The shrinking size of Don DeLillo’s postmillennial work has been the subject of discussion for some time now. In a 2010 interview with the Wall Street Journal following the publication of Point Omega, DeLillo explained that this particular novel’s brevity reflected an effort to “suggest things rather than explore them fully” and to avoid “caus[ing] a kind of disproportion between the ideas and the dialogue as opposed to the landscape itself.” DeLillo’s little-known one-act play, The Word For Snow similarly “suggests” its story—the implications of climate change for both planet and human experience—rather than rendering it explicit. Commissioned for the 2007 Chicago Humanities Festival, whose theme was on climate change, the play was not published until late 2014. A mere 26 pages long, this elusive and elliptical script gestures rather than overtly saying: as Chris Power described DeLillo’s short fiction, it features a “highly stylised prose that marries a clean, chilly style to a kind of mysticism.”
DeLillo’s play is set somewhere in the future, in the aftermath of a devastating environmental crisis, and centres on three characters known only by their titles: “pilgrim,” “scholar,” and “interpreter.” The three meet at the top of a mountain “somewhere in a lost corner of west-central Asia” where the scholar, a “theologian of lost things,” has retreated, having abandoned his life’s work investigating the “final moments in a person’s life, or in the life of the planet”. The pilgrim has come to seek his wisdom; the interpreter, initially serving as mediator between the two individual’s respective languages, becomes a third member of their conversation after it transpires that they are all “speaking the same language now, comfortably,” and, more importantly, they are approaching a time when there will no longer be things to describe. Thus the interpreter explains: “All languages, [the scholar] is saying. Airplanes burn up in midflight…What is the point of this language or that language?”.
The play itself takes up this question, examining the extent to which words can redeem loss. But it is also preoccupied by the limits of expression. Where DeLillo’s narratives are frequently structured around the quest for an object (Running Dog’s Hitler tape, Underworld’s baseball, The Body Artist’s tape recorder, Falling Man’s briefcase), or around a large-scale systemic failure (the terror attack in Players, “Baader-Meinhof” and Falling Man, the financial fraud in “Hammer & Sickle,” the market collapse in Cosmopolis), The Word for Snow is structured around a quest to articulate striving and failure. It is a story about three people at pains to put the crisis of their time into words, and for others to heed them. Thus the pilgrim asks:
Is it true? All of it, some of it? Of course it is. But don’t we believe things and not believe them simultaneously? This is what haunts me. I tell myself believe it, believe it, believe all of it. But it’s so vast it’s like something prehistoric [….] tremendous to think about but not in our time, not in our lives. I believe it is at a distance, whatever it is that’s happening, because I’m not really sure. It happened in another era. Or it will happen in another era […] Not us, not now”
These words bear striking affinities to Elaine Scarry’s description of climate change as resistant to “aesthetic imagining”:
“It was often said […] that in the theatre you have to be at the right aesthetic distance to experience the play. If you’re too close, you see the safety pins on the costumes and it ruins the effect, and if you’re too far away everything is miniaturized and you can’t accept it. And I think that this question may well be right, that apocalypse is what happens for all those things that are happening at a distance—it incapacitates us because they’re outside our own sensory horizon, either by being much too long or much too short.”
Thus the obstacle to overcome in this text is not, as in DeLillo’s other work, a corrupt financial system, the saturation of culture by advertising imagery and slogans, or the threat of nuclear war: it is our own deafness to the warnings of experts, our inability to envisage what lies ahead, and the many ways in which words can collude in propagating this misapprehension.
DeLillo uses misunderstanding and misinterpretation to explore these ideas. The wordplay resulting from the different characters’ interpretation of the word “change” is a case in point:
Pilgrim: But isn’t there something in the air, in the breeze, something in the blood? Things seem to be changing so quickly.
Scholar: We change our socks
Interpreter: He is saying we change our socks.
Either willfully or inadvertently, the scholar ignores the pilgrim’s references to the changes wrought by environmental collapse, responding to the word “change” rather than the context in which it appears—a misunderstanding amplified by the interpreter’s failure to correct it. Conveying language’s capacity to obscure, the disorientation evinced by the juxtaposition of the apocryphal with the everyday also reflects the tendency of this particular topic—environmental apocalypse—to evade our understanding. The ensuing exchanges between the three, however, turn this idea on its head. While at present we lack the words to describe the catastrophe to come, the scholar predicts that we will one day have only words: as the planet is ruined, objects will be replaced by the words to describe them—“things [will] disappear into words” and “only names [will] remain”. Thus children will not play with snow, but with the word for snow, and “a thousand familiar things” will be “reduced” “elevated” or “lost” to words.
Readers will recognise, in much of this, echoes of DeLillo’s earlier work. The play’s comedic undercurrent recalls the dark humour of DeLillo’s 1970s novels (for example, to the pilgrim’s contention that it is “logical” to feel defeated by the enormity of the catastrophe ahead, the scholar replies that “logic will kill you faster than Chinese toothpaste”). The preoccupation with language—and the language of apocalypse—has likewise featured throughout DeLillo’s ouevre. The central conceit—that words will replace extinct animals and landscapes—is but a revision of the concept at the heart of “Human Moments in World War III”, a story about astronauts in a post-nuclear age, who cling onto souvenirs and familiar words to remind them of a world that no longer exists. The fascination with echolalia—what the pilgrim describes as his tendency to “stammer childish things”, which parallel’s the scholar’s later lapse into speaking in tongues—brings to mind the babble of the homeless in Great Jones Street, the advertising slogans that Jack Gladney’s son, Wilder, utters in his sleep in White Noise, the indistinct mutterings of Mr Tuttle in The Body Artist, and Elster’s obsession, in Point Omega with “baby talk” and, by extension Dada, a movement “created in the name of demolished logic.”
Where the play differs, however, is in it overt reduction of these different conceits to the fewest possible words—an ascetic style that enacts the barren world it foretells, and that is amplified by the physical characteristics of the published script. Unusually large margins, the choice of typewriter font and the inclusion of photographs by Richard Prince of abandoned backyards and trailer parks in upstate New York add to a cumulative sense that the reader is encountering someone’s—perhaps civilization’s—last words. We are invited to think of this not as a story or a book, but as a relic of a lost world—akin, perhaps, to the ivory statuette that the protagonist of “The Ivory Acrobat” holds in her hand following an earthquake that devastates her house.
Any Cop?: Not quite a whole entity, drawing attention more to what has been—or will be—lost than to what is there, The Word for Snow is a sobering reflection on the effects of environmental catastrophe. In true DeLillean fashion, however, it posits language as a redemptive force—a companion in a post-material world.
[The Word for Snow can be obtained through Tenderbooks here]