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October 22, 2002

Type Slowly

The northern Virginia "sniper" has killed nine people and wounded three in the past 20 days. And all this time, two people have been foremost in my mind: Don DeLillo and Thomas Harris.

Please don't think me insensitive.This is what English majors do when we're cornered: run to the written word.

To call DeLillo prescient is like calling Rage Against the Machine angry, or Kurt Cobain dead: true as far as it goes, but ultimately an insufficient way of approaching his work. Post September 11, post Bali, his concentration on terrorism as lingua franca of world culture in The Names and Mao II establishes him as a force to be reckoned with. That's a topic for another column-a B.A.?-though. In the middle of the Washington tragedy, DeLillo has been in my consciousness because of the "Texas Highway Killer," a "character" in 1997's Underworld.

DeLillo's fascination with the killer stems from his obsession with the media's perception of American culture; his focus is not on the killer-who chats amiably about the weather after calling in to a news program, and describes his childhood as a "healthy, basically type childhood"-or his victims. At this point the Washington killer is front-page news across the country, and elements of Underworld are being brought to life every day we pick up the paper. "You keep on looking not because you know something is going to happen.... You keep on looking because things combine to hold you fast-a sense of the random, the amateurish, the accidental, the impending.... It is the jostled part of your mind, the film that runs through your hotel brain under all the thoughts you're thinking."

The oblique quality of his prose stems from a belief in the significance of powers beyond our control-the classic paranoid response to tragedy. Conversations, even sentences, in his work are driven by an incomprehensible urge; DeLillo himself seems to be channeling something he doesn't understand but believes is out there. The video of one of the Texas Highway Killer's murders is an obvious parallel to the Zapruder film, a longtime trope of DeLillo's, a representation of the power of anonymous men to direct history. DeLillo describes it in one of his more clear moments: "There's something here [in the tape] that speaks to you directly, saying terrible things about forces beyond your control, lines of intersection that cut through history and logic and every reasonable layer of human expectation."

I'll confess: I'm hooked on the news coverage. I don't get CNN, thank goodness, but I check their web site-and the Washington Post, and the AP wire-whenever I'm at a computer to get the latest news. I'm as gripped by the Washington killer as DeLillo's characters are gripped by the Texas Highway Killer.

As best I can tell, though-and I'm sure DeLillo would disagree with me-I'm gripped for different reasons. Every time I pull up the Post I'm waiting for the killer to be caught, in part so this will end, in part because of a morbid desire-is that the right word, or is this desire the opposite of morbidity?- to know who is responsible.

At one point DeLillo was interested in this kind of question. Libra, the dark-horse candidate for his best novel, is the story of the Kennedy assassination. It's told through the ruminations of the men who planned it, and through the life story of Lee Harvey Oswald. DeLillo's explanation of why Oswald came to shoot Kennedy is purely intuitive, the accumulation of circumstances and events in his life (as he writes in one of the finest lines in post-war American literature, Oswald is "a man who grew up in small rooms"). Which makes sense; DeLillo is a literary novelist and a former ad copywriter who believes in the power of sights and suggestions. Which is also true, as far as it goes. There's something missing here, a fundamental piece that literary novelists tend to avoid in their investigation of aberrant personalities: science.

This is why I've been thinking about Thomas Harris so much. If you haven't read The Silence of the Lambs, you've probably seen the movie, and if so, you didn't miss so much that you won't be able to follow along. Harris is a genre novelist, and at least at the time of Lambs one of the genre's finest. His canvas is much less broad than DeLillo's-check that, he doesn't have a canvas at all, but a reel-to-reel. There are none of the epic pauses in the narrative that demand meditation on the story. It's a page-turner, which is fine.

Nonetheless, there's something in Harris that's not in DeLillo, something that may be an element of great 21st-century literature in embryonic form. His fantastic stories are so successful because of their king-hell realist grounding. He's a good researcher, one who attended classes at Quantico to enrich his understanding of abnormal psychology. Many of the details in Lambs are copped (openly) from FBI profilers like John Douglas. Harris may be rich and successful and not terribly thoughtful, but he has a geek's heart.

Harris's interest with the mind of the killer is a welcome respite from DeLillo's cultural paranoia in Underworld. Where DeLillo sees a mystery within culture, Harris sees a murky path through science, and it may be that Harris is closer to the vanguard that DeLillo so clearly wishes to inhabit. As science bores its way through American literature, it's genre novelists like Harris who are turning the screwdriver.

You might be bothered by your voyeurism in following the story of the Washington sniper. You might feel guilty about your peers' comments that the real issue is not a macabre narrative but gun control or the role of guns in American culture.

Don't. The writers that tell us the stories we will be telling ourselves for the rest of our lives, every time something like this raises questions so far beyond our grasp, are the most devoted voyeurs of all. They are the people who are reading CNN.com or sitting in front of the television when they should be fulfilling their more immediate responsibilities. The stories we tell ourselves about the Washington sniper are more than horror stories. They're narratives about free will and the tension between the individual and the cultural. What we're watching now is what we'll be reading 20 years from now. And if you're a voyeur like me, it's worth getting a head start.