Ratner’s Star: DeLillo Throws Ideas at a Wall to See What Sticks

Ratners Star

As I begin to write this post I get the feeling that I don’t have much to say about Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star other than it just wasn’t that great. I want to give DeLillo the benefit of the doubt and simply say that the ideas he dedicates copious amounts of time to in the novel were simply above my head. I won’t pretend to understand remotely complex mathematical theories, nor will I do the same with scientific ones (though I am more familiar with them due to friendships I have made in life). However, DeLillo is not alone in using mathematics or science in novels, particularly postmodern ones. Because of this I lean towards simply believing that DeLillo never really gets it going with this novel, causing it to fall flat.

The flow never really sets in, the prose remaining choppy throughout, with interruptions of quintessential DeLillo (the DeLillo of White Noise or Libra) popping up along the way. The main character is fourteen-year-old Billy Twillig, a Nobel prize winning math prodigy from the Bronx. With the pick of the litter among worldwide colleges and institutions, he goes the route towards applying what he knows and enters a governmental program to decode an alien transmission from the galaxy believed to have originated near Ratner’s Star. From what I gathered, the best that I could do (the book is enormously obtuse, refusing to let you into its web if you aren’t initiated into the ideas DeLillo is incorporating), this is DeLillo’s attempt at combining slapstick comedy with high-minded academic theory, in part as a critique of said academic world.

The novel is perhaps a perfect example that a quotable book doesn’t equate to a good book. Ratner’s Star is a never-ending wealth of quotes, my favorite most likely being:

“There’s only one way to create, as if your life depended on it, which it does.”

Don Delillo, Ratner’s Star

Partly this is because of the congregation of characters that DeLillo brings to life in the novel. Each page seems to have yet another, working or investigating the Ratner’s Star project in one way or another. Yet nothing really holds the narrative into any kind of satisfactory cohesion. The transmission that Billy Twillig is meant to decode resurfaces the moment you have forgotten that it is actually what the book is supposedly about. It’s just not mentioned enough (Once per fifty pages or so?) to feel necessary or relevant.

I could have potentially made it through the book without coming to dislike it if had stayed its course, yet when the book flips over to part two, DeLillo just goes a little over the top with Postmodernism. It ceases being valuable or even a little bit fun to read and becomes something to trudge through, counting pages until it ends, never fast enough. The book stops feeling much like DeLillo, turning into something that simply has his name on it.

This being DeLillo’s fourth book (and his favorite of his, so sayeth Wikipedia), I would speculate that a young DeLillo had a lot to say about a lot of things and really just packed it all into this book. It would take a dissertation to unpack all the things about science, mysticism, and mathematics that he delves into throughout the novel, and readers such as me (looking to pick up a challenging novel because it’s fun), Ratner’s Star just doesn’t work quite right. There’s a lot there to enjoy, but it’s held back by its own ambition. I swear that one day I will stop mentioning Thomas Pynchon in every review, but really, Ratner’s Star feels like DeLillo read every novel of Pynchon’s he could get his hands on and then said, “I can do that.” And he did in some senses. But a mix of DeLillo trying his best to write like Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo being Don DeLillo is not what I am looking for in a novel. It appears most reviews on the internet feel similarly.

So ends a review that is shorter than I would like it to be. I wish I had more to say, but I simply do not. I’m glad Don DeLillo loves this book, because I simply can’t. Ratner’s Star is a novel that I simply will tell you, my dear reader, to skip.

Recommended to: Science and Math wizards who also love slapstick comedy.

Avoid as if it were listening to your grandpa lecture on why America needs Donald Trump: Most people, the book does not give back what it requires you to put in, sadly.

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