Saturday, October 24, 2009

don delillo in a downturn

I'm back for more White Noise; I'm sure you know what I mean. I'm teaching Don Delillo during our "Great Recession" and am drawn to passages such as this first paragraph of chapter 4:

When times are bad, people feel compelled to overeat. Blacksmith is full of obese adults and children, baggy-pantsed, short-legged, waddling. They struggle to emerge from compact cars; they don sweatsuits and run in families across the landscape; they walk down the street with food in their faces; they eat in stores, cars, parking lots, on bus lines and movie lines, under the stately trees.

(I apologize on behalf of literary Don if you see two places where you might like to add an "and.")

I will confess to my own overeating these days although so far I believe I've avoided "waddling" and am still masking the pounds I could "afford" to lose with shirts tucked in and pants cut close to the thigh and calf. It is funny that the novel is published in the middle of the go-go Reagan 1980s, a time period most of my students have been taught was a very, very good one; if you tell them in fact that not all boats were always lifted during the economic expanse between Carter and Bush I, they may look at you with surprise. I must say that I was surprised to read that unemployment in 1982 (you are welcome to attribute this all to either Reagan or Carter if this is part of your worldview, but other interpretations are also "allowed" here), before Reagan's growth years, was higher than it is now or then it was when I finished undergrad in 1991 (the Bush I/Clinton "tough times"). Although I like Delillo's writing, I suspect our American expansion of the waistline has gone up slowly and steadily and in fact has not carressed the sign-curve waves of our economic ups and downs. It could be that there is a parallel line here one could draw beside the everincreasing numbers of our uninsured. Yes, it is food for thought.

In 2009, during our own troubles but within the context of Delillo's novel, I can't help but wonder if we have greater unemployment lines for Professors of Elvis or Impersonators of Elvis. I'm guessing the bar mitzvah and birthday business catering to celebrity impersonators has pretty much dried up or been replaced by parties with videogame or other high-tech themes. The Professors of Elvis--in other words, recent PhDs in American Studies, Civilization, or "Environments" (as Delillo calls the department at College-on- the-Hill)--can probably at the very least drum up some adjunct work teaching freshman English at a community college and hopefully do much better.

One of my favorite supervisors in academia is in fact a Professor of Magic (PhD in Performance Studies), and in general, solid advanced education in any discipline requiring extensive reading and writing is most likely enough to hold down some sort of employment in these troubled times. There is evidence of a proliferation of online and offline academic journals as well as a small army of small presses and POD shops, so I imagine it is easier than ever before to get one's contribution to the King published. Of course, even more than finding readers for one's words, acquiring the PhD is the hard part, and it could be the case that the hurdles of Heideggar and Habermas are only some of the obstacles in the way of one's diploma in advanced Elvis. I would imagine Nietzsche, Foucault, and Barthes on the deaths of various "gods" and "authors" could also be relevant to such critical work "in the field."

Even within the world of academic Elvis, I imagine some stiff competition, and this New York Times article reminds me that any one of us with employment right now has a lot to be grateful for.
A subtext within the article seems to be that we are somewhat lucky if we felt we could never afford one of the new, expansive homes (and mortgages) offered so freely in the early aughts; several of the seniors reported on are finding it is housing payments that are keeping them looking for work despite social security and even small pensions.

Last, a student told me that there is a television show in which one of the characters plays the literary agent of Don Delillo. This seems even more impressive (or alarming?) than the citing of his name as a reference point for literary success in Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives.

For further reading in the Don, Libra and Underworld are longer and more recent, but I highly recommend his early novels, the first three in fact: Americana, End Zone, and Great Jones Street.

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