Kathleen Reeves, a congregant at St. Lydia’s, recently graduated from the Draper Interdisciplinary Master’s Program in Humanities and Social Thought at NYU. On May 15, Kathleen shared this excerpt from her MA thesis, “‘Perishable but Never Ending’: Materiality and Mystery in Early DeLillo,” which traces the vivid presence of the human body in DeLillo’s early novels, End Zone and Great Jones Street. Both novels present originary moments of representation in which the body reinvests language with meaning and points toward the possibility of transcendence. Even when flawed and diseased, the human body’s real presence in the novels counters the disorienting forces of capitalism, technology, and war and guides DeLillo’s silent characters back to the possibility of art.
In the last chapter of Great Jones Street, Bucky roams lower Manhattan, mute after an urban cult has injected him with a much sought-after superdrug, “the product,” which destroys language. Again, terror and awe coalesce in Bucky’s experience, as he walks slowly through his apartment, “as though in fear of objects, all things with names unknown to me.” At the same time, he is “unreasonably happy . . . thinking of myself as a kind of living chant. I made interesting and original sounds” (264). The silence that Bucky has been seeking allows him to be, for the first time, original. But Bucky’s mute observation yields eventually to naming, in a process in which the physical forms of the city are essential. First, Bucky is drawn to the specific ruin of downtown New York, as he “never ventured north of Cooper Square but stood above the rivers east and west, wod-or, this double sound all I could fashion from sight of sluggish currents in transit to the sea” (258). New York’s natural setting, often obscured or forgotten, inspires Bucky’s rediscovery of language. Furthermore, the song of a ragged merchant provides a model of naming that runs throughout this final, “mute” chapter. Like all of DeLillo’s derelicts, he is gloriously decrepit, a “toothless man” surrounded by “glowing produce,” “one of nature’s raw warriors.” His sales pitch is described as “a religious cry,” and, as in the windshield men and the material industries of Great Jones Street, this kind of selling is material-based and markedly different than the more complicated and sinister forms of commerce in the novel:
RED YAPPLES GREEN YAPPLES GOLDEN YAPPLES MAKE A YAPPLE PIE MAKE ALSO A YAPPLE STRUDEL YAPPLES YAPPLES YAPPLES BIG JUICY YAPPLES FROM THE HEART OF THE YAPPLE COUNTRY (259)
Bucky passes another radiant, ordinary namer, this one a woman, “resplendent,” “loudly cataloguing various items along the sidewalk”: “NEWSPAPER VOMIT SHIT GLASS CARDBOARD . . . GARBAGE SHIT GARBAGE GARBAGE SHIT” (260). The refuse on the sidewalk is elevated when named, each fragment of urban decay illuminated by language. Finally, DeLillo recasts a derelict’s physical infirmity as a lofty form of expression:
A rag man at the edge of the park retched into his scarf, working himself up to a moment of vast rhetoric. His seemed the type of accusation aimed at those too constricted in spirit to see the earth as a place for gods to grow, a theater of furious encounters between prophets of calamity and simple pedestrians trying to make the light. (261-62)
DeLillo situates the divine in the earth, pointing again to the embeddedness of the extraordinary in the ordinary, and the next act of naming in the chapter reinforces this idea.
…Continue reading here.