In Don DeLillo's first novel, Americana (1971), the narrator remembers juvenile inebriation as a slipping into “the river which is language without thought” (A 189). The figure recurs in The Names (1982), in which, commenting on the displacement of Aramaic, “the language of Jesus,” by Arabic, the language of Mohammed, a character declares, “The river of language is God” (N 150,152). Neither of these pronouncements quite makes sense – unless, as DeLillo intends, one pauses to reconsider familiar or received ideas about language, what it means, and how it works. Whoever does this enters a labyrinth long thought to harbor a poststructuralist minotaur; in fact, it harbors only a cunning artificer.
Although he did not, like Dedalus, build the labyrinth, DeLillo is very much its master. Certainly his writings feature, as given or constant, a thematics of language. In a number of interviews, the author has affirmed the centrality, in his thinking and in his writing, of ideas about the great ocean of words in which, dolphin-backed, he swims. As early as the writing of End Zone (1972), his second novel, he comments, “I began to suspect that language was a subject as well as an instrument in my work.” “[B]efore everything,” he remarks in a 1993 Paris Review interview, “there's language. Before history and politics, there's language.” In another interview, in 1997, he restates this credo: “For me the crux of the whole matter is language.” But DeLillo's meditations on language tend to take place in a kind of parallel universe – a vantage from which the author can reframe, reconfigure, or subvert certain of the tendentious and reductionist elements in linguistics, psychology, and literary theory. Poetic and startling without ever lapsing into the merely fanciful, DeLillo’s language games remind readers that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in the poststructuralist episteme.