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Don DeLillo, Midnight in Dostoevsky

January 23, 2010

Do reading synchronicities affect our comprehension? Well of course they do, since everything we do affects our comprehension to some degree doesn’t it? Anyhow, I have just read Don DeLillo’s short story, “Midnight in Dostoevsky” (you can read it here), and, as I read it, I couldn’t help bringing to mind Salman Rushdie’s The enchantress of Florence. Whether that’s valid or not is, I suppose, up to others to decide.

The plot concerns two college boys who spar, who indeed become disconcerted if they concur:

This was not supposed to happen – it unsettled us, it made the world flat – and we walked for a time in chagrined silence. Even in matters of pure physical reality, we depended on a friction between our basic faculties of sensation, his and mine, and we understood that the rest of the afternoon would be spent in the marking of differences.

At the beginning of the story the two boys see a man, and they start sparring about him. It starts with what sort of coat he is wearing but, over time, moves into less apparent things such as where he’s from. Interspersed with this are other scenes, including a few from their Logic class. Are you starting to get the connection with Rushdie? It’s the imagination-reality nexus I’m thinking about…the point where imagination and reality meet and merge.

Russian Ushanka Hat

Russian Ushanka Hat (Courtesy: Eugene Zelenko, via Wikipedia, under CC-BY-SA-3.0)

It’s a gorgeously ironic tale, with the boys attending a very dry Logic class (in the evocatively named Cellblock) taught by the rather inscrutable Ilgauskas “who was instructing us in the principles of pure reason … he challenged our reason for being, what we thought, how we lived, the truth or falsity of what we believed to be true or false”. This class nicely counterpoints the flights of fancy the boys engage in when they are alone:

“Think of the hat he’d be wearing if he was wearing a hat,” I said.

“He’s not wearing a hat.”

“But if he was wearing a hat, what kind of hat?”

As I said, this is a story about imagination versus reality… The boys’ fascination with the man continues, as their imaginings become more and more intense (but never moves into actual fantasy the way Rushdie does in his novel).

“Feel the air. I say minus nine Celsius.”

“We’re not Celsius.” [narrator]

“But he is, where he’s from, that’s Celsius.”

That did make me laugh – fiction becoming, in a sense, reality for a while!

We then discover that Ilgauskas reads Dostoevsky (“day and night”) and so our narrator starts to read Dostoevsky too, finding it “magical” that the book which he leaves open at a page in the library is there the next day, open at the same page. In a great leap, he decides that the man is Russian, and that Ilgauskas is his son. His friend Todd says, “Does he have to be Russian to read Dostoevsky?”. Our narrator answers:

“That’s not the point. The point is that it all fits together. It’s a formulation, it’s artful, it’s structured.”

Wow, is this DeLillo’s fiction manifesto? I love it and I love the way this fiction manifesto also works for reason and logic, even though Ilgauskas says that “we  invented logic to beat back our creatural selves”. Creatural? A lovely bit of wordplay: one dictionary provides several meanings including “a living being” and “an imaginary or fantastical being”; another dictionary says “anything created” and “an animate or living being”. Now, that word packs a punch in this story!

The story continues, with the inevitable desire to check the reality of their fiction…but I won’t give any more away. Suffice it to say that this is one delightful and very intelligent story, well worth the read.

(Oh, and as for reading synchronicities? It’s quite possible that had I not just read the Rushdie, I might have come at the story from quite a different angle, such as looking at the relationship between the two boys – but I’ll never know now!)

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2011 5:56 am

    Hi there! I’m writing an essay on “Midnight in Dostoevsky” for a Literature class. I have to approach it from a literary theory by choice and I have decided to give structuralism a try. Your post has given me some good ideas, especially the dichotomy between reality and imagination.

    • October 10, 2011 8:48 am

      Glad to be of service, and thanks for letting me know … remember thought that mine is a purely personal refection so test your ideas out carefully!

  2. June 20, 2014 8:30 am

    I found some of the details–“Cellblock II,” “made the world flat,” “Left Behind”–rather heavy-handed evocations (of Foucault, Thomas Friedman, and the apocalyptic Christian blockbuster, respectively). This keys us into Delillo’s themes, his anxious contemporaneity: how do we preserve meaning in a world of increasingly reductive and authoritarian capitalist regimentation? Are we only left with our “privatest” worlds, our subjective fantasies and logical constructions untethered from facts? The “everyday crazy” of American life.

    The way I read the story–especially it’s conclusion–is that the answer to the latter question is an emphatic No. That is to strongly dissent from your admiration from the narrator’s comment, “That’s not the point. The point is that it all fits together. It’s a formulation, it’s artful, it’s structured.” But the “artful” construction is altogether falsifiable if only the narrator would talk to the man who is the object of his fantasies, or to the professor of logic with whom the narrator has filially connected the mystery man in his fantasies.

    But the narrator refuses to brush his fantasies against the grain of fact, nor will he let his friend do so: indeed he’d destroy his friendship before he puts at risk his facile interpretation. I read this as an allegorical of the rampant, disastrous subjectivism of American life at present, where evidence is not enough to contradict stubborn global warming skeptics and their ecologically destructive corporate sponsors; radical neo-liberals who’ve learned nothing from the 2008 crash; and a militarist foreign policy establishment that’s illiterate to the writing on the wall.

    I don’t know Delillo’s work well enough to know whether he’d assent to this reading. But if he doesn’t–if his theory of fiction is that people can only spin a subjective web–he’s sorely mistaken and we need wiser artists.

    • June 20, 2014 9:23 am

      Thankyou, rgeilfuss, that’s really interesting. I’ve only read Falling man by DeLillo so am not an expert in his world view. Unfortunately I can’t remember his the story ends to comment in detail about your reading, but I take your point about the construction being falsifiable if tested against reality – and the political implications. I’ll think more about that and will try to find time to read the story again.

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  1. “Midnight in Dostoevsky”: Notes from Above Ground | robertgeilfuss

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