Don DeLillo took an eventful run-up to writing the four books that established him as the beadiest and canniest of American novelists. He spent the 1970s palming around for an exciting subject and a fruitful approach, and eventually found both in White Noise (1985) and parts of both in Libra (1988), Mao II (1991) and Underworld (1997). His earlier novels take aim at industries and state apparatuses - journalism, espionage - yet he proved less adept at exposing secret machinations than at tracing the shadows they cast on the public stage. DeLillo is an excavator, a pathfinder - a specialist in the "secret history" of observable phenomena and recorded facts.
There has been a corresponding process of abdication over the years since Underworld - signs of contracting appetite and of what the author himself (diagnosing a CIA operative in Libra) called "motivational exhaustion". DeLillo's dream of purpose was comprehensively realised in his loose, four-part work concerning the atmosphere of panic and dread that prevailed in the US between the 1950s and the 1980s - an atmosphere that made the idea of American reality such a slippery beast. Too slippery, thought Philip Roth and Norman Mailer, for the novelist to capture it. But DeLillo managed to.
The solution was an obvious one. DeLillo squared up to American reality on its own turf and terms, made his fiction a repository for catastrophes greater and absurdities sillier than those thrown up at the time of writing. Confronted with the Zapruder footage of the Kennedy assassination, the stoners in Underworld are amazed that "there were forces in the culture that could out-imagine them, make their druggiest terrors seem futile and cheap". By the time he wrote that scene, DeLillo had already succeeded in out-imagining the culture. In White Noise and then Mao II, he practised a form of satire at once dark and daft - though more or less prophetic, as things turned out.
He also performed a thorough job of revealing what the culture had "imagined". Woody Allen used to joke that he was working on a non-fiction version of the Warren Commission report: DeLillo spun a vast novel - Libra - out of the uncharted conduct of Oswald, Ruby and the crooks and spooks who puppeteered them. Underworld - vaster still - portrayed the whole of American society during the cold war as a single network connected by germs and baseball and the bomb. As J Edgar Hoover reflects in the novel's opening scene: "All these people formed by language and climate and popular songs and breakfast foods and the jokes they tell and the cars they drive have never had anything in common so much as this, that they are sitting in the furrow of destruction."
Often DeLillo's greatest strengths and most compulsive discoveries are hard to distinguish from all that is fraudulent and tiring in his work. He proceeds from a belief that paranoia still exists, despite the legitimate causes for vigilance; yet his fiction can be as anxious and obsessive as his characters. At times, he is plainly contradictory, practising what he preaches against - for instance, he worries about dehumanisation in unfeeling prose. In different ways, DeLillo has enabled the work of writers such as Jonathan Franzen, James Ellroy and Richard Powers, who has written an introduction to the Penguin Classics 25th-anniversary edition of White Noise. But he might also be held accountable for the pitiful voodoo fictions of Paul Auster and the enormities of Salman Rushdie's recent work.
The most crucial area of overlap or conflation is the one between DeLillo's gift for analysis and his taste for hollow theorising and mystic mouthwash. The narrator of Libra summarises the possibilities of the former: "Our lives, examined carefully in all their affinities and links, abound with suggestive meaning, with themes and involute turnings we have not allowed ourselves to see completely." DeLillo favours this empirical approach. But he also displays a fondness for theology and theory. His idea of the conspiracy or human network is little more than a quasi-secular spin on the belief that all mankind is one. At its best and worst, DeLillo's fiction aspires to make sense of chaos.
His new novel, Point Omega, is a slight yet heavy-going work, underpinned by the somewhat conjectural evolutionary theories of the Jesuit priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. It opens and closes with a pair of passages, set on consecutive days in September 2006 and entitled "Anonymity 1" and "Anonymity 2", in which a man is described watching a video installation that plays Hitchcock's Psycho at roughly two frames per second. DeLillo believes that Douglas Gordon's 24-Hour Psycho yields powerful new ways of thinking about perception in relationship to time and images, whereas in fact it merely illustrates ways of thinking with which he has long been familiar. In "Anonymity 1", we hear a hollow DeLilloan sound, previously audible throughout Cosmopolis (2003) and in parts of Falling Man (2007) and Mao II: T
he film made him feel like someone watching a film. The meaning of this escaped him. He kept feeling things whose meaning escaped him. But this wasn't truly film, was it, in the strict sense. It was videotape. But it was also film. In the broader meaning he was watching a film, a more or less moving picture.
The novel proper - its 83-page bulk - concerns the relationship between the narrator, a young film-maker and the prospective subject of his next documentary, Richard Elster, a 73- year-old academic who advised the Pentagon on the Iraq war. Elster is a false prophet, yet he is accorded the respect of extensive quotation and paraphrase. "Cities were built to measure time, to remove time from nature." "Real time is meaningless. The phrase is meaningless. There's no such thing." "We're a crowd, a swarm. We think in groups, travel in armies . . . Father Teilhard knew this, the omega point.
A leap out of our biology." Elster floats these musings from his outpost in the California desert. His daughter appears and then disappears. Finally, we return to our initial position, watching the man watching 24-Hour Psycho, "thinking into the film, into himself. Or was the film thinking into him, spilling through him like some kind of runaway brain fluid?"
A quarter-century and a vast difference in rigour and irony separate Point Omega from White Noise, Richard Elster from Jack Gladney:
I am the chairman of Hitler studies at the College-on-the-Hill. I invented Hitler studies in North America in March of 1968. It was a cold bright day with intermittent winds out of the east. When I suggested to the chancellor that we might build a whole department around Hitler's life and work, he was quick to see the possibilities. It was an immediate and electrifying success. The chancellor went on to serve as adviser to Nixon, Ford and Carter before his death on a ski lift in Austria.
Jack is married to Babette, and the two of them live together with an assortment of children from their previous marriages. Jack describes his ex-wives as "a self-absorbed and high-strung bunch, with ties to the intelligence community". And: "Sweet deceivers. Tense, breathy, high-cheekboned, bilingual." One of these former wives, Dana Breedlove, reviewed fiction for the CIA, "mainly long serious novels with coded structures". Babette is a breeze by comparison. For example, she makes only one stipulation regarding the "sexy stuff" she reads aloud in bed: "I don't want you to choose anything that has men inside women, quote-quote, or men entering women . . . I don't care what these people do as long as they don't enter or get entered." By day, Jack teaches a class in advanced Nazism, while surreptitiously studying German in preparation for a three-day Hitler conference to take place the following spring ("Actual Germans would be in attendance").
The novel explores the destruction of certain kinds of conventional values in 1980s America. In the first section, Jack provides an amusing and unsettling introduction to his ramshackle nuclear family and to American academe in the age of cultural studies ("an Aristotelianism of bubblegum wrappers and detergent jingles"). Then the town is assailed by the so-called airborne toxic event, initially thought to cause heart palpitations and déjà vu.
A mesmerising central chapter describes events of the evacuation, during which Jack is exposed to Nyodene Derivative, a slow killer. And then everything returns to normal, give or take. Coming to terms with his own incipient illness, Jack discovers that Babette has been taking Dylar, an experimental drug designed to eradicate fear of death. One of the side effects is the inability to distinguish between events and their description, but most of the characters have already been frazzled by television. Jack's house is permanently abuzz with deranged digressional chatter - what his colleague from the popular culture department calls "the other-worldly babble of the American family".
This lifestyle has temptations as well as dangers. Jack may be repelled by the TV-inspired babble, but in a moment of potential panic,
he soothes himself with the certainties of "TV floods": "I'm not just a college professor. I'm the head of a department. I don't see myself fleeing an airborne toxic event." And when Babette transfixes a group of evacuees by reading the predictions of tabloid psychics, Jack derives an unexpected sense of comfort:
Look at us, I thought. Forced out of our homes, sent streaming into the bitter night, pursued by a toxic cloud, crammed together in makeshift quarters, ambiguously death-sentenced. We'd become part of the stuff of media disaster. The small audience of the old and blind recognised the predictions of the psychics as events so near to happening that they had to be shaped in advance to our needs and wishes. Out of some persistent sense of large-scale ruin, we kept inventing hope.
The real source of tension is not whether Jack will die, but whether he has contracted the pernicious strain of postmodernism that afflicts everyone around him. "Now is where I tell you to pay in the outer office," he is informed at the end of a doctor's appointment. A state programme called SIMUVAC uses the real evacuation as a model for simulations: "We don't have our victims laid out where we'd want them if this were an actual simulation. . . . You have to make allowances for the fact that everything you see tonight is real."
Despite the ubiquity of unreason, Jack is intent on retaining his sense of reality. But the pathogens lurk within his home, and he shows the symptoms of contamination. Towards the end, he observes one child kicking a football and another taking off his socks: "How literary, I thought peevishly. Streets thick with the details of impulsive life as the hero ponders the latest phase in his dying." Before the chapter is out, he describes the seasons changing "in sombre montage". Such dark terrors notwithstanding, White Noise continues to inspire feelings of nostalgia - for a time when postmodernism was merely a threat, and Don DeLillo was a more grounded and thus more illuminating writer - a satirist rather than a shaman.
Picador, 128pp, £14.99
Penguin Classics USA, 336pp, $16
Leo Robson is the New Statesman's lead fiction reviewer
1936 Born to Italian-American parents in the Bronx
1960 Publishes his first short story, “The River Jordan", in Epoch, the literary magazine of Cornell University
1971 Publishes his first novel, Americana
1979 Awarded a Guggenheim fellowship
1985 Publishes White Noise
2009 Receives Common Wealth Award for Literature