It’s a coincidence that the previous book reviewed is called Americanah: they are quite different. DeLillo’s Americana is part road movie, part satire and very firmly fixed in the world of the late 60s / early 70s that it describes.
Americana begins in a Madison Avenue advertising agency and tells the story of one of its dissatisfied workers. The narrative events contain similarities to what we later find in Mad Men: sexual infidelity, lust, jealousy, rivalry and office politics. I found this part quite difficult – there are so many different characters it’s hard to keep track. Later the main protagonist – David Bell – sets off with colleagues and friends on a road trip in a camper van. The plan is to drive west to shoot a movie or an ad, but Bell stops en route at a midwest town where he begins to make quite a different film.
The narrative thread is interrupted by a series of flashbacks which fill out Bell’s life story, revealing a background of privilege and wealth. Bell is a WASP with money and good looks – so much the contemporary American hero – and is used to represent and allow us to see America at that time – its wealth, emptiness and hypocrisy. At the same time both the journey in the camper van, and the interlude in the mid west where the film is made, show different aspects of America. I suppose this makes it a state of the nation novel.
DeLillo writes well – with colour and precision – and there is a lot going on in this novel. For me though the hero was a little self obsessed and lacking in empathy. His sexist attitudes wouldn’t cut the mustard now and it is perhaps this more than anything that places the book firmly in its era. The links with so many other American novels are obvious – the road trip is straight out of Kerouac, and I’m also reminded of Even Cowgirls get the Blues – another quite putdown-able read.
I didn’t like Americana, and I’ve been quite underwhelmed altogether by DonDeLillo. The novel ends at a hippy encampment in the desert, presenting us with a cliched and undramatic contrast, and one that adds little to the total sum of human endeavour.