Don DeLillo: Staring at the wall
Don DeLillo’s afterword to the Picador Classic edition of his landmark novel Underworld.
One dictionary definition of the word ‘inspire’ cites divine guidance. An archaic meaning of the word is rendered this way: breathes life into.
The prologue to Underworld is set in New York City on a day in October in the year 1951. When I finished this extended segment, I began to work without delay on the first chapter. The narrative moved smoothly forward both in novel time – same city, following day – and in desk time, hour by routine hour.
It went this way for three or four weeks. No hesitation or interruption, no hovering cloud of doubt. Then something, somehow, happened. It occurred to me that the sensible approach I was taking, post-prologue, was uninspired. Whatever the quality of the writing, the novel needed something more dynamic at this crucial early stage, a departure, a breakaway point, and I found myself staring at the wall.
What is the wall?
It is the upright structure of building material located just beyond the typewriter, the manuscript pages, the jutting pens and pencils in the marmalade jar. It is also what a writer stares at during the dead times.
There were a few photographs and small paintings on the wall but there was also enough blank space for me to stare at. And the wall seemed to bounce something back at me, not a curse or a moan but a distinct idea of what was needed to animate the book and the writer. First, most immediate, a leap forward in time and a radical change of place. Eventually a first-person narration would develop as well as a flipped switch from present tense to past tense.
And so the novel proceeds from 1951 in a ballpark in New York to the 1990s in a desert waste in Arizona. Then the narrative scheme drives the action in reverse chronology gradually back to the 1950s. And the passages that I’d intended to locate directly after the prologue are reborn, in the new format, as the first chapter in Part 6, roughly six hundred pages beyond their original placement and four years of work after their inception.
But this account may not be completely accurate. Was I in fact aware at a conscious level that the novel needed serious reconsideration? And did I act on this feeling in direct response? It may be that the call for a new structure, for a vault forward in time, simply came to me out of a subchamber in the mind, the novelist’s mind, forever asprawl with scraps, schemes, needs, greeds and the hope of living long enough to finish writing the book that’s killing him.
I did not respond to a need. I simply saw an opening to an arresting narrative path. What else can I call it but a revelation, an inspiration? And how pale are the words that one must use to describe the oddly three-dimensional depth of the insight.
(Am I revisiting this essay the way I altered the novel? And do writers ever refer to inspiration? Didn’t the word get stranded in the middle decades of the last century?)
I don’t remember what time of year it was, or what the weather was like, or what happened to the bamboo chair I used to sit in when I was working. But I did stare at the wall. And I clearly recall the sensation I felt, the breath of life in the lapsed meaning of the word ‘inspire.’ This was the moment that made the novel.
Don DeLillo, 2015