No American novelist writes crowd scenes like Don DeLillo; no one else even tries. Other writers may juggle large casts of characters, but DeLillo is the only one who papers his backgrounds with thousands of extras, as if he were shooting the teeming masses—democracy in the raw—through a wide-angle lens. He possesses an imperial directorial eye on the page, a David Lean-like power to choreograph chaos into the rough pageantry of history-in-the-making. For DeLillo, there’s no such thing as mindless spectacle. His human circuses, which he monitors from his control booth, powerfully, complexly signify. The major event in DeLillo’s novel White Noise was a major evacuation from “an airborne toxic event,” a white cloud that acquired the doomy, symbolic charisma of Moby Dick. (It was also a prophetic preview of the environmental “haze” that has smothered Southeast Asia for much of this year.) DeLillo is...


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