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Friday, November 11, 2016

Ratner's Star (1976) by Don Delillo


Book Reiew
Ratner's Star (1976)
by Don Delillo

  The 1001 Books project is well into the present of literature.  Most of the authors on the list after this point in time are still publishing.   Don Delillo occupies a rank just below the rank of Nobel Prize for Literature:  He's well regarded by both audiences and critics, he's won national level book awards, at least one of his books is a staple of 20th century lit classes in colleges nationwide (White Noise).  The only thing Delillo is missing besides a major international award is a successful movie adaptation of one of his works.

  Delillo's place within the 1001 Books project is far from clear.  He had eight titles in the first edition of the 1001 Books list.  He lost four of those in the 2008 revision but gained a new listing, then he lost that new listing not two years later, leaving him with three remaining titles.   I would observe that Delillo hasn't had a hit since Underworld in 1997- he's published five other novels since then, so it's not from lack of effort.

  Ratner's Star is a famously difficult book, and it most closely resembles Grimus by Salman Rushdie- which was published in 1975.  Both novels take the framework of genre fiction- science fiction and fantasy, and then ornament that structure with similar accroutements:  A firm grasp on the "linguistic" turn in 20th century thought a la Wittgenstein and Beckett, a separate debt to Beckett for his exploration of language in the form of the novel and a playful idea that serious fiction can also be "fun" and/or "funny.'

 I say this because both Grimus and Ratner's Star are described as "comic" despite being wholly unfunny.  That is a characteristic of Beckett himself, but very much in evidence in the work of his followers as the "post-modern" period of the novel begins to arrive in the mid 1970's.  Ratner's Star revolves around a teenage mathematical prodigy who is whisked away to work on a mysterious radio transmission from a distant star.  His job is to decipher the meaning of the message.

  Like the work of his contemporary Thomas Pynchon, Delillo studs Ratner's Star with numerous, elaborate discussions of higher mathematical theory, astronomy and geometry.   These bodies of technical knowledge, analogous to the way Pynchon uses rocket technology in Gravity's Rainbow, are a distinctive characteristic of "serious" American fiction in the mid to late 20th century, and it is a development unique to American writers.   These is nothing of such a technical obsession in the work of the modernists.  If anything, they are anti-technology.

  Now I'm not actually recommending Ratner's Star to anyone as a fun read.  It literally is a combination of Beckett style linguistic dueling and complicated higher math and geometry.  The characters all have funny names.  It is, in a word, interesting but tedious, and at 420 pages, it is not a short book.

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