Ratner’s Star (1976) by Don DeLillo
This is DeLillo’s own personal favourite of his works; I happily agree. It follows an adolescent maths prodigy, Billy Twillig, and his employment by a research facility located somewhere in an Asian desert to decode a message apparently from a planet orbiting the distant Ratner’s Star. On the surface, then, a pretty familiar sci-fi, space opera plot, no? Well, we never really ‘lift-off’ from Earth because this novel ends up far more concerned with the subterranean than the extraterrestrial: it excavates over two millennia of human thought. Alongside Billy there are numerous Nobel Laureates – whose research smacks of Balnibari-like Swiftian nonsense – at the facility: one of whom lives in a hole in the ground (a hole which contains its own hole), another investigating the archaeology of guano-filled bat caves, and, eventually a journalist who becomes a kind of meta-narrative mediation for the tale. What’s really exciting, for me, is the elaborate formal architecture of the novel. Two parts – named “Adventures” and “Reflections” as part of a sustained homage to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books: the first of which proceeding by allusions to various important milestones in the history of mathematics from pre-Classical to Pythagoras to, finally Cantor; the second part tunnelling backward through this history, this time explicitly naming those mathematicians. This technical compulsion might be a hard sell, so it’s worth pointing out that this is perhaps the most fun of DeLillo’s novels, especially in the extended dialogues of his carnival of characters. It also features some of the most beautiful prose on metaphysics (which, yes, includes cadenzas on mathematics and numbers) I’ve ever read. For fans of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, this is a must read.
- ‘It occurred to Billy that U.F.O. Schwartz seemed to be sitting in his own lap.’
- ‘Edna Lown was entering herself just as surely as if she’d been able to bend her arms into her mouth and swallow them to the shoulders; arms, legs, torso; a bewitchingly comic meditation technique; leaving the head balanced on a cushion, head and skull, abode of the layered brain, everything we are and feel and know; the universe we’ve made.’
- ‘“The last time I was in this car there were two other people where you’re sitting.”
“Then you weren’t in this car,” the man said. “You were with different people in a different car.”’