You have probably heard about DeLillo's new book Cosmopolis. He is going to be in France, on a book tour I think, later this month (see Don DeLillo: la chute du golden-boy, from Radio-France, September 9). Furthermore, l'Express published an interview with DeLillo by François Busnel ( "Je n'ai pas de réponse littéraire au terrorisme") on September 11. I found this interview so interesting that I have translated it here. Since what DeLillo said is coming back into English by way of French, my rendering may be far away from what he actually said: please accept my apologies.
After September 11, 2001, it seems it was rather difficult for an American writer living in the United States to express himself freely and at length. Is this still the case two years later?
Yes. A wind of insanity has, in effect, blown over this country. It has become difficult not only to protest but even to speak. That said, to protest what? Against September 11, which was an attack against America? You protest against an idea or political system, not against an attack which is an ineluctable and unforeseeable fact. Hatred and confusion have reigned for a long time: how do you protest against a group of terrorists? You must admit it's a little absurd, right? The real question is not to know if one is against or for it, to protest or accept it, but to understand it. And it's difficult to make that be heard.
To understand what?
To understand what our place should be in the world. To understand what reasons could have led to these attacks on September 11. To understand how the American way of life influences thousands of lives in the world every day.
How do you react when people tell you that, in a way, you foresaw the events of September 11 in your novels?
I don't believe that writers are prophets. Sometimes we have a tendency to see things before they happen, or well before others understand them. But it's easy for a reader to find in a novel a passage that seems, in retrospect, prophetic to him, when it is obviously not. I don't want to create a literary theory about the world to come or to pose as a prophet: that would be absurd. Besides, some of my books have nothing to do with politics and are connect to the body or to language. I do not have a literary response to terrorism.
But if you take The Players, for example, which relates in particular a terrorist attack against the same towers of the World Trade Center...
If there is in my work a permanent reference to the World Trade Center, it's above all because I saw those towers being constructed, little by little, year after year, to the point where they ended up becoming the symbol of banality in this city of skyscrapers. This is an experience only New Yorkers can understand, perhaps, but literature can share it. Over the years, I ended up getting used to those two intruders, and I stopped having negative feelings against them. Then, one day, they fell.
How do you define the role of the writer?
I hate to be the spokesperson. For me, a writer should be someone who thinks "against": against the powers that be, against big business, against uncontrolled consumerism, against unceasing waste, against everyday cynicism... I do not apply this principle consciously. When I begin writing a book, I start from a character and a situation. Nothing more. Then, when the characters take on their own dimension, when the story falls into place, over the course of weeks and years, then things insist on being recognized, to come out. We are immersed today in a "culture" so powerful that it absorbs absolutely everything, including artists, who have a tendancy to become more and more impotent, as banal as disposable products. This intellectual and economic leveling out has something equally disturbing about it: everything ends up being fabricated to be consumed instantly and safely. So, when an artist tries to write against this system, I believe it's a salutary undertaking.
Would you also say, as in Mao II, that writers have many points in common with terrorists?
Things have evolved, making that comparison more complicated. In that novel, Mao II, the main character, a writer, is convinced, in effect, that his work is related to that of terrorists. When I wrote it, at the end of the 1980s, it was partly my belief. But is truly my opinion? Perhaps, sometimes. First of all, it's the opinion of a fictional hero. I recognize that today I have trouble understanding that character. What the terrorists have gained, he thinks, writers have lost. In other words, today's novels no longer have any impact on the collective consciousness, they no longer manage to shape the world, while terrorism is the only thing that can change a society. This is rather true: what novelist of our day creates an adjective derived from his name? No one. The last was Kafka: we say of a situation that it is Kafkaesque.
Can we speak of a DeLilloesque world?
I don't think so, and I hope not... Everything makes clear that it is the dictators and the terrorists who manage to alter consciousness, to influence spirits, to shape souls, to change societies. It is they who make the news. They have become the blacksmiths of our time. That's what Bill Gray, my hero, says in Mao II. And in a sense that's what came out of September 11: terrorism became the world's narrative mode. For two years, we have been in the era of terror and terrorism. It's what dictates the law of the world. Writing no longer plays a role, the writer no longer shapes consciousness. Is there a real connection between writers and terrorists? I wouldn't theorize... But that connection seems interesting to me and should be explored.
What was the impact of September 11 on writers, and on you in particular?
It's still too early to say exactly, but it was terrible. Terrible to live through... I'm not sure that it will have a real influence on our way of writing and thinking. When Kennedy was assassinated, in November 1963, I don't think people asked themselves if his death had an impact on fiction...
And yet it's true...
Yes. In effect I have written about that time, but it was about the end of a world. Everything changed with Kennedy's death: suddenly a great confusion was born, as well as a distrust of all future governments. The idea of a plot emerged and, with it, the consciousness that the people would never again be told the truth. All of this was quite new in American culture and certainly affected my way of writing... As for September 11, which is also a terrible trauma, we have to wait... It is young writers who will tell us, in five or ten years, what its true impact is. It is they who will write about September 11. If they don't do it, then perhaps I will.
In fact, American writers hardly seem inspired by this tragedy, while there is a great tradition in United States of novelists directly in contact with the great events of their time, such as Steinbeck, Hemingway, Mailer, Jones...
That's true, but Hemingway or Mailer wrote about wars in which they had taken part. September 11 has nothing to do with "a good war," as we say. For Hemingway, for example, war was an accumulation of wounds. It was a completely natural territory for him, as it was for all who were enlisted in the Marines and produced in effect great novels, since they were confronted by the event for three or four years. September 11 is completely different: it is not a war, it happened to us suddenly, no one has had the time to live it for a long time. You can't produce a novel from this experience in the same way one produces a novel from one's time in the army.
How do you perceive New York two years later?
Everything is different. In New York, September 11 is still present in everyone's mind, but no one talks about it openly. Nothing like the rest of the country, which seems not to think about any longer. Here, people wonder if they can still live in the city, they ask themselves about their safety and the safety of their children. It's there like the invisible residue of a terrible blast. I pass through Grand Central Station every day, and I see soldiers with guns and dogs sniffing suitcases at every turn. New York seems like the capital of a third-world country which is in a state of permanent alert. We live every day in a state of emergency. This lets up from time to time, but as soon as the kernel of bad news rises up, everything takes on terribly exaggerated proportions. I believe that everyone thinks that what happened to us could happen again tomorrow.
Has behavior changed in this city that you lampoon so severely?
The psychology has changed. The train stations and some big restaurants are deserted by people who seem them as obvious targets. On the other hand, everyone has gone back to their normal life, at least in appearance. In New York, beware of appearances! New Yorkers are quite different from other Americans. Here, we are better equipped to face adversity, because New York is a town where everyone is stressed out, where everything is always urgent. In spite of that, I don't know a single New Yorker who wants to leave the city, while a resident of Los Angeles wants to leave the city because of stress. It's a city without equal. Terrifying.
In Cosmopolis, you advance a Golden Rule for anyone visiting New York: avoid visual contact. Fiction or reality?
That's reality. Visual contact has become very dangerous here. If you walk down the street, you never look someone in the eye, you never know what can happen: a look can signify a whole range of emotions, from sex to violence. This is true especially in Manhattan, around 47th Street, the Diamond District, between 5th and 6th Avenue, neighborhoods with broad or narrow sidewallks. It's for this very reason that I call this city "Cosmopolis." It was different in the weeks after September 11: we all believed a different humanity was rising. But today, all has gone back to what it was before. In Cosmopolis, my hero, Eric Packer, crosses the city in a stretch limousine with tinted windows, precisely because it spares him from all visual contact.
Cosmopolis takes place in a single day, in April 2000... We wonder if you are going to write, ultimately, this novel on September 11, 2001...
One day perhaps... I began Cosmopolis before the attacks, then I had to stop, because it was impossible to write anything at that time. But I think the key date is that very one: April 2000, that is, the moment when the financial market collapsed, when recession took over from years of enormous growth. That was the end of a world. The 20th century truly ended then, in the tumult of this day in April 2000.