Don DeLillo has a new book out but I don’t have it yet – so I am looking at one of his first, instead. A darkly comic conspiracy thriller, it involves murder, transvestitism, radical journalists, art dealers, a US Senator, the CIA, a smut merchant and Vietnamese hitmen, all on the hunt for a scabrous piece of long-lost Naziana. It is also an oblique satire on the acquisitive society, where the hunt for an object exhausts its pursuers until they find something else to fixate on – until that too is obtained.
“A woman with a past. Isn’t that what makes us interesting? For men, it’s a lack of a recorded past that proves so fascinating. Women, no. It’s the shadows behind us that do the trick.”
Moll Robbins is a journalist for the once chic radical rag of the title, investigating a senator with a penchant for erotic art. She bumps into his buyer, Selvy, who is a trained killer, and with whom she has a brief affair before he goes on the run after becoming the target of his employers, unhappy about the romantic dalliance. They work for a secret CIA off-shoot known as ‘Radial Matrix’ – a name chosen precisely for its lack of meaning. We then follow’s Moll and Selvy’s cross-country adventures as they get caught up in the search for a stag movie said to have been filmed in Hitler’s bunker in the dying days of the war and featuring the Führer himself, now desired by a bizarre coteries of creepy cutthroats.
“Before pop art, there was such a thing as bad taste. Now there’s kitsch, schlock, camp and porn.”
I can’t say I particularly enjoyed this book, while admiring the wit and skill with which it is undeniably presented. Clearly not intended to be taken that seriously, the plot is largely dispensable, though to my surprise we do ultimately get to see what is on the long-lost film. What we get instead of a coherent story are a series of comedic scenes, most of which are amusing in their own way, but also usually overlong, often failing, albeit to a degree deliberately, to mesh and reach any conclusion. As with so many books of the era, and I’m thinking here of some of the works of Foster Wallace, Tom Robbins and Thomas Pynchon, we are presented with a journey narrative which goes out of its way to not reach a destination.
To Selvy, guns and their parts amounted to an inventory of personal worth.
While one expects to have basic genre conventions thwarted if not exactly mocked in the 70s serious counter-culture novel mode, what I found disappointing, and ultimately so unrewarding was the incessant banter between its characters, which to me was always forced and unconvincing and, fatally, always cut from the same linguistic template. The result is that whoever is speaking tends to sound the same, playing verbal games and indulging in verbal tics to avoid getting to the point. Which i guess, sort of is the point, but this game became, to me, ultimately self-defeating and wearisome.
“Fascinating, yes. An interesting word. From the Latin fascinus. An amulet shaped like a phallus. A word progressing from the same root as the word ‘fascism.'”
With its deliberate lack of plot focus (though various rather depressing conclusions are reached at the end of the treasure hunt), and the monotonous tone of the dialogue, I found myself admiring the intelligence of its author but never really liking this one. Shame that.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2016 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘ghostly figure’ category: