by Joshua Loveday
In Don DeLillo’s amazing debut novel AMERICANA, we are introduced to the egotistical David Bell, a successful television executive who doesn’t seem to do any actual work. His obsession with the popular culture of television and cinema define his perception of the world and become his reality. He sees himself as a character and his own life as a film. This is reflected in the golden age of cinema-styled fonts used for the titles of the parts and chapters of the book. His actions become part of a script in his own mind, and this makes him unreliable as the narrator. We can’t trust his own internal monologue.
Tired of the dull life he is leading, David sets out across America to make a movie that documents and recreates parts of his own life, including his distant relationship with his father and an incestuous event with his mother. He wishes to be “spliced into the image” of the film, his “molecules mating with those millions of dots.” He attempts to immortalize his life in “the new era”—film, a medium “free of history and death.” In the end, he realizes “the true play” is life itself, and that he was engaged in “merely a literary venture” that sought and failed “to make of something wild a squeamish thesis on the essence of the nation’s soul” but “there was nothing to announce…in the way of historic revelation.”
Along with Thomas Pynchon, Thomas McGuane and Donald Barthelme, Don DeLillo is one of the icons of postmodern literature, and AMERICANA is one of the best debut novels I have ever read. In it, DeLillo introduces us to themes that would dominate his later works—the fear of death in WHITE NOISE and ZERO K, the obsession with crowds in MAO II, the JFK assassination in LIBRA. It explores the theme of absence as an essential condition for experience, and in doing so helped define the postmodern narrative.