Reading Too Much Don DeLillo



Is it because we talked of weddings, of marriage, is that it? She asked him.

No. He replied.

Because that’s a tad too far towards cliché, a little bit on the Freudian nose,

I can think of a joke here that I could make, but I’m not going to, to not make the joke. But there totally is one here to be made; I’m just stating that, neutrally.

They sat together, not close, but certainly well within a distance that could be considered together, both pairs of arms employing the arm rests on either side, the contours of which had been roughly chewed and dismembered in considered and specific areas by two of the three cats who cohabited the small second floor apartment, cats who throughout the day worked mercilessly at untangling the furniture’s straggled sunset orange cotton threads.

conversations with a blast radius that had far exceeded the initial expectation of its red button slip of the tongue

They were here, that is there, on the sofa, and not the mattress not the bed. They were not lying prostrate or sprawled out and tired, eyes drooping from lack of sleep, nor were they resting at a pause in the conversation, like small human ovals with their knees tucked up behind interwoven arms toddler held while nursing the half-life of an argument, conversations with a blast radius that had far exceeded the initial expectation of its red button slip of the tongue, a misplaced word/phrase that had subsequently left a lingering sea change within their collective emotional weather.

The sofa was for slow burners, not violent bursts. It consisted of stretched out elastic phonemes and glottal chocked indignation, but never any real, significant shouting. Sometimes a conversation held there would function as a terminal act, a subsequent rebuttal following on from bedroom rage and vitriol and other times, such as this, it existed independently, a beast of its own nature.

The sofa, more a burnt carrot than sunset orange, had come with the apartment, as had the chipboard coffee table by its side, though the cat-indented-hieroglyphs had been more recently added, as had the numerous stains which, still if scratched away with a nail, produced the salty, earthy tang of soy sauce (the reduced salt kind, not that you could tell that from the table). Nearly everything in fact in the apartment had come with it, having been left by the previous nomadic caravan of teachers who had occupied the faculty apartment. Here is a painted steel bookcase containing teaching manuals and previous exams, a Teach Yourself Mandarin phrasebook with three different sets of handwritten annotations. Here hangs a framed commercial print of the national Opera House at night, looking like a half-submerged Taoist egg, illumined and paradoxically bobbing against the water of a perfectly still pool. Here lies the frame of a photograph that cannot stand, its cardboard kickstand removed. Here are pots and pans, a wok and rice cooker, all stacked in the kitchen’s second sink that lacks any connected pipes. Here a strewn assorted collage of chairs of differing styles and origins. Here the running of a flat-line of a purple crayoned horizon, nothing but a single uninterrupted mark that runs its way halfway across of the room’s four walls at roughly the height of a four year old’s leveled hand. Here are dust motes and spring time pollen, here are cleaning disinfectants and miscellaneous spices glued thickly to a paste in the jar. Here was light, radiating in through the window from an afternoon both pleasantly and surprisingly devoid of smog. And here was a sofa, chewed up by rescue shelter cats, here a couple and their chosen words, lathered in emotional song.

But ignoring the Austrian just for now, it isn’t because the idea or notion or even the concept of commitment, conjures up some weak priapean fear all concerned with progeny and seeds and potency etcetera? Come on; be more original than that, please.

It’s not because of the wedding, the talk of marriage,

Because if it was…

It’s not.

No but if it was. Then I would say that it was more the talking of the thing; marriage, or rather the ceremony, not the religious or legally binding union, but the dress and the collected photographs and the family all spatially, if not emotionally, close that I was really enjoying, that I was really into. I was more enjoying the discussion of it, with you. I liked the two of us making inconceivable plans. I’m not attached to the pragmatism here; I can totally let the event itself go, the actual physical matter of the thing; I’m not bound to it.

It’s not about the wedding, or the talking of it. In fact I hadn’t even taken the subject into consideration. It never upset me, never made me want to run away back to some imagined colligate freedom. I was perfectly happy talking and thinking about the wedding. Would I say perfectly? I think perfectly is close enough. Maybe I was comfortable.

But that’s the thing,

What is?

Comfortable, I would really like to be comfortable. Here, right now, with all of this, but most importantly, with myself. Do you follow me?

That her upward inflections were usually so minimal and her speech a soothing monotone that never quite reached monotony had always been a highly admired quality that he recognized within her as natural and not an affectation and so admired with great affection, well aware that during uncertain and adolescent periods of his own socially-public and personal development he had both seen to be, and knowingly, had taken on various oral affectations which had left seriously detrimental welts on just how much nostalgic shimmer he could buffer from out of his old academically hallowed, university years. He could still remember, painfully vividly in fact, the period during his second year when in the spring semester, ducking out of every possible seminar from a class headlined as The Footstep as Clenched Fist: The Act of Rambling as Metaphor for Political Consciousness within Modern Irish Verse he had instead taken on the very serious commitment to binge watching a particular HBO show wherein New Jersey gangsters battled their way through expertly written inarticulateness and yet so was totally 110% aware of both the humor settled in the odd occasional misplaced word but also within that particular state’s demographically over-emphasized pronunciation, especially when it came to seasonal produce, smoked meats and fermented dairy products, that he found himself completely sincerely and without irony parroting the pronunciation of said foodstuffs in similar slurred and garbled Italian when out buying kindred products to consume with friends or alone while committedly stationed in front of the pre-mentioned illegally downloaded Emmy award winning pay-per-view drama.

That his friends mocked him mercilessly should be seen as obvious and fairly justifiable, and that he had spent the following two months desperately purging the Italian-American vernacular from out of his dialogue. However, far more niggling than this particular instance, is the example of when working in the cacophonous prison of his first real employer, a part time gig in a nostalgically themed restaurant where all of the front of house staff were mandatorily obliged to dress as Dickensian urchins from Saffron Hill and then during the closing remarks made by the best man at each of the weekly weeding banquets, would be forced to stand before the ingloriously inebriated heckling audiences and read out scripted lines of saccharine Victorian-esque inspired dialogue, personally tailored to the occasion insomuch as it included the names of happy bride and groom, as a pot-washer or known in house as a kitchen bitch, silver swine or dish pig, that his fellow underwater ceramics technician as they themselves chose to own their particular title between the oppressors of heat, steam and chicken grease, was convinced that his pronunciation of the word “butter” was under the influence of an affected American accent that he himself could not pick up on at all. He secretly recorded this on his phone locked in the bathroom, repeating the word “butter” into the microphone, alternating lilts and stresses to see if he could reconcile his tongue to something more, somehow, English. That he sounded unconsciously affected bothered him more than the insults, the mocks and jeering during that second year university term of painfully pronouncing ricotta as ricot and penne as ziti had ever done.



Nothing, sorry

So the wedding, that’s not the thing then?

It’s not.

Then what? I think that’s a fair question to ask. I don’t think I’m being at all unreasonable here.

You’re not.

Then words please. Explain. Extrapolate. Shit, pontificate if you have to, I’ll listen, I’ll be totally reasonable towards this. I can’t believe myself to be more than absolutely fair and reasonable in saying this. So speak.

It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with the concept of commitment overall so no, it’s not that. But I think it’s true to say that I’m discovering it to be increasingly ambiguous as to what it is I am committing to.

Meaning…Meaning what?

Meaning in so far as to say that I don’t really see any key attitudes, any notes of character that really define what we are. I look into our relationship, peer into it, and find no discernable qualities to be all that enamored by.

You don’t love me then? Is that what you’re saying?

No, I find you as a person to be wholly wonderful, good and well-meaning, a true and honest person. But if I was asked to define us, as a single unity, I cannot create any sort of noteworthy picture. No tableau springs to mind. We are for all accounts, romantically beige.

That’s a hateful thing to say. It’s hateful

Is it? Or is it just woefully accurate?

I can’t stand this.

Can’t you though? Consider this, what am I? In a persona mold I am all but filler, a commercial pause, a break. I am attractive, but am not what anybody would call handsome. And you are fully conscious of the unavoidable fact that all of my than less desirable features, the crooked nose, the over-arching Dumbo-ish nose and the skin, we shan’t even begin to discuss the skin, never mind the increasingly expanding pot belly are all set to become the defining attributes of my physical public self. And if that’s out in public, then a bit of reasoned logic would surface to deduce that at home, out of sight and sprawled on the sofa, naked apart from underwear that’s older than our romantic coupling. It’s only going to be more of an overall decline. And then so yes, there are my intellectual faculties. I am, and not unashamed to admit it, at times moderately entertaining to be around, but that’s really the limits to my faculty. I am not devoid of wit, but am of charm. I do not use language all that successfully and in fact spend most of the time irritated by my limited vocal expression. I often misuse words and then feel guilty when you do not pick me up on it.

All of which is signifying what?

All of which is signifying the idea, no the belief, that my best years are all but behind me, as in to say that they are past.

That’s all way too subjective to be taken into account, to be counted significant.

But it’s substantial to me, in its percentage of my daily thoughts, in how I traverse through the hours. How I see and hold myself, it’s substantial. And it often leads to the question, as to why a person, why you, would want to not even just stay, but commit, legally and in front of witnesses, to someone who is for better or worse past their prime, over the hill, and in all sorts of rudimentary decline.

That’s not how I feel.

It’s not?

But when I think of us, if I’m honest, if I’m being truly and wholly honest…


Fruitfully honest in all openness,


Then I really don’t think about you at all.

Here she paused and picked at the exposed pink skin by the cuticles of her fingernails, the patches of skin, her proximal fold layered like rice paddies as she chewed away (a nervous habit) at the skin with her incisors, her upper left central and right, teeth which she’d been told were thin and brittle, the pallor of their tone already revealing this, and that she shouldn’t eat too much sugar or drink carbonated drinks, both of which she did, keeping it a secret from herself, choosing to drink 16fl oz. sized plastic containers of CoCo Fresh Tea and Juice milk-bubble tea and scoop out of the inside of halved sprite melons and decanter small mountains of granulated sugar inside them, listening to its sifting rattle and then enjoying the granulated crunch as they destroyed and wreaked havoc on the near already transparent shields of her teeth.

Both the consuming of these forbidden items and the associated guilt ridden biting off of the skin around her nails, which she would do until they bled and had to be covered up with Waterproof Elasto Plaster Antibacterial Brand Waterproof Plasters, she did most commonly while reading, propped up with her feet slipped out of flexible rubber sandals and perched up upon the seat close to the rest of her body. She too, like her boyfriend, held a propensity towards binges. However, hers often tended to be literary, in that she would voraciously consume a writer’s entire body of work over a fortnight/21 days and then not pick up another book or flick across another page for a good few months, wherein the idea or thought of reading was absolutely of no interest to her at all. These clouded periods often arose when she found the functionality of her daily routine overwhelming, the calculated nature of the day measured in coffee spoons, beginning from the chaotic ringing of her 5:00 a.m. alarm, which was provided by her cellphone, always set to charge overnight and was programed to play the violent strains of Atari Teenage Riot, as she was both a fan of digital hardcore and too hardcore a snoozer who would go past and through anything softer or more tentatively delicate, all the way through clocking in via the faulty fingerprint scanner at her school’s south facing gate, to the portioned steel sections of her cafeteria lunch tray which she filled with broiled castleton green pak choi, a corn meal steamed bun and if feeling a little low and depleted, battered and breadcrumbed fried chicken, which she ate with a chopstick while covering her mouth just a little from the other dinners, to when she finally climbed back into bed and set the clock, the whole process being thus chopped and divided, each task and section allocated its own assorted minutes and passing moments, and the whole thing just seeming so drearily organized and predictable, that she would eventually junk it in for a weekend or skip a day or two at work and read difficult and challenging fiction and eat Sprite melons with sugar centers and consume dangerous quantities of diabetic coma inducing bubble milk-tea and tapioca from CoCo Fresh Tea & Juice and bite the patches of skin around her nails until they bled and left little red splotches on the front of her already frail front incisors.

The far more affecting disturbance that tarnished these periods of intense literary binges was the acoustic effect that it would yield over her spoken vernacular, lasting up until the author was significantly purged from her memory. In so much that when she had, over a particularly rough and emotionally cloudy mid-February, dived fully headfirst into a whole hardbound cover collection of Harold Pinter plays and found herself unnecessarily and in an overly aggressive and accusatory tone examining the motivations of every speaker whom she conversed with, leading to the cashier at the local 7/11 refusing to ever serve her again, all of which had followed on from an equally terse and sickeningly tense interaction with a bartender whom she’d actually liked to commune with before this whole ugly bout of absurdist menace took hold of her, where she had replied to his offer of ice with her vodka and concentrate orange juice in what sounded like a jaded McCarthy era inquisition, with all the various pronouns and transitive verbs awkwardly stressed and over emphasized. Now, she was currently in the midst of a dauntingly immersive bowl of the great paranoid specialist aficionado himself, and not slightly unconcerned as to how it might be affecting the various repetitive hypophoria that was peppering her dialogue.

I don’t think about you at all, so not as separate; no. she finally spoke.

He paused and waiting for her to continue.

Would I say that I think about us? Is this something that I do? I guess that I would, that I do. Though it’s more that I am tired, am tired of having to reinvent myself in subtle little ways, but reinvention all the same, myself becoming for another person. I am tired of taking my preexisting, pre-relationship self, and having to slice and carve sections of myself away in order to make a better fit for another; a better match. To drink less is an improvement yes, as it is to exercise, come to enjoy the exhale and the treadmill and the subsequent soreness of joints; all of this is good, solid improvement. This, most people would agree, is undeniable. Is it so serious to stop adding milk to my coffee, as being the only who takes it creamy and white with guiltless full fat double cream to whip the bitterness from off the beverage am therefore the only one who requires to stock the fridge with it? This is saving money, saving resources and is better for me. All of this is empirically true. But it’s an adjustment, an alteration all the same. It is a change that one has to make, and changes take time. They require effort, mental willpower and physical endurance. And I have already changed so many times, granted all in miniscule and near imperceptible ways, that I am now subsequently exhausted and increasingly becoming a stranger to myself. Did I used to listen exclusively to the music that I now scroll through? Or did I once make appropriations for another’s taste? I forget. Did I switch to this brand of water because the label looked respectable and trustworthy? Or was it the one that a previous person occupying the emotional center of my whole being routinely purchased because of his imbedded cultural belief in the virtues of the red icon embossed on the plastic cap and so I began out of habit to always look for the same? How much have I become a product of others instinctual habits and what was originally mine to begin with? This troubles me. And so I guess all that I am trying to say, is that this is a process that I really can’t face again. I don’t want to have to start over anew. What’s changed has already become amalgamated into the matrix of my self-perception, a lattice of obscured purchasing habits, tastes and goddamn it, even opinions. I just really, sincerely, don’t want to have to start pulling at those same threads again.

This is what you think about then, when you think about us?

This is how I’m currently viewing things, yes.

The conversation lingered silently in the air for a few lasting moments, before the couple broke apart and went to various small tasks that needed attention. Cats were fed from tentatively exploding sachets of indistinguishable meat stuffs and synthetically gelatinous gravy. The dishes were washed with a detergent flavored with aromatic ginger, and left to dry on the side. Dinner was made and placed on the table, as the two came together again and began to spoon servings of rice onto each other’s empty plates.

I like that we buy our rice from that small store on the corner. That the rice comes from out of a hessian sack and that we take it home in a small and transparent plastic bag. I like this, it feels somehow organic, or as close to organic as we can possibly make it, I suppose.

A plastic carrier bag feels organic?

Not the bag, no, but the hessian sack, and the fact that I chose which rice to buy on account of the type of grain that I need, what the recipe requires.

Short grain or long, dark or Arborio,

Right. It’s the thing that matters, the rice. I never have to see a label; never have to choose which kind of labeled rice I want to buy.

The sack has a painted label

But it’s one that I never have to see. The whole label to personality type process is strictly avoided. It provides a rest bite, as for the rest of the shopping experience I’m forced into making personal choices about what sort of person I might want to be.

What sort of person chooses Kikkoman soy sauce over Pearl River Bridge?

Not even to mention an imported Lee Kum Kee, est.1888.

So how goes the reading?

It’s good. But I worry sometimes that I put too much emphasis upon small, insignificant things to represent larger qualities of life that I aspire to. I enter houses and see coasters on coffee tables and take for granted that their life must be one of domestic bliss, freshly brewed cafetieres drunk leisurely throughout the a.m. over lingering pages of a weekly supplement from newspapers of greater intellectual content than I could ever stomach. I see complex bedspreads and mattresses rich with additional throw covers and bolstered and buttoned neck roll pillows, and imagine ample and rewarding sex lives, free from the pitfalls of expectation and sameness.

I often regret not having a voice made for sex. He interjected and she waited for him to continue.

That is the tonal quality of my voice and foreplay are not matched. I’ve wished a great many times, that I could say more to you.

She continued

But I know that these objects do not promise the external lives lived around them and that it is my projected fantasy and my affectation, and that if I wanted to spend the mornings reading glossy newspaper supplements that I could and am fully able to seduce you towards sexual congress, and that it’s not the lack of artisanal crafted cork foam coasters, nor is it a lack of cotton and polyester blended pillows which is holding me back.

Sometimes I worry about the places in conversation where we meet like this.

That it is just to say, I’m feeling totally vulnerable about the whole prospect of having to go through that process of reinvention again, and I guess am just asking you to please, not take any further action in forcing me to make those kinds of choices.

I can do that. That’s a thing I can promise to do.

Can you?

I can, on one condition.

What’s that?

That you stop reading the Postmodernists and perhaps spend some time with Realists for a change,

Agreed. Thank you.

She processed this, and the two of them went back to silently eating, submerging slivers of tofu skin into fiery red, volcanic pools of fermented bean curd sauce, basined in by sides of long grain white rice, of which the agricultural manufacture was unbeknownst to them, as she lifted up a second slice to let the drops of crimson flavoring run off into the bowl, considering the innumerable damage that the horrors of Crane’s Irish immigrant vernacular or Sinclair’s grim despair could wreak upon her personal life, she quickly chewed and swallowed the string of tofu, and decided to perhaps stick to some Comte de Lautréamont instead. For if the printed page was to continue to dominate her thoughts, then inanimate objects might as well get a look in as well.


Author: jameskramerblog

James Kramer is a fiction writer currently based in Beijing. His writing has appeared in Your Impossible Voice, as well as various Poetry anthologies. He currently writes a monthly-ish column for LeftLion magazine on China.

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