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Don DeLillo and the Beauty of Placeholders

Whatever you think of Noah Baumbach’s Netflix film White Noise, there’s no doubt in my mind that the novel by Don DeLillo on which it’s based, is an amazing piece of work. I’m a big fan of Don DeLillo’s writing in general. His books are a literary joy to read, his prose is superbly crafted, brimming with subtext and astute observations. He never resorts to overused vocabulary or expressions (except, say, to illustrate a character’s lack of imagination). He make sentences sing while conveying highly explicit detail about the characters. He writes dialogue that gives you the feeling of being in the room with the characters. I haven’t checked, but my impression is that DeLillo never repeats a descriptive word or noun in a sentence. At the same time, his books also deal with intriguing and important ideas about individuals and society. Big philosophical and ethical questions about the future, too.

But there something in particular I want to highlight here, which has very practical ramifications. I’ll start with a brief quote from DeLillo’s epic 1997 novel Underworld.

Glassic said, “Even his name. Somber Ralph Branca. Like a figure out of an old epic. Somber plodding Ralph slain in something something dusk.”

“Dark-arrowed,” said the woman.

What I love about this exchange is its illustration of how important rhythm is to DeLillo’s writing and to writing in general. Sometimes you don’t have access to exactly the right word or phrase, but you intuit how it will fit into the sentence. Like a song lyric that needs a line to end on something that rhymes with ‘Cinderella’. The ‘something something’ in the above citation serves as a placeholder, throwing out a challenge to the other people involved in the conversation, like a sort of you-know-what-I-mean… And they do, witness the woman’s response. I don’t know this for a fact, but I read it almost as DeLillo telling us this is how he composes his prose.

When you’re writing (or for that matter, translating), you sometimes need to use placeholders. You know there’s a perfect word or phrase for the sentence you’re working on, but you can’t identify it just yet. The rhythm is there, but not the requisite phonemes. So you add a [%*] or some such. A combination of characters that will trip up your vision or your spellchecker when you edit your work. Or which you can search for and focus on at another time, when your mind is in the right modus.

The placeholder is a really a thing of beauty. It allows you to avoid disrupting the flow of your work. It signals your faith in the existence of an appropriate solution. It liberates you from frustration and self-criticism, even providing a sense of confidence. I’ll come back to this, I’ll solve this at a later date, this is not a problem. Let’s press on.

So I would recommend reading Don DeLillo’s work for all the usual reasons that people read great literature, but also keep your intuition tuned to his little nuggets of writing wisdom, disguised as something something dialogue.


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This is where I get to write about stuff I like. Books, TV series, podcasts, movies... whatever tickles my fancy and in no particular order (to quote one of my favourite podcasts, No Such Thing As A Fish). 

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