The Itch by Don DeLillo, 2017
The magic trick:
Portraying the mundane as threatening
I write this with almost no background knowledge about Don DeLillo’s writing or style.
I know, I’m sure I’m missing out.
But it’s true.
So this may seem very obvious; so obvious that it’s embarrassing to even note it. But here goes..
“The Itch” – a story published some 40 years away from what I understand to be DeLillo’s cultural peak – features an engaging mix of the mundane and the surreal. I suppose that’s probably his thing. We get paragraph-long descriptions about our protagonist walking into his office. Time slows so that the story can note the awkward glance between the protagonist and the doctor’s assistant as she leaves the room. It’s hyper-reality under a microscope.
But then we also get Joel, who thinks he hears voices talking to him from the toilet when he urinates. We get strange transitions between scenes – or no transitions between scenes. We get odd conversations that may or may not actually be happening.
It all combines to make the mundane of daily life feel absurd and maybe even threatening.
If that in fact is DeLillo’s “thing,” that’s a pretty good thing.
And that’s quite a trick on DeLillo’s part.
He began to think of the itch as sense data from the exterior, caused by some outlying substance, unanalyzable, the air in the room or on the street or in the atmosphere itself, a corruption of the planetary environment.
He thought of this but did not believe it. It was semi-science fiction. But it was also a form of comfort during those long periods of unrest when he was stretched and then curled and then belly down in bed, a raw body in cotton pajamas, awash in creams and lotions, trying not to scratch or rub.
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