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New Yorker Fiction Review #135: "Sine Cosine Tangent" by Don DeLillo

Issue: Feb. 22, 2016

Story: "Sine Cosine Tangent" by Don DeLillo

Rating: $$$

Review: Stories by George Saunders and Don DeLillo back to back? What the hell is The New Yorker trying to do...kill me??

Like Saunders, DeLillo is a giant of contemporary English letter. Hell, a titan. I'd even go ahead and say he's carved out a permanent place in the pantheon of English literature. Period. Such is the depth and accuracy and skill with which he plumbs the depths of dysfunction in modern society with his prose and the sheer number of times he's done it...including his new novel Zero K.

Gotta confess, however, I didn't even realize he was still alive.

"Sine Cosine Tangent" is a story about a period during the adolescence of Jeffrey Lockhart (a character in Zero K, although I'm told this story is not an "excerpt" of the novel, per se), a young man with divorced parents, during which a fascination with words starts to emerge from that great miasma of thoughts, emotions, and hormones we call the "teenage years."

Jeffrey explores his emotions and the people, the actions, that give his life its texture, by looking at words and trying to define them. Watching his mother perform the daily action of clean lint from her clothing with a lint roller prompts him to want to define the words "lint" and "hangar." Clearly this is a young man looking for answers through words, trying to look around the sides of what is accepted and what can be seen with the naked eye.

Part of DeLillo's genius in a story like this, and I'd imagine most of his writing (I've only read White Noise), is to, like a great poet, weave in elements of memory, lyricism, and careful repetition, throughout the action and dialogue happening in the present moment, so that a sort of swirling effect is created. Many writers attempt this. Many writers fail. It takes the skilled hand of a DeLillo or a Roth to get this done and get it done well and, I think, is the mark of a truly mature writer. The ability to bring together the experimental and the straight-ahead narrative into a consistent, readable, and effective style.

I read this story too long ago to give you a more complete blow-by-blow review. Apologies. You should read it (or something by DeLillo) on your own anyway. Doctor's orders.


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