

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