5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Complex and demanding novel of science and belief,
This review is from: Ratner's Star (Paperback)'Ratner's Star' is Don DeLillo's fourth novel, published in 1976. I suspect that it is also the least read and the most frequently abandoned - which would be a pity, since in some ways it shares the qualities of the later, more popular books.
DeLillo's public profile changed in 1985 when 'White Noise' won a National Book Award, and there now seem to be two distinct DeLillo audiences: one that discovered him at that time and knows him primarily through that book and its successors, particularly 'Libra' and 'Mao II', all big sellers and now firmly ensconced on university syllabuses; and a second audience that has followed him from his beginnings in the early '70s, and for whom these later books are not a surprise but a continuation. For these readers, 'White Noise' is if anything a relaxation into comedy from DeLillo's thorniest efforts, of which 'Ratner's Star' is the first and 'The Names' the second.
DeLillo is on record as stating that Thomas Pynchon set the benchmark for his generation of American writers, and 'Ratner's Star' is arguably DeLillo's most Pynchonesque book. Set at an unspecified point in the mid-twenty-first century, this is also DeLillo's closest approach to science fiction - though this takes the form of mild extrapolation from the late twentieth century and speculation about advances in mathematics and physics rather than technological fantasies about the far future. In fact DeLillo persistently derives comedy from the unforeseen consequences of technological innovation - a tactic that gives him something in common with Kurt Vonnegut.
Interviewed by Adam Begley for Paris Review in 1992, DeLillo stated that "I was drawn to the beauty of scientific language, the mystery of numbers, the idea of pure mathematics as a secret history and secret language--and to the notion of a fourteen-year-old mathematical genius at the center of all this. I guess it's also a book of games, mathematics being chief among them." This gives an idea of one aspect of the book. Only Richard Powers among younger writers has come so close to writing a novel that is a scientific novel rather than a novel 'about' science. There are wonderful sections in which DeLillo conveys something of the beauty of pure mathematics and cosmology. Inevitably, there are others that are almost impenetrable at first reading.
The central difficulty is that the book seems to be trying to accomplish two rather incompatible things. One is a celebration of the human capacity for abstract thought. The other is a satire of human arrogance and complacency. In theory the two might be thought to be sides of the same coin. In practice, DeLillo sometimes struggles to link them. The plot - in which Billy Twillig, a young Nobel Laureate in mathematics, is dragooned into joining a scientific project to investigate the meaning of a mysterious message received from the vicinity of Ratner's star - is essentially a point of departure and a source of red herrings. Underlying the comic episodes - the general character of which any DeLillo reader will recognise - is a persistent metaphysical disquiet. As with both Pynchon and Vonnegut, an unstinting admiration for the powers of intellect is combined with a suspicion about individual motives and morals, a fatalism about man's powers in the face of natural forces, and an acknowledgement of the irrational.
For me, the saving graces, as always, were DeLillo's language and his gift for the absurd. But make no mistake: this is a long, demanding book, possibly the most difficult that DeLillo has published, and not a complete success.