Introducing DeLillo’s Internet Man
March 6, 2011 § Leave a Comment
Finished a while ago: The Body Artist, by Don DeLillo.
Reading now: Big Machine, by Victor LaValle.
Reading next: You Know Me Al, by Ring Lardner.
I’d like to think that DeLillo wrote this when he did for much the same reason I read it when I did: Fot the love of God, let me finish something quickly! After Underworld, DeLillo surely enjoyed writing this spare novella, a whispering ghost of a book.
And yet, he’s DeLillo, so it’s also, still, a book like a steel rail, vibrating with the force of the train bearing down on us, and a book like a radio spinning its dial through the world’s most erudite and finely crafted frequencies. It’s a book that concerns itself with film, radio, audiotape, performance art, art reportage and criticism, but mostly death and the human body. DeLillo notices more than most of us, and shows us things we were bound to notice eventually but hadn’t yet. But he does it in such interesting ways that often it’s up to you to notice what he might be talking about.
Case in point: the Internet, here, in this 2001 book. It make a direct appearance, as the “live-streaming video feed from the edge of a two-lane road in a city in Finland” with which Lauren becomes obsessed for its “sense of organization, a place contained in an unyielding frame, as it is and as you watch… she could see it in its realness, in its hours, minutes and seconds.” But the Internet might be a larger figure in the book. Is it the mystery man who appears in Lauren’s house?
This feeling, that the mysterious savant is actually some sort of Internet Man, came slowly, but once I’d had the thought it was difficult to dislodge. DeLillo is a master of ambiguity, and so he can be an Internet allegory and many other things at once. But his uncanny mimicry, his lack of human personality and self, his flat screen of recited language and incident, and his blurring (both to Lauren and to us, the readers) of “realness” and artifice or simulacrum add up, for me at least, to a portrait of a new technology, this search-engined network of knowledge and memory.
It crystallized in this passage, near the end, after meditations on the nature of “past, present, and future” and language:
“…she opened and closed her eyes and thought in a blink the world had changed.
He violates the limits of the human.”
The connection of all of this with the book’s deep concerns with death, with the body, and with art: this is, perhaps, of a piece with millennial techno- and future-thinkers, and yet it is utterly different from utopian wishes to escape the body online or dystopian visions of technological tyranny. It takes Lauren’s artistic vision — and especially her “body work” — to make sense of both the Google-like retrieval of her late husband’s voice by the “savant” in her house and of the mysterious appeal of a Finnish road in the dead of night.