“Midnight in Dostoevsky”: DeLillo’s New Short Story

Speculation. Query. Curiosity. All fairly inherent, natural attributes for human beings. Actually, these aspects constitute the building blocks of how we see ourselves. DeLillo’s newest work, a short story titled “Midnight in Dostoevsky,” found on the The New Yorker website, ruminates on these topics and explores the implications of what occurs when these pursuits fail.

The title was the first thing to catch my eye, me being a fan of Dostoevsky–especially in the context of Bakhtin’s statements and explorations on dialogism–, and the word midnight piqued my interest as well; however, the story deals more with dialogism and the power of creating meaning through dialog than what the connotations of midnight might reveal at the prim facie level. The two characters in DeLillo’s short story, Todd, and the narrator Robby are the primary speakers in the story. There exists a competitive dynamic between the two, most poignantly in how they attempt to understand the world around them by way of placing broad labels on its goings-ons, the things about which they seem to be continually perplexed. They converse and play their game of creating meaning to quell their unease for the rising, centrifugal questions assaulting them and for the purpose of proving they are “right,” to quell their unease by using language as a centripetal force.

The play between Todd and the narrator enumerates DeLillo’s character’s vertigo: they simply cannot identify who the old man is, yet they fabricate meaning from the “clues” and circumstantial evidence they stumble upon. They wish to gain plausibility in their arguments in verifying the coated man’s identity. The two seem to follow Bakhtin’s philosophy that meaning is made not in a “singular way,” but that “between the word and its object, between the word and the speaking subject, there exists an elastic environment of other, alien words about the same object, the same theme, and this is an environment that it is often difficult to penetrate. It is precisely in the process of living interaction with this specific environment that the word may be individualized and given stylistic shape” (PDP 276). When the two are arguing about their professor’s country of origin, the narrator readily admits to himself (and the audience) that he doesn’t necessarily hear the professor’s Russian accent, and then deconstructs his own faulty method for making meaning by stating: “I didn’t know whether it was there or not. The Norway maple didn’t have to be Norway. We worked spontaneous variations of the source material of our surroundings.” Previously, the narrator had labeled trees he describes as “large,” with “bare branches forking up fifty or sixty feet” knowing that Todd won’t dispute something that he cares nothing for, yet in this instance the narrator remembers that he has made up a label for something and realizes that he truly does not know what type of tree he saw, or whether he recognizes the professor’s Russian accent.

Todd does not care much about the accent either. Letting the verification of the man’s accent ride, meaning that they have verified he’s Russian, the two soon begin discussing where the professor lives, along with assigning his supposed wife a name: Irina. No corroborating information exists in the story noting that the professor even has a wife. As Bakhtin defines it, the two character’s living reality becomes, just that, their own construct, which is built around their speech and acknowledged definitions of things and scenarios.

Yet, the two run into other elements and speech in the story that challenge them, and these elements cause them to give way to what they think is true. And in response the two assuage their disquietude by making their views plastic depending on where the conversation meanders. Yet, the narrator’s sideways speech points to the notion that facts, verifiable facts, are less important than seeking order. He says, “At times, abandon meaning to impulse. Let the words be the facts. This was the nature of our walks–to register what was out there all the scattered rhythms of circumstance and occurrence, and to reconstruct it as human noise.” Control becomes a central impetus, then, for the narrator.

In one instance the narrator tells Todd to “consider the origin of the word,” yet the reader must be skeptical of the two speakers who wish to create a final word or meaning in explaining the man in the green coat. Todd, as characterized by the narrator/speaker, appears to have his own set of values and notions about what he sees, fulfilling the notion of creating a heterogeneous section of a group made whole partly by the narrator. Todd, in arguing what type of coat the old man wears, brings the wellspring of “Inuit lore” to bear, as the narrator characterizes it, to prove his point. The reader might make her own meaning of the coat, realizing that represents an artifact that speaks backwards towards Gogol, the author of “The Overcoat,” a short story dealing with a man’s connection to his direly earned coat which is eventually stolen from him while he is brutally murdered. The reader’s meaning might enrich the two character’s meanings and visa-versus, and yet, definitive meaning seems to be what the two want to create then tenaciously hold on to.

The two character’s argument about what kind of coat the man is wearing seems to be a clever exordium to begin the story but then turns into a banal conversation as the piece moves forward. However, the reader experiences the inner-workings of how the two make meaning when using the instance of the coat’s labeling as an example. “In the actual life of speech, every concrete act of understanding is active….Understanding comes to fruition only in the response. Understanding and response are diametrically merged and mutually condition each other; one is impossible without the other” (PDP 282). Accordingly, the utterance hangs useless and meaningless without a rejoinder, within the affirmative response or in refutation. Meaning comes to life when dialogue occurs, when two statements commingle and reflect or refract off of each other.

But the two lose meaning at a number of points in the story, and this happens when they interact with other people, or are tasked with understanding concepts and situations other people present them for which they simply cannot conjure up meaning. Ilgauskas’ lectures seem to mystify the two students enough that they don’t bother to piece them together or discuss them with each other. The narrator acknowledges that he attends a school where he couldn’t converse with his professor, to ask questions and expect an answer, “We did not speak in class; no one ever spoke. There were never any questions, students to professor.” The narrator unknowingly is up against what Bakhtin labels monological speech. And it is this form of communication that is diametricaly opposite to how Todd and the narrator superficially communicate and make meaning for themselves. Perplexed, the narrator asks, “What did he mean by “things”? We would probably never know.” The narrator later acklowledges that their teacher “challenged [their] reason for being,” but he’s not convinced that the method Ilgauskas goes about is enlightening.

The reader gets another instance of the narrator’s loss of or inability to create meaning when he meets and converses with Jenna, the girl from Ilgauskas’ class. Immediately the narrator tests her ability to make meaning when he says that his name is Lars Magnus. And just as quickly she casts aside his attempt to control information, in which case he identifies himself in the story for the first and only time: “It’s Robby.” Jenna makes it known that she has seen Robby around campus “working out in the fitness center.” Yet, Robby doesn’t seem to care much that she has been spying on him in such a vulnerable state; he only asks, “Is that what you do?” But what really intrigues him is that Jenna has seen Ilgauskas at the local diner. Robby never responds to the conjecture-free bits of information she provides to him about herself: she’s quitting college to move to Idaho, maybe, because she was unhappy. Making meaning regarding Jenna’s personal life is a non-issue for Robby. He cares more about the unknown.

As the reader approaches the story’s final parts Robby begins to spin precariously out of control. He gains then quickly loses touch with the girl. He disagrees with, then gets into a physical fight with Todd, culminating in a poetic scene that freezes just like the snow around them. Finally, the reader realizes that Robby never experiences true corroboration to pinpoint the identity of the coated man, nor does he look for it, yet the interesting fact to take note of is that the narrator is left alone, fearful that he must make meaning for the confusing and anxiety inducing world in which he finds himself. The dialogue ends, with his friend, with the professor, and with the female classmate, and poignantly, no character in the story ever converse with the man in the green coat. Dialogue, therefore, is stifled. But what does this mean? We see multiple forms of dialogue in the story, some open ended, like Robby and Todd’s. Other dialogue is monological, like that of Ilgauskas. We encounter dialogue that is started and abruptly stopped in the instance of Robby’s first and only meeting with Jenna, but in each of these instances we see the true creation of meaning and transfer of information being thwarted. Bakhtin notes: “Truth is not born nor is it to be found inside the head of an individual person, it is born between people collectively searching for truth, in the process of their dialogic interaction” (PDP 110).

Yes, Todd and Robby converse with each other, but the information they compile is almost entirely speculative, and the end result of their conversing is the break in their friendship. For Ilgauskas and his class, “information” is received, but at no time are his students, in this case Robby and Todd, able to query the professor to get clarifying information; Ilgauskas imparts his theories using a monological method. When Jenna wishes to dialog with Robby about quitting school and feeling unhappy, Robby breaks off the conversation by staring at her. For each instance the characters are wishing to handle the chaos they experience, and this chaos remains for each at the story’s open ending, stronger than before.

This entry was posted in Bakhtin, Critical Theory, Literature, Post Modernism.

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