Short Story Saturday: "Midnight in Dostoevsky" by Don DeLillo
In keeping on with the DeLillo vibe, let’s dive in to my favorite short stories
Midnight in Dostoevsky is a short story by Don DeLillo first published in the New Yorker in November of 2009.
The story is about two freshmen in college, Todd and Robby, students of the wise and mysterious philosophy professor Ilgauska, who “reads Dostoevsky day and night.” The two boys have a thing for the fantastical. They love to pick out small aspects of everyday life and, using their combined imaginations and deductive reasoning skills, create elaborate backstories about such things, these things mostly being people. One character they both grow an infatuation with is a mysterious old man who they see often out on their walks around campus. They create an immense back story about the man, and as they keep tacking on details, Robby concludes that he must be the father of their philosophy professor. The two continue with their fantasy, however Robby falls further into it than Todd. At the end of the story, the boys happen upon the unknown old man, and Todd, fed up with unconfirmed and fabricated stories, suggests that he just simply talk to the old man and inquire about him. At this Robby freaks out, saying, “we do that, we kill the idea, we kill everything we’ve done.” Todd persists, and Robby ends up punching him in the face, resulting in the two getting in a fight and thus ending their friendship.
Consider the origin of the word. This story is commentary on two things, two things that are extremely prevalent in this postmodern digital age: the deconstruction of language and the role, and subsequent detriment, of fantasy.
From the teachings of Ilgauskas, Robby and Todd realize the role that language plays in the modern world, specifically in obtaining a truth. And I say “a truth” because the real, Lacan’s concept, in this day and age, is something quite unattainable (cue fake news). The philosophy teachings which unknowingly affect both the boys fall very much in line with Lacan and Derrida trains of thought, specifically deconstruction. Deconstruction, proposed by Jacque Derrida in the mid 20th century as method of analyzing language, is the observation that language sometimes “falls apart” in its approach to address something. Sometimes, language contradicts the meaning and context of it’s intention, and it happens all the time. In the short story, Ilgauskas addresses this notion in his laconic, at times, nebulous musings, “The atomic fact…We invented logic to beat back our creatural selves. We assert or deny. We follow ‘M’ with ‘N.’ The only laws that matter are laws of thought.” If there is a truth, it is unattainable because language is another layer that coats it; language itself hinders one from obtaining the truth.
This notion eloquently plays into Robby’s downfall with his obsession with the fantastical. Robby’s own sanity relies on the assurance that language will always be that impenetrable barrier to the truth. And when the barrier is compromised ie Todd finding out the truth about the old man, Robby’s own reality is compromised. Todd is then a threat. In a way, it plays into the digital age, especially with the role that social media has, and the reality it creates for young people. One side of Instagram is the viewer seeing glimpses of another person’s reality without any context, and that context the viewer must create themselves, even unknowingly.
I absolutely love this short story, and there’s so much to unpack, especially in what pertains to this day and age. In my literature course back in the spring, I wrote an entire paper about this short story alone. It was my first introduction to DeLillo, and today it still stands as one of my favorites.