I assumed that “Sine Cosine Tangent,” by Don DeLillo, was a story. Wouldn’t you? It was published in the New Yorker’s Fiction section, and there’s no mention of its being an excerpt of DeLillo’s forthcoming novel, Zero K, except in supplemental web pages like Deborah Treisman’s recent interview. It’s an excerpt posing as a story.
But it doesn’t work, imho. As explained in Treisman’s interview, the piece is edited together from selected memories of the novel’s main character, when he was a child. I think that’s exactly why the piece reads as though it’s haphazardly stitched together. Consider these two paragraphs:
“When I was fourteen, I developed a limp. I didn’t care if it looked fake. I practiced at home, walking haltingly room to room, tried not to revert to normal stride after I rose from a chair or got out of bed. It was a limp set between quotation marks, and I wasn’t sure whether it was intended to make me visible to others or just to myself.
I used to look at an old photograph of my mother, Madeline in a pleated dress, age fifteen, and I’d feel sad. But she wasn’t ill, she hadn’t died.”
The details within each paragraph are interesting, but the connection between the two is so random, it seems clear, once you know the background, that these are memories plucked out of their original context and edited together to form a new piece.
This strategy also fails for DeLillo, but I think it’s bravely honest of the New Yorker to publish the Treisman interview, which expresses his misgivings. You can sense qualms in most of DeLillo’s answers, but he becomes especially clear in his criticism at this point:
Treisman: “‘Sine Cosine Tangent’ is drawn from … ‘Zero K,’ most of which involves Jeff as an adult. Is it disorienting for you to see his childhood isolated from the rest of the book in this way?”
DeLillo: “Yes, it is strange to see these passages huddled together, isolated from the larger context in which they were designed to be read. Makes me feel that I’ve fallen into a hole in the ground. What happened to the sky, the light, the landscape?”
I feel the same way, and I also feel a bit cheated; aren’t there thousands of well written, actual stories out there waiting to be published? This piece seems more of a publicity maneuver.