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Don DeLillo’s Great Jones Street Revisited

October 7, 2013

Don Delillo’s third novel, Great Jones Street, is a book that had an incredible influence on me. This is not to say that I love it. Great Jones Street was published in 1973, to little fanfare or acclaim. (It appeared after Delillo’s equally unheralded first and second novels Americana [1971], and End Zone [1972]; Delillo would only find major acclaim and attention thirteen years later, with the publication of White Noise, in 1985.)   Even today, Delillo’s critics rarely mention Great Jones Street. About the only time people do mention it is when discussion turns to that thorny subject, ‘rock ‘n’ roll novels.’ Many critics consider Great Jones Street to be the best novel written about rock ‘n’ roll, and it was certainly one of the first serious novels to be written about the subject.

The one reason I read Great Jones Street in the first place was because I was attempting to write a novel about a rock star myself. (I still am attempting to write a novel about a rock star; the novel will hopefully be entitled The Mutant Sound; you’ll hear more about it soon.) Great Jones Street was the book that, in many ways, told me what not to do in a rock ‘n’ roll book – what tone not to take, and what message not to convey to readers.

A prime example of a postmodern novel as well as a rock ‘n’ roll novel, Great Jones Street was published only eleven years after Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire (Pale Fire was first published in 1962; Great Jones Street was first published in 1973) and shows Delillo’s clear debt to Nabokov in terms of plot and style. The themes of artistic turmoil, exile, madness, and the fraught relationship between an artist and his audience pervade both Pale Fire and Great Jones Street. (Intriguingly, the final pages of both novels echo each other, too.) Roughly, Pale Fire  is (among many other things and on only one level; Nabokov’s novels are tricky like that) the story of a professor, slowly going mad, who becomes fixated on a successful artist – a poet – and stalks him. Great Jones Street is about a successful artist – a rock star – who feels as though he is slowly going mad, and finds himself being stalked and fixated on by many different people. Readers who are familiar with both novels will undoubtedly be able to think of many more similarities. Sometimes, I wish Great Jones Street was better known, hence my attempt to spread the word about it. But I said ‘part of me’ for a reason – because Great Jones Street leaves me angered in many ways – angered and unnerved– each time I read it.  I return to it over and over like someone returning to finger a wound.

Great Jones Street tells the tale of a fictitious rock star with the improbable name of Bucky Wunderlick, who, at the height of his fame and glory, suffers something like a nervous breakdown and decides to retreat from the public sphere. He goes into hiding, renting a cheap apartment in an ancient, crumbling building on seedy Great Jones Street, in New York City, and attempting to recuperate from the wounds of fame, and plot out a new direction for himself as an artist. But of course, things aren’t allowed to go that smoothly. Almost from the beginning, Bucky’s attempts at hiding out, let alone reinvention, are thwarted by various foes. His manager begs and pleads with him to go back on tour; zonked-out fans bang on his apartment door and want him to tell them the meaning of life, and – worse – he and his band become the targets of a Charles Mansonish evil cult.

Perhaps I’m making this all sound pulpier than it actually is. But a plot summary alone cannot convey how frightening this novel is, at least to me. This is a novel pervaded with images of doom, death and rot, and more than that, it’s one of those doleful cautionary tales about the price of fame and the risks of the artistic life. I don’t know if Delillo meant it to come across this way, but it reads like one of those stories that says it’s better to stay at home and lead a safe, ordinary life than to risk becoming an artist. This idea has been expressed many times before, but it’s an idea I’ve always found suffocating – and more to the point, doesn’t a work of art that says you shouldn’t try to create art automatically contain a germ of hypocrisy? I’m trying to become an artist myself, and I don’t need anyone, least of all some already-published novelist, telling me I’m on the wrong path. Reading Great Jones Street for the first time, I felt like a sinner in the hands of an angry Puritan, because Great Jones Street is a book that says – with a loudness and shrillness barely masked by its cool smooth prose – that no earthly good can come of rock ‘n’ roll. And it actually goes even further than that. At many points, Delillo – and the protagonist himself, since the novel is written in the first person, and we’re in Bucky’s head the whole time – seem to be saying that no earthly good can come of art in general, or politics, or even language itself. Throughout the book, there is constant talk of the futility of culture and civilization, talk of regressions, devolutions, man’s true brute animal nature. There’s a lot of baby-talk and gibberish (almost enough to get on readers’ nerves), a lot of blood and sickness and vomit, a lot of phrases talismanically repeated, a lot of retreats into wordlessness, and mindlessness. By the novel’s horrifying climax (I don’t want to spoil it for you, you’ll have to read it for yourself) it seems that Bucky has come to view such a retreat as a consummation devoutly to be wished. The denouement, in the last two pages, offers a gleam of hope that Bucky may be ready to return to his art and his world – but it’s a dim gleam indeed.

Besides all that, Great Jones Street is one of those books where you can never tell what the author actually thinks of his characters, or wants you to think of them. I certainly felt sorry for Bucky Wunderlick – and Opel, his doomed lover, and even Azzarian, his ambitious neurotic guitarist. But sometimes I wonder if Delillo actually wanted his readers to feel anything for his characters; sometimes I doubt it. Sometimes, I even wonder if we’re even supposed to take most of what Bucky says all that seriously. Bucky too often seems like a sort of Bob Dylan manqué (manqué literally meaning ‘with something missing’) as conceived of by someone who doesn’t actually like Bob Dylan much. He’s constantly offering the reader little philosophical musings on things, and I thought a lot of them actually sounded good, but I began to suspect after a while that they were meant to sound bad, like a parody of Surrealistic philosophizing. The same question of intent comes up when Delillo shows us what are supposed to be the lyrics to some of Bucky’s songs. I truly cannot tell whether they’re supposed to be an imitation of poetic rock lyrics by a novelist who doesn’t know enough about rock, or poetry – or whether they’re actually a vicious parody of the acid-rock style. (They certainly aren’t that good; they don’t scan, and it’s impossible to imagine how anyone would sing them.)

After all that, you might wonder why I want you to read this book so badly, if I hate it so much. Well, I don’t hate it, of course. As I said above, Great Jones Street means a lot to me. I couldn’t have started my own novel without reading it. It just puts me uptight, as Bucky might have said. ‘Puts me uptight’, I think, is the mot juste – it keeps me on my toes whether I want to be on my toes or not. I open it just about anywhere, at random, and my skin prickles, and my heart starts beating fast. For as many things as there are about this book that terrify me, and infuriate me, there are things in it that thrill me – tough, pungent dialogue, droll remarks and fascinating insults, some images and phrases I know I’ll never forget, and some passages of genuine beauty and tragedy. I recommend this book to you because on some level it changed the way I work as a writer. I know it’s bad form to end a discussion of someone else’s work by talking about your own, but I want to make this clear – I’m obsessed with Great Jones Street, and I’m contending with it, I’m fighting it.  Part of the reason I started writing my rock-‘n’-roll novel, The Mutant Sound, was to prove Don Delillo wrong – to prove that artistic and commercial success is not a fate worse than death, that language is not a curse, and that popular music, and art in general, are worth living, loving, and fighting for.


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