Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

End Zone (Don DeLillo) Notes

Don DeLillo

End Zone.

Don DeLillo is a contemporary American writer whose main interest is what links can exist between an individual and the society, or a society. He has explored numerous areas, among which politics, mathematics, music, crime, and sport. This text is an extract from End Zone, the story of a student in a small College in West Texas, who happens to be a member of the College's football team. What we study here is paragraph 7, at the very beginning of the novel, which corresponds to the specific period when the team gathers to start training before the beginning of classes. It is a time when the athletes are isolated on an almost empty campus (85), and that situation creates a tension, both individually and collectively among them. The text describes and analyses a game which they invent, or rather adapt, as it is an existing child's game, in order to cope with the situation.

The chapter roughly falls into three parts, one dealing with the narrator's experience of exile (1-42), the second describing the origins and particulars of the game (43-75), and the third, (76-120), constituting a closer approach to the motives of the game and its meaning. A first reading already provides the reader with two basic lexical fields, silence and death, but those two notions, which usually tend to be associated, are paradoxically opposed in DeLillo's creation.


The first part of the text contains a splendid variation on the theme of silence: first presented as only silence , it becomes the silence), and occurs five times in the passage. That introductory notion serves as final note of the chapter, final, almost terminal word: the long silence, a phrase which could be used as a metaphor for Death, and may recall to the memory Hamlet's last words, the rest is silence. The point lies in the meaning of silence, or of the silence: is it the absence of noise created by the emptiness of the campus, a place usually characterised by animation and conversations, or the absence of speech ? Since there is obviously a link between death and silence, there exists a strong paradox between the athletes’ need to cope with silence and their devising a game that uses only minimal communication (Bang, you’re dead) and entails death, hence the most absolute silence, since dead men tell no tales.


It is only a game, but it is the only game. That definition is interesting because it focuses on both the essential and unessential aspects of the very notion of game: it is fun, yet it is inescapable and fundamental, and every society has its games. As a matter of fact, the game which that bunch of bored and lonely athletes invent, is presented at first as a really basic and universal game: Almost every child has played it in one form or another ; it is also introduced as something almost ridiculous: It's an extremely simple-minded game, or at first, I thought it was all very silly). Yet, the basic rule mentioned on line 12, between brackets, another understating figure of speech, already establishes a slight disruption from the original game: (never mere injury; always death), because every child who has played the game knows that you have to say No, I'm only wounded to play it correctly and long enough. The complication proceeds on lines 17-18: beneath its bluntness, the game seemed compellingly intricate. it possessed gradations, dark joys, a resonance echoing from the most perplexing of dreams. What is at stake here, apparently, and is confirmed in the description of the narrator's own style in the game: the rhythm of something imperishable, a classic death, is the base value of the game, which can be found of course in the original child's game of Bang You're Dead, but more dramatically in the games of the ancient Rome, or in the ritual Aztec ball game, which did not imply any simulation of death, but death itself, which is obviously an evidence of how close the links can be between game and death. The symbolic function of the game in society, even in animal societies, is to ritualise the fundamental pulsion of death, which compels someone to kill the other, just as dancing is a ritualising of sex. Making of death “a tender experience” is the essence of the very concept of game, as it is the case for the most famous game: chess, and there are numerous examples of misinterpreted games, both in literature and cinema (from J. Manciewicz to T. Kitano) , in which games eventually lose their symbolic value and become gruesomely real. The game also echoes, because of the proper aesthetics of dying developed by the narrator, both bullfighting and cinematography. The fact that Texas is so close to Mexico and originally a Spanish settlement must be noted here, together with the link between Texas and the Western. The description of Terry Madden’s death is quite close to what can be seen in the overgrowth of Western aesthetics called spaghetti western, and the narrator’s variation of falls is a direct reference to what Humphrey Bogart used to say about what created his success: that he had invented a hundred ways to die on film.

Amazingly, the description of the game contains all the elements of a ritual, and it sometimes even links the rituals of playing and of dancing, in the way the students simulate various ways of collapsing: I varied my falls, rolling down the stairs, draped over the banisters, in slow motion, tumbling, rolling as slowly as possible, twisting around a tree. The very gestures of the gunman are also carefully worked out, the noises as well, as the noises and precise gestures must be acquired when you are a Greek playing dominoes or a Chinese engaged in a game of Mah-Jong. As the narrator sums it up on lines 83-84, the game they have invented is a tribute paid to the human concept of game, a celebration of the ancient ways.


The first paradox is that those people are on that campus only because they are supposed to play a game, and that the game of football is so close to death that one club executive said in the 30's (a period when the number of players killed on the field had become spectacular) football is not a game, it's war. Then one could wonder why those huge brutes, elsewhere dubbed warriors, need to superimpose a game of death over the one they have to practise every day, and in which, although it appears as daily punishment, they find pleasure. For Hamlet, the rest is silence, but there were words, words, words before. What is unbearable in the silence of West Texas as described by DeLillo is the fact that it is not the silence that comes after death, but a cosmic type of silence which excludes any notion of Time, a silence with no noise after it, and no noise before it either. In one of Ted Hughes's poems, a child asks the narrator about a stillborn lamb:

"Did it cry?" you keep asking, in a three-year-old


Piercing persistence."Oh yes" I say "it cried". ("Ravens", Moortown).

What is to remark here is the fact that the child cannot bear the idea of death if there has not been some life before, of silence if there has not been some noise before, and it confirms the horror experienced by DeLillo's characters and the necessity of coping with that horror by devising another game, to break the silence of the long evenings; force cracks in the enveloping silence. Quite interestingly, those two utterances present silence as both the master of time (long) and space (enveloping), two dimensions which, as it has already been quoted, the players work at occupying by making sound and gesture exceedingly sophisticated. The ultra-symbolic value of their game finds its epitome in the narrator's most gorgeous experience, when he describes his most spectacular and above all more rewarding "death". As he puts it, I died well and for this reason was killed quite often; what we find here is undoubtedly the core of the paradox: in that game, it is more fun to die, then more fun to lose, and this, quite strangely, may be related to the Aztec ball game, which stipulated that the winners should be executed, to their utmost contentment, as they were eager to please the gods in such a manner. Last, but not least, aspect of the paradox, that we discover in the description of that splendid death on the stairs, is the fact that, although you need to be actually killed to fall dead, the best way to play the game is to play it like solitaire, on your own.


The text is a fine variation on the concept of the game, in all its symbolic and fundamental aspects, with a remarkable play on paradoxes and oppositions and a Russian-doll effect created by the superimposition of two games, with different motivations and consequences. As DeLillo himself clearly mentions it in the last lines of the paragraph, that game is something like a definition of what a game should be, something which brought men closer together through their perversity and fear, enabled us to pretend that death could be a tender experience. Yet, more than that, certainly because DeLillo is a remarkable writer, the way the game is represented here, as the only way to breach the long silence, must make the reader focus on literature itself. It is a fiction, just like that game, it brings men together through their perversity and fear, and just like that search for the rhythm of something imperishable, it possesses those unwritten limits that writers will always try to write and that will always recede before us.

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