Some terrorist attacks become cultural obsessions, while others are forgotten completely. There were three bombings in New York City in 1975, none of which I’ve ever heard talked about, each of which would probably shut down the city if it happened now. In January, Puerto Rican separatists set off dynamite in Fraunces Tavern in downtown Manhattan, killing four businessmen—the same number of fatalities, incidentally, that led us to close the airspace over Boston last week. In April, four separate bombs went off in midtown Manhattan on one afternoon, damaging a diner and the offices of several finance firms. The worst one came in late December, when a package of dynamite exploded in the baggage-claim area at LaGuardia Airport, killing eleven.
These were underground disturbances, moments of disorder that helped warp the culture, even if they weren’t absorbed or even remembered. In 1975, Don DeLillo was thirty-nine, living in the city, possibly beginning work on Players, his fifth novel and his first about terrorism. Long before it became obvious, DeLillo argued that terrorists and gunmen have rearranged our sense of reality. He has become better appreciated as the world has come to resemble his work, incrementally, with every new telegenic catastrophe, every bombing and mass shooting. Throughout DeLillo’s work we encounter young men who plot violence to escape the plotlessness of their own lives. He has done more than any writer since Dostoevsky to explain them.
DeLillo’s fictional treatments of terrorism and mass shootings are extensive. In Players, a young man working in finance is drawn into a terrorist cell that plans to bomb the New York Stock Exchange. (Eerie details: the young man’s girlfriend works in the World Trade Center’s North Tower at a place called the Grief Management Council; she feels that “the towers didn’t seem permanent”; in one scene during which she gazes at the towers from the roof of her apartment, a friend remarks, “That plane looks like it’s going to hit.”) In The Names (1982), a risk analyst discovers a murderous language-cult. Mao II (1991) is about a reclusive writer who is becomes involved with a bombing-and-hostage-taking outfit out of Beirut. There’s a subplot in Underworld (1997) about a video that’s replayed endlessly on the news showing a murder by the Texas highway killer. In Cosmopolis (2003) a loner plots the killing of a finance-world celebrity. Then there’s Falling Man (2007), about the September 11 attacks.
When Falling Man came out, reviewers noted that DeLillo’s earlier books had seemed to anticipate the events of September 11, as well as the aura of dread and unreality that followed. DeLillo seemed prescient not because he predicted the future, but because he focused on history that has all but disappeared from American cultural memory: the terrorism of the 1970s, the red armies and brigades and the various liberation fronts that bombed planes and hotels and gunned down tourists in America and across Europe, the Baader-Meinhof gang attacking embassies, the Irish Republican Army shooting cops, abductions and assassinations by Marxists splinter groups. DeLillo’s work preserved the atmosphere of that time, and so seemed to foreshadow a later period of pervasive menace; in a similar way, Dostoevsky’s foresight in anticipating the Bolsheviks is more impressive if you’re not familiar with the Russian revolutionaries of the 1860s and ’70s who influenced his work.
No matter how common they’ve become, terrorist attacks and gun massacres always seem unprecedented. But the idea that the last twelve years have been a new era of terror and unreality is false. “Our postwar history has seen tanks in the streets and occasional massive force,” DeLillo told The Paris Review in 1993. “But mainly we have the individual in the small room, the nobody who walks out of the shadows and changes everything.” The rippling reality-distortion caused by this form of violence has been DeLillo’s theme from the beginning. On the same day he decided to write his first novel, DeLillo said, he picked up a paper and read about Charles Whitman, a young man who climbed a tower on the University of Texas at Austin campus in 1968 and killed eleven people with a sniper rifle. Whitman brought several guns with him, along with toilet paper and underarm deodorant. When he read about Whitman, DeLillo said, “I remember thinking, Texas again. And also, underarm deodorant.”
Texas again. For DeLillo, the Kennedy assassination is a model that prefigures later terrorist attacks and massacres: inexplicable violence committed by a nobody in the context of ubiquitous media coverage. A mountain of evidence, testimony, and theory that hides the event itself. Images of the event endlessly replayed. An imbalance between the significance of the act and the insignificance of the person who committed it. Absurdity, in other words.
Last week’s events in Boston conform to this pattern. The two Tsarnaev brothers, taken together, are an approximation of DeLillo’s Lee Harvey Oswald, the Oswald of Libra (1988) and of DeLillo’s essays on the assassination. Tamerlan, the fundamentalist brother with mysterious connections in Dagestan and Chechnya and with the FBI, is Oswald the world-historical figure, the Oswald who defected to Moscow, who worked on a U-2 base in Japan, who read Marx. The elder Tsarnaev and Oswald are both figures in whom powerful historical forces seem to converge: Marxism, Islamic radicalism, the real and imaginary power of the American government. Both liked to hit their wives. Both died before they could tell us anything.
Dzhokhar is the other side of Oswald. He is Oswald the nobody, the Oswald of incoherent motives, the man who is not a plausible nexus of historical forces. Dzhokhar’s uncle called him a loser, and would have called Oswald the same. We know that Dzhokhar liked to smoke pot, supported the Anzhi Makhachkala soccer team, failed seven classes his first year in college. DeLillo’s Oswald, skipping school in the Bronx, a truant riding the subways, was a bad student and a terrible speller. Tamerlan is the Oswald who died with his secrets, but Dzhokhar is the Oswald of the Warren Report, whose every banal detail will be brought to light but who will never add up to a coherent personality.
The ineptitude of their escape, too, was Oswaldesque. They layered minor crimes on top of large. Both getaways involved the superfluous killing of cops. Oswald was arrested while watching a movie, while the Tsarnaevs let the man they carjacked escape when they stopped for snacks. They were clumsy and stupid, like Oswald, and neglected practical details as if in a dream.
Then there is the constellation of unreality that the bombings have begun to create. The Boston bombings, like the Kennedy assassination and 9/11 attacks, will remain an event about which unreasonable people can disagree.
“Powerful events build their own networks of chaos and ambiguity,” DeLillo wrote in a 2004 essay on Oswald; the mass of facts that accumulated on these events has its own interconnections, missing pieces, buried meanings. The Tsarnaevs’ story is a grand banquet for conspiracy theorists, involving the FBI, the Russians, terror cells in Dagestan and Chechnya, the unsolved murder of Tamerlan’s best friend and two others in 2011. Within hours of the bombing you could find pictures online that claim to show government agents standing near the site of the first bomb right before it went off. Tamerlan himself frequented conspiracy websites—did he anticipate the endless conspiracy-theorizing that his bombing would give rise to? Conspiracy thinking is similar, in a way, to a terror plot; both lend structure to ambiguous reality. The more demonstrably false the theory, the more powerfully it serves as a protest against reality.
“Years ago I used to think it was possible for a novelist to alter the inner life of the culture,” the novelist in Mao II says. “Now bomb-makers and gunmen have taken that territory. They make raids on human consciousness.” By introducing conspiracy and chaos into the world, a terrorist hopes to make himself equal to the overwhelming world surrounding him. The idea isn’t to change history but to enact one’s dream life. The person who blows up the Boston marathon instantly becomes the equal of his act. What other mythic ambition can a loser instantly achieve, just by deciding to do it? “In America it is the individual himself, floating on random streams of disaffection, who tends to set the terms of the absurd,” DeLillo wrote. “Set the terms” is right: an individual terrorist creates the absurdity in which the rest of us have to live. Whether or not Oswald or the Tsarnaevs achieved what they hoped they would achieve, their dream lives now overlap with reality. Violence gives weight to the meaningless. “This is what guns are for, to bring balance to the world,” DeLillo wrote, speaking, once again, of Oswald.
Chris Cumming is a financial reporter in New York City.