Don DeLillo: a beginner's guide

Picador's handy starter guide to the books of Don DeLillo from Underworld to The Silence.

by Kris Doyle
28/10/2020
4 minutes to read

Don DeLillo is one of the greatest living American novelists. Over the last forty-five years he has produced seventeen novels and several plays, many of which are considered to contain some of the finest writing of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Anyone new to Don DeLillo's books could be forgiven for not having a clue where to start. Luckily Picador Editorial Director, Kris Doyle, is on hand to offer some expert advice.

Don DeLillo is one of America’s most important and influential writers.  He is perhaps the quintessential American novelist.  Why?  He engages with the history of his country and predicts its future with a freakish accuracy; he catches the voices, fears and hopes of the full range of Americans; the capaciousness of his work only serves to highlight his omnicompetence. 

DeLillo has interrogated consumerism, intellectualism, terrorism, digital technology, the family, death, the power of violence, the impact of the Atomic Bomb; the list goes on. The importance of America, especially in the global events of the twentieth century, would ensure his relevance to readers everywhere, even if it weren’t for the fact that we in the West live in an increasingly homogenised culture, an increasingly American culture.

But for me, what makes him special isn’t all of this grand-sounding stuff. 

The feeling I love most when reading is perhaps best called extrusion, that delightful rush that comes when the pull of a writer’s words on the page draw you towards a new experience: the quick expansion of consciousness, the shock of recognition, the delicious and surprising hit of emotion.

Some writers choose to think in macro terms and some at the micro-level of the sentence; DeLillo can do both. At his best, I think he’s one of few writers who can do them simultaneously. DeLillo writes books that are smart, funny, perceptive, moving, relevant and true because he can think big and write small. He gives himself more opportunities than most writers to bring the reader’s consciousness up to join him because of the fearlessness with which he explores the terrain of the world he finds himself in and the equal fearlessness of the way he deploys language to offer us his visionary remaking of it. 

Every book feels like an act of deep thinking and we rush to meet him because he’s always out in front, there on the horizon, aiming for the bright edge.


A quick guide to the books of Don DeLillo

The novel for now

The Silence

by Don DeLillo

Book cover for 9781529057096

Don DeLillo has always seen the future in the present, but perhaps never more effectively than with The Silence. Although it was begun before COVID-19 existed, it’s set at a time when a virus that emptied the streets is ‘fresh in the memory’ and an even greater disaster is about to strike. A dazzling short novel about what it means to be human in a time of crisis.

The breakout novel

White Noise

by Don DeLillo

Book cover for 9780330524841

Possibly DeLillo’s funniest book, White Noise introduced his work to a wider audience than ever before and established his reputation as a master of postmodern fiction.

The magnum opus

Underworld

by Don DeLillo

Book cover for 9781447289395

DeLillo’s epic saga opens - famously - at the Dodgers-Giants 1951 National League final, where Bobby Thomson hits The Shot Heard Round the World and goes on to encompass fifty years of American history. It offers a panoramic vision of America, defined by the overarching conflict of the cold war.

The gateway novel

Zero K

by Don DeLillo

Book cover for 9781509822843

DeLillo’s first novel in just under a decade is everything his fans have been waiting for, however it also makes a great introduction to his work. Like the very best of his books, it weighs the darkness of the world - terrorism, floods, fires, famine, plague - against the beauty and humanity of everyday life.

The thriller

The Names

by Don DeLillo

Book cover for 9780330524865

An exotic thriller about a mysterious ‘language cult’ seemingly behind a number of unexplained murders. The Names explores the intersection of language and culture, the perception of America from both inside and outside its borders, and the impact that narration has on the facts of a story. 

The cult classic

Libra

by Don DeLillo

Book cover for 9781509845156

DeLillo investigates the assassination of John F. Kennedy through a fictionalized account of the life of Lee Harvey Oswald. His portrayal of Oswald's journey from troubled teenager to a man of precarious stability is powerful, sensitive and eerily convincing.

The quick fix

The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories

by Don DeLillo

Book cover for 9781447207566

Don DeLillo’s collection of short stories is the perfect bite-sized introduction to his work. In true DeLillo style they represent a vast range of human experience, taking us from the slums of New York to the Earth’s orbit.

Next steps

Mao II

by Don DeLillo

Book cover for 9781509837847

Once you’re a firm DeLillo convert you might want to try his most aphoristic novel, in which a reclusive novelist attempts to free a poet held hostage in Beirut. Mao II explores DeLillo’s thoughts on a world in which the writer’s influence on the inner life of a culture now belongs to bomb-makers and gunmen.