Matt’s recent post points to the joys of rereading – of coming upon again those passages that left you breathless the first time you read them. While I enjoy those moments, I’ve also found myself encountering more disconcerting scenarios – when I am reading a book for the first time and find myself reading something that I know I’ve read before. These moments of deja-vu render my reading eyes helpless – they begin to frantically scan the page trying to figure out how in the world I’ve read this before, the brain fully aware that this is the first time I’ve picked up this book.

I experienced this just the other day as I was reading DeLillo’s Underworld on the Metro. Prior to this, I read Paul Auster’s Book of Illusions, and prior to that DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. I peppered these with three George Pelecanos Nick Stefanos detective novels set in DC and surrounding areas (it is super cool, by the way, to see the names of bars you’ve frequented as the local hangout for main character Nick when he visits PG County). In the odd swirl that is my mind, these texts began to meld, mesh, and combine, which is all well and good until a passage in DeLillo’s Underworld sent me on an hour long mind-crushing bender trying to figure out how in the world a passage in a book I’ve never read seemed so damn familiar to me. The matrix was changing. I had read this dialogue (or something eerily like it) before – a conversation between Marvin, a baseball paraphernalia collector, and garbage expert named Brian. Marvin, mainly, spoke on baseball, the Cold War, and the premonitions to be found in Gorbachev’s Latvia-shaped birthmark. And it was all terribly, eerily, familiar. I swore I read the same dialogue in one of the other books …

The best answer I could come up with to sooth my mind was that I had, at some point, picked up the book and flipped through the pages, spending enough time reading that entire section (my mind rationalizes) that it seemed terribly familiar, while the actual exercise of flipping was so mundane that it completely slipped my mind. The book as Random Access Memory and Amnesia.

An aside (as I love them so): I have found myself wanting to criticize DeLillo’s recent dialogue for sounding: 1. the same, regardless of character; and 2. affected and odd – “No one,” I thought, “talks like that.”

So last night I’m having a beer with Brian and I say “You’re saying this to me? You said this?” and I think to myself, “Damn. DeLillo’s right.” Or maybe just infectious?


One Response to Literary Deja-Vu

  1. fritz says:

    that deja vuey stuff happens. and it’s often difficult to identify what is pastiche and what is coincidence. my first run-in with this was while reading Jeanette Winterson’s “The Passion” where a line of text that is taken directly from Eliot’s Prufrock appears suddenly on the page.

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