Monday, November 30, 2009

The New Yorker: "Midnight in Dostoevsky" by Don DeLillo

This story is going directly onto my top-ten list for the year. I enjoyed this more than any DeLillo I’ve read, and I’m going to assume that it’s not excerpted from a novel. (Readers will remember “The Falling Man,” a DeLillo “story” in The New Yorker that was, in fact, a single story line extracted from his novel of the same name; DeLillo himself didn’t even do the extracting.) Although I have some qualms about the ending, the rest of the story is completely engaging.

Two college students, Todd and Robby, take long walks in their college town where there is little else to distract them. On these walks they engage in verbal battles, the point of which seems to be to sound as plausible as possible while making up explanations for things, or naming them. The narrator, Robby, for example, points to a tree and pronounces, “Norway maple,” although he’s not sure that it’s even a maple, much less the variety, but adds the specific to build credibility (like a fiction writer!). An ongoing discussion they have involves what kind of coat a man they see sometimes is wearing. Is it an anorak? A parka? Or something else?
Meanwhile, they are in a logic class with Professor Ilgauskas, who is wonderfully odd. Jenna, a girl in the class whom the narrator seems to like, tells Robby she’s seen Ilgauskas in the town diner, reading Doestoevsky. Jenna reports that she quoted a line of poetry to him, “like midnight in Dostoevsky,” but that the professor didn’t answer. (The line is from "Meditations in an Emergency" by Frank O’Hara.

The story feeds the boys’ ongoing debate about the man in the parka, and Robby now constructs an elaborate explanation for him—he’s from Russia, Ilgauskas is his son, etc. Because they are competitive, and because Todd seems to be a bit brighter (a “determined thinker”) and looks odd (“tall and sprawling, all bony framework”). In the end, Todd decides to test the explanation by speaking to the man, but Robby protests that this will spoil everything. What he really means by that, I think, is that it will end their discussions by exposing their fiction to the truth. And this conflict brings the boys to blows, in an awkward sort of way.

There is so much going on in this story! The character of Todd is fascinating and, it seems to me, Robby is taken with him, not in a sexual way—he seems interested in Jenna—but in a hero-worship way. After all, his parents are absent (Dad’s in Beijing and mom is off somewhere with her exotic boyfriend) and all he really has is the connection to Todd. This is threatened by what Todd proposes to do. And so Robby, who is still a boy, lashes out.

More thoughts?

November 30, 2009: “Midnight in Dostoevsky” by Don DeLillo

8 comments:

Leslie said...

I'm not a Delillo fan usually, but I loved this story, too--though I'm still suspicious that it's from the forthcoming novel. The relationship between the two boys was especially well-drawn. Actually, it this were from a novel, I'd want to read more.

Clifford Garstang said...

Probably it is. I still haven't received my copy of the magazine, so I read the story online and it's not easy to find the contributors' notes--so I didn't know if he had a novel coming or not. The passing reference to Robby's parents made me suspect that there might be more . . .

Clifford Garstang said...

I'm not sure this is from the novel, unless it's a really isolated scene. Point Omega is described this way:
"A young filmmaker [who] visits the desert home of a secret war advisor in the hopes of making a documentary. The situation is complicated by the arrival of the older man's daughter, and the narrative takes a dark turn."
Also, it's only going to be 120 pages in hardcover. So unless the guy in the anorak is the "secret war advisor" . . .

Leslie said...

Thanks for the follow-up info--glad that all signs point to a stand-alone story.

Curt said...

I'll confirm that this is not from the forthcoming "Point Omega" (having seen an advanced copy).

Clifford Garstang said...

Thanks for the confirmation, Curt.

t. lief tepper said...

The story appears to be about the consequences, and the choice, of fiction. Todd, dear death, winds up on the side of life -- and not art. Which can make you immortal. In college we learned such things as words picture ideas. Ilgauskas and his dad, the narrator's idea, seem a fact learnt by serious young men of Delillo's generation, and the laptops and cellphones in this story, and their banishment, hint this bildungs-short story is really about Don and the 60s/70s. But disguised. The writing is lovely and mysterious, like midnight in Dostoevsky, the first stop on the trainline to novelbegirsk.

Mark Richardson said...

I really liked the story. I took something a little different out of it then "the consequences of fiction." Although, now that I read that comment, it makes sense...

I thought it had something to do with the fact that there are actual, measurable truths. Just because something exists in your mind, doesn’t mean it truly exists. For example, despite the vigorous claims, there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And I’ve grown increasingly skeptical of the advocates of “The Secret” who claim we can have anything we want, if we just wish for it strongly enough. Maybe that’s too ambition of a reading, but it’s what I took out of the story.