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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

A Lifter’s Edge: Garry Wills on Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Fiction

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Mr. DeLillo’s poetry resides in temporal black holes. He writes about the worst times in our history — Pearl Harbor, the atomic bombing, and the assassination of President Kennedy, for example — and then watches the ground shift.

Then the ground shifts again, and it can seem to reshape in the most oblique ways. In 1997’s Underworld, he fashions a narrator who dreams of living among the alien drugs that come out of China during the Vietnam War. Their patterns in drug chemistry fill the mind like dreams in a magician’s trick. Sometimes, though, you get none of that, and the mind has to choose: We’re allowed to live in all these wonderful places, or none of these wonderful places.

In Underworld, these planetary mind-scrambles evoke the opening two paragraphs of his most recent novel, This Changes Everything, which I reviewed for The Times in 2012. That passage is from the end of the book, in a realm above the exhausted ruins of a drug warehouse where years of mania, the power of drugs and the disregard of death have taken their toll.

There is now nothing left but a black sky. The whiskey bottles are empty, their labels daubed with graffiti: “Marked for death.” Two American soldiers are dead, in the arms of a Western-looking German policeman, squinting in the night. My friend disappears into a liminal void where nothing can reach him — “Lost.” And then a shadow rushes toward him like an aether: “The echoes of their testimony are no longer, nothing. They are in that state, where nothing is left to anyone but the murderer. It is all over.”

It is these parallel universes that resonate with Mr. DeLillo, and the most recent novel also takes place above ground. The opening scene depicts the expulsion of democracy from Cuba in the early 1990s, in a country where history and the future seem in a tangled standstill, a place that some say resembles the fever swamps of Egypt today. The narrator, a budding writer who is now in the United States, narrates in a vague, dreamlike, two-dimension voice of eery strangeness, the odd absence of irony that can only serve as a backdrop to his mind’s rotating, arbitrary heaven or hell.

“This is the shape of the world,” he says. “The same world as before. Only now it is no longer a positive world.”

What the narrator has experienced — the end of the Cold War — was also the ending of the fiction in his head. A literary swan song, Mr. DeLillo’s last novel may be a final reverie.

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