“The Itch”
by Don DeLillo
from the August 7 & 14, 2017 issue of The New Yorker

Now officially an octogenarian, Don DeLillo is back in The New Yorker with “The Itch.” I haven’t particularly enjoyed much of DeLillo’s work over the past decade or so, but I’m always interested to see if he comes close to reaching the heights of his prior work. I’m curious what you all think of this one!

Please join in the conversation below! Let me know how you feel about “The Itch” and DeLillo’s work in general.

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By | 2017-08-25T12:50:59+00:00 July 31st, 2017|Categories: Don DeLillo, New Yorker Fiction|Tags: |30 Comments

30 Comments

  1. David July 31, 2017 at 11:30 am

    Over the weekend, I started reading a novel I am enjoying a great deal. I took a little time out this morning to read “The Itch”. I have no idea what the point of it was. Rather than try to see if I can figure it out, I’m going back to my novel. By Friday I probably won’t remember anything about “The Itch”, but I’ll check back to see if anyone can give me any reason to care.

  2. Julian Wyllie July 31, 2017 at 4:10 pm

    Like David, I tried to get into this piece, but couldn’t. I love White Noise completely, but I could not see the point of this story one bit.

  3. Roger August 1, 2017 at 5:01 pm

    Same here. Just rambling ruminations about a man and his itch, as best I could tell, with occasional digressions into the mystery of his poet-friend’s talking urine. I could have lived without this one, New Yorker.

  4. Arleen McCallum August 1, 2017 at 5:18 pm

    Glad to hear my feelings are shared. Curious to hear if anyone can enlighten us. Don’t like it when I feel I have wasted time on a short story.

  5. "Calvin" August 3, 2017 at 10:17 pm

    It deals with incipient totalitarianism. Guys, it’s disheartening to see such a lack of charitability and patience. You’re reaction to the story run in the grain of DeLillo’s theme, or a few of them actually: laziness, selfishness and trivializing reality.

    Are you people blind? Have you been asleep the last 8 months? DeLillo isn’t a hack, he’s opaque but also generous.

    Do you not know how to read?

    The man with the itch says of multi syllabic medication names that they are totalitarian. That’s not thrown out for no reason. You have to think. What’s occuring now?

    I want to strangle you people for your shallowness, I can’t even continue with this comment.

  6. Trevor Berrett August 3, 2017 at 10:32 pm

    Perhaps you should resist the urge to strangle and condescend and instead seek to teach and enlighten, Calvin. You can love DeLillo all you want, but if you really want others to see the worth of this story you might have to lend a hand. Otherwise, your comment comes off as lazy and selfish, too. It might not trivialize reality, whatever that means, but it does trivialize discourse about this short story.

    We love spirited debate around here, and we often disagree and are baffled that others do not see what we see in a story (or that others love something that appears to have no worth). We welcome alternate perspectives, especially those that might help us appreciate something we’ve spent time reading. But condescending name-calling is not welcome. So, while I’d love to hear more from you so this thread has some comments that show enthusiasm for the story, if that’s too generous for you, please do not bother.

    Now, I have not read the story yet, but if this is the point of the story then I can see why some folks might not care:

    The man with the itch says of multi syllabic medication names that they are totalitarian. That’s not thrown out for no reason. You have to think. What’s occuring now?

    What’s profound about that? I’m not being rhetorical. I’d really like to know.

  7. Alex August 4, 2017 at 10:08 am

    While I’m sure many of you require a theme or overarching message with your short stories, can you not appreciate the portrayal of a man isolated and cut-off from not only his friends, but the world?

    Whether themes of totalitarian multisyllabic medication names was something I was supposed to pick up on, I certainly got the more basic, human questions of loneliness, confusion about love, stilted conversation with someone you find pompous but simultaneously admire and being a passenger to a distracted (read:itch) life.

    If something contains truths about life or reveals commonalities that often go unspoken, then it certainly isn’t a waste of time.

  8. David August 4, 2017 at 11:49 am

    Well, I was right. It’s Friday and I could not remember anything about this story, but despite not seeing any reason here to give it another try (Sorry, Calvin, but your claim that the story is about totalitarianism is absurd and your lack of any explanation for why you think that doesn’t help your case) I decided to read it again anyway. I can now say that I know what the point of the story is (well, I think I do), but that it is still rather ho hum. Here we go….
    .
    I started by thinking about how we use the idea of “having an itch” metaphorically. It seemed an obvious starting point to wonder if this might be how DeLillo is using the idea of the man having a literal itching problem. Maybe this is supposed to be an allegorical story. This analysis seems promising. We are told that the man (who, only in the last sentence, we find out is named Robert) is middle aged, divorced, and has a boring office job. He stares at the building across the street, but is not curious about the people inside it. He goes to the movies with his girlfriend, but is more interested in the nearly empty theater. He double-dates with Joel and Sandra, going out for brunch, but ends up staring at the football game on TV, even watching the commercials. A co-worker asks if he expects to live forever and he says that when he is in the office he expects to jump out the window one day. All of this seems to give the image of a man who is bored by life, doing nothing with it, and does not seem to know how to get himself un-stuck. His literal itch, then, would seem to be a metaphor for his desire for something more, even though he does not know what that might be or even that he desires something more at all.
    .
    Through the story he sees a number of doctors who prescribe different medications, creams, and lotions. This, however, is all treating just the symptom. It does not address the cause of the itch. One doctor tells him, “you need to think of your itch as a long-term commitment.” Another tells him that one place he itches “is not scratch-worthy.” The last doctor he sees tells him. “Do not let others scratch your itch. It will not succeed. You yourself must scratch.” These comments sound like they are meant to be read as talking about a metaphorical itch. The last one especially, as Robert has kept his itch a secret from most people, so the idea he would ask someone else to scratch for him does not make much sense literally read. The last doctor also says, “The older you will get, listen to me, the less you will walk and talk and the more you will itch.” When Robert asks her if she itches she says, “My only itch is what is around me and why I am here.” Here, finally, is an unequivocal reference to a metaphorical itch. But to Robert she also says, “You are nobody without the itch.”
    .
    In one of the final scenes, Robert recalls buying the shoes he is wearing and wonders why he bought them. We were told earlier that he had tested them by walking end to end four times in the store and by prodding them thoroughly with his hands. But now we are told he doesn’t like them and does not really know why he bought them. He asks himself, “Was it too much trouble, too awkward, to tell the salesman that he didn’t want the shoes? Did he think that the salesman would be disappointed, his day ruined?” He doesn’t know the answer.
    .
    Robert seems a man with no control over his life and desperate to have something better, yet he cannot even really articulate that thought. His itch is a physical manifestation of that desire to seek some satisfaction. He tells Joel that when he scratches it feels like gratification, but then becomes more intense and starts to feel like revenge. This, then, is the grand metaphor for how he drifts through his life.
    .
    So on a second reading I think I see the point of it all, but it’s still not a great story. I also think Calvin is entirely out to lunch with his political totalitarian reading of it, but if he wants to try to explain it I’ll listen. Oh yeah. The talking pee. I forgot to mention Joel’s talking pee. Maybe talking pee is how Joel experiences his body telling him he has some dissatisfaction with his life. (He shares the same boring office job with Robert and has given up on becoming a successful poet.) But I really am unsure about that. It still just seems weird.

  9. Trevor Berrett August 4, 2017 at 12:36 pm

    Thanks, David!

    I read the story this morning. I see a lot of old DeLillo tropes floating around — the “white noise” of our contemporary society, semiology — but I’m struggling to find anything fresh or particularly well said. This is DeLillo-lite, in my opinion, maybe even DeLillo-reduced. He’s said this stuff before, and he’s said it better.

    At least, that’s what I think. But I haven’t really gotten on with anything DeLillo has done in two decades. He was such a writer for the times in the 1980s and 1990s, and I’d say he’s still just that. I know others still love his work and think he hasn’t missed a beat. I’d love to know what I’m missing, but, again, it’s been two decades and I’ve read, and read about, most of his work since then.

    As for the monosyllabic words versus the polysyllabic words, I also don’t get the totalitarianism of Calvin’s comment. This, again, is part and parcel to DeLillo’s work (and the work of many others). It’s a condition of contemporary society where words don’t have their heft, where they don’t have their shape, where they create distance rather than meaning. DeLillo and semiology is a fascinating arena of study, and we see Robert trying his hardest to make connections with Ana’s name, and we see those connections lead to totally nowhere.

    I don’t see this as being exclusive to the medication in the story, either. I think back to Babette’s addiction to Dylar in White Noise, and I can certainly concede that pharma and corporations have only continued their frightening trajectory, but, again, is that better put in this story than in many others? I don’t think so. Shteyngart and Atwood riff on this constantly, and it’s been in literature since at least the 1950s with The Space Merchants.

    Despite my general low-key reaction to this story, I do still like some of the passages, not because they are saying something particularly new in DeLillo’s world, but because they are still impressive. I like the last line:

    “This is how near-sleep attenuates a person’s awareness. Everything else is gone. He is funnelled into himself, no past or future, the living itch, man-shaped, Robert T. Waldron, thinking incoherently, a body in a bedsheet.”

    It’s hard to distinguish this body in near-sleep from the body in near-awake through the remainder of the story, and I think it puts a nice bow on the package, even if that’s the main thing I liked about “The Itch.”

  10. Trevor Berrett August 4, 2017 at 12:45 pm

    Alex, I only saw your comment awaiting moderation after David and I had left our longer responses above.

    You raise a fair point, though I think you raise it unfairly. You seem to work off the assumption that those who didn’t like this story need a theme and cannot appreciate a character-centric story. I’m not sure anyone above is that way — I’ve gotten to know them over the years — but I’m absolutely certain it’s not the case with everyone above. I also believe that the isolated man has been a giant theme in literature for generations. DeLillo certainly has helped me see how our contemporary society contributes to isolation.

    I believe many of the ho-hums above (my own “it was fine” comment included) are completely aware of the isolated man story going on in “The Itch.” Indeed, we’ve been trained to see the isolated man/woman from 100 miles away, both in stories and film. The question is what does DeLillo bring to the table. He’s brought an awful lot, I believe, in the past. I’m not convinced he does anything new here.

  11. Paul Monsky August 5, 2017 at 8:22 am

    I’ve had severe psoriasis for a long time, and this perhaps predisposed me in favor of this accurate and witty story. But as one of the doctors in it would have predicted, the reading did temporarily aggravate the itch.

  12. Dennis Lang August 5, 2017 at 3:31 pm

    Yes, a life reduced to its most primal and visceral–a character defined by his itch!! I found it to be an intriguing story, sort of Samuel Beckett joined to Oliver Sacks (of “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” fame and other neurological mysteries) but of course not at all with literal intent.
    And as I think Trevor mentioned, some beautiful passages. Note, in the isolated plight of the character, not unlike Beckett, someone trapped in his existence, now residing in a kind of vacuum apart from daily life, the lyrical poignancy of this one:
    “He could not forget the smile…born in memory, her head turned away to the transfiguring past..something way back then, and he wanted to follow the smile into her life, to join her spell of recollection, a minute or an hour, in flawless time.” Gorgeous!

  13. Julian Wyllie August 5, 2017 at 5:00 pm

    There seemed to be a few comments that misunderstood the dissenters’ general feeling about the tale.

    If someone doesn’t like something, it doesn’t mean they’re stupid or hating…I think that’s one thing that really seems to get at people in terms of fiction, film and music in particular. What is deep to one person can be “ho hum” or shallow or just not interesting to another. I would say it’s rather good that people gave it try, anyway (obviously the author is a legend and warrants a close reading), even if they didn’t like it in the end. Countless authors speak of reading things we don’t enjoy, for the sake of the joy of reading overall.

    With that said, for those that like it, I would really love love to hear and see what you saw. Perhaps we missed something, perhaps we did not. That’s part of the game.

  14. Ernie August 6, 2017 at 4:00 pm

    “The Itch” may seem like a mundane, watered down story, especially by someone with the powers of Don DeLillo, but my interpretation of the story is: it is a reflection of the general attitudes, thoughts, feelings, and concerns of many people living in America today. The protagonist strangely reminded me of the ‘Narrator’ in Fight Club, and what is rather heartbreaking, or “mundane,” is that there is no savior in the form of a Tyler Durden.

    The numbness and extreme boredom is the lost excitement we all once had. The itch is the self-gratification and self-catering sense we all have. Even the sparse and dry language, I think, is meant to show the rhythm of our daily thoughts.

  15. Sean H August 8, 2017 at 6:49 pm

    I’m an unabashed fan of this piece, and in general I prefer DeLillo’s novels to his short stories. But this has an apropos level of Kafka-esque minimalism that’s just finely limned throughout. I was drawn in right from the outset and energized by almost every paragraph.

    The second paragraph was downright excellent, sets the tone for the whole piece.

    “Semi-surreptitiously,” now that’s a good adverb.

    “He did not try to imagine the lives inside.” = Don “The Man” DeLillo

    Ana with just one ‘n’; well done, sir. Ana with the basic body.

    “The term ‘Sunday brunch’ suggested a world of well-being.” Damn straight, so stop complaining about some tiny little perceived problem here in America. You could be out there in the “non-stop global turmoil,” so sit there and enjoy your brunch and go a whole day without overusing the words “racist” or “sexist.” Go hang out with women like the two smokers and learn something instead of criticizing them for being “unhealthy.”

    “Sandra said, ‘What do we do with this information?’…Ana said, ‘I’m looking at the food on my plate.’” Freakin’ DeLillo is freakin’ awesome.

    Ana and Hannah. Palindromes. Cycles. Pathologies. The Bible. Reading windows horizontally, left to right. Zaum. “The symmetry is astonishing.” 17 then 27. Lots of doubling and recursion in this piece. So well-crafted.

    Urine words! Even awesomer.

    A look as “a simple respite from the skein of endless human exchange.” Damn. If that isn’t a tagline for the information-saturated present.

    Creatureliness.

    I also loved: “He liked to watch the numbers drop.
    The eczema cream with two-per-cent colloidal oatmeal.
    The multi-symptom psoriasis-relief cream with three-per-cent salicylic acid.
    The emollient-rich formula that provides twenty-four-hour moisturization.”

    “A livable condition but not likely to be alleviated anytime soon.” Tolstoyan.

    This is, if not our best living American writer, certainly in the top five (McCarthy, Roth, Morrison, Pynchon).

  16. Jon August 9, 2017 at 10:29 am

    The story is about the dehumanizing nature of digital life. The itch is an allegory for our digital compulsions (email, etc.).

  17. Trevor Berrett August 9, 2017 at 12:58 pm

    I’m thrilled that there are folks who love “The Itch” to give some more balance to the comments here! Thanks to those of you who are expressing your appreciation!

  18. Sean H August 9, 2017 at 6:26 pm

    That’s an interesting take, Jon, reading it as an allegory. DeLillo is notoriously tech-removed (he communicates with phone calls, faxes, and letters, and doesn’t use email; though he’s said he researches via IPad sometimes) so there are ways I can see him taking that tack. I’d be curious to see a close reading that unpacks the allegorical angle.

  19. Hourman August 10, 2017 at 3:18 pm

    I think it is a small but great story. I agree with posters who see it as a Kafka-esque allegory. But it’s Kafka without the urgency or despair–contemporary life has stripped the protagonist’s life down to two things: the itch, which feels like a free-floating metaphor for any number of things, and its contrast in language, one of DeLillo’s big themes. The story becomes about the urgency of the body, this listless, disembodied character’s own body trying to remind the protagonist that it is there–that he _is_ his body, even as the itch makes him feel further estranged from it. But he does not hear the call,of his body or, Ana’s, whom he similarly reduces to a quirk of letters rather than a woman. His friend who hears words in his urine does hear his body speaking to him, but it is absurd, ridiculous, so, in Kafka-esque fashion, there is no winning. Ever a Luddite, DeLillo seem to be commenting on the digital age, where everyone, even as I type this comment, has lost the sense of their bodies, with only a vestigial itch remaining, At the same time, there is something poetic about the way the words look on the page; DeLillo seems almost to be riffing improvisationally, less interested in telling a story at all than in seeing what the idea of the itch might lead to as he chooses words that look and sound interesting as they follow the previous ones.

  20. "Calvin" August 10, 2017 at 9:22 pm

    You tell me not to reply and then end with a question.
    Okay. What’s profound about medications having totalitarian namess open ended, I’m not the author of the words, but take a cursory glance at the subjects in the sentence.
    Medication. Okay. List some properties of medication in your enormous Roman bust of a head.
    Then there’s totalitarianism mentioned along side. Ah. Okay, you know what totalitarianism is.
    From here it’s up to you to interpret what’s profound about that sentence..
    Medication treats, sometimes cures an illness, or a rash an itch whatever ailment. Medication can be prescribed mistakenly and have no or even negative effects.
    A dictator also offers solutions. He’s got the cure, for your country’s ills if you surrender to him. He can stop the itch. Bring coal jobs to the rust belt, etc etc etc. You see where this is going. Its part of the texture of the story, and a hint as to how it might be read,.. I urge you not to take my insults to heart because I don’t mean to insult anyone by empty space and the abstraction in my head of an argument against me. Lol

  21. kenneth August 11, 2017 at 12:45 am

    Calvin, the hateful name calling is offensive and unacceptable.

  22. Trevor Berrett August 11, 2017 at 1:11 am

    I deleted Calvin’s inappropriate comment, Kenneth, and I’m sorry for those who saw it. I will leave his others up, as useless as they’ve proven to be. I’m taking him off as author so he cannot comment any more.

    Inappropriate behavior got “Calvin” removed from the group, but I also don’t think any of us needs to argue with someone who cannot write a sentence or, apparently, read:

    You tell me not to reply and then end with a question.

    Well, here’s what I actually said:

    We welcome alternate perspectives, especially those that might help us appreciate something we’ve spent time reading. But condescending name-calling is not welcome. So, while I’d love to hear more from you so this thread has some comments that show enthusiasm for the story, if that’s too generous for you, please do not bother.

  23. Trevor Berrett August 11, 2017 at 1:29 am

    I’ve enjoyed everyone’s positive takes on the story. I’m thrilled to have a lot of positivity here. Even if I do not share it entirely, your comments have been insightful and helped me see a lot more in the story.

  24. Ken August 11, 2017 at 1:50 pm

    Wow–That was intense. I did read the now deleted comment by Calvin and I appreciate you deleting him from the group. I really liked this story. I will agree that DeLillo has been down this road before but I still enjoyed every sentence here. The sheer imagination it takes to create all the subsidiary doctor characters, the interesting ways he observes the physical spaces of the world–stoplights, office windows–or people–women smoking–or describes his favorite topic–the body. “Body” btw is DeLilllo’s absolute favorite word. He usually can’t get more than a page or two without using it. He also creates such great aphoristic dialogue. I’m reminded at times of a BEK cartoon in The New Yorker. I also thought about situationism and their attempt to rethink physical space in the world when I cam to the bit about the traffic light or walking around in the shoe store. Granted, Robert is mostly just depressed and dissociated, but I couldn’t help but see some of the situationist or performance artist in his acts OR see him and his friend as visionaries who weren’t as lucky as DeLillo to find a voice for their observations. Can one imagine what is in DeLillo’s head on a daily basis?

  25. Seth Guggenheim August 11, 2017 at 6:30 pm

    I will read “The Itch” this weekend. In glancing at it now, though, I noted this passage:

    “He told his friend Joel that Saturday sometimes felt like Sunday and he waited for a response. Joel had two kids and a wife named Sandra. They were Sandra and Joel, never the reverse.”

    It is for acute and humorous observations such as this that I enjoy reading.

  26. Grace August 17, 2017 at 1:26 am

    In my interpretation, I’d like to investigate the above comments about seminology and DeLillo’s beliefs on the obstructing nature of language. We realize that most of the protagonist’s obsessions are related to language and potentially the source of his alienation from other people.

    In the story’s opening lines, the protagonist states “Saturdays that feel like a Sunday” make him feel uncomfortable. “Saturdays” and “Sundays” are social constructs, words that define human-made concepts, and his discomfort suggests a discomfort with the existing construct. His obsessions with Ana’s name seem to relate to its deviation from the more common variation, Anna. Finally, he hears “tiny words” that are “monosyllabic” while peeing, particularly the word “zaum,” an interesting example as “z” words are fairly uncommon. The “small” nature of the words could suggest that these words are inconsequential, or to question the reality of these words and if they are actually being “said.”

    As a whole, the protagonist seems to key in on the peculiar, or feelings of mismatch between the status quo and reality. However, there is also a feeling of futility. The protagonist repeatedly tries to find meaning but ends where he started, relating to the palindromes in “Ana” and the overall anticlimactic and routine tone of the story. Perhaps this futility results from human language’s arbitrary nature, and the fact that the deviations are just as arbitrary. Also note that the protagonist is never named, perhaps because DeLillo doesn’t want to distract the reader with this arbitrary language, or because the character character is a bland simplification of humanity.

    The “itch” could then be an allegory for this futility of interpretation, or the human inclination to identify patterns and mismatches and derive meaning. He repeatedly “itches” futilely and never feels satisfied, even alienating others in the process. The protagonist asks others to see the mismatches he sees, effectively asking Joel to empathize with the “Saturdays that feel like a Sunday,” seen by how he “wait[s] for a response,” and asking Joel to observe him urinate to hear the “tiny words” as well. He seems to feel exasperated that they cannot understand the same arbitrary observations, magnifying his feelings of isolation.

    Even more, the itch seems to be present in others as well. Joel notes that “all the letters in the name Ana were also in the name Sandra” and is described as staring off into space. The protagonist’s ex-wife is also described as staring off into space, and the protagonist’s divorce from her could represent a formal acknowledgement of the alienation from this “itching.”

    However, DeLillo doesn’t totally argue against human language. One doctor tells the protagonist, “You are nobody without the itch.” Perhaps humans are expected to itch to some extent, to distract themselves occasionally and find arbitrary patterns, and to “find” meaning in a life that is meaningless.

  27. Greg August 19, 2017 at 7:30 pm

    Thank you David for closely breaking down this story for us. I learned so much from you!

    Sean, your passion for this work of art came shining through in your first post. In addition, I like how you cheekily kept up this blog’s adverb subplot with your noting of “semi-surreptitiously”!….and it was neat getting your Top 5 Living American Writers. I can’t argue with any of them….

  28. Greg August 19, 2017 at 7:32 pm

    Lastly, Dennis, your quote regarding the smile was my very favourite too! Here was my next choice:

    “The surroundings in her bedroom were unfamiliar and he stood a moment, smiling, acknowledging her sweet scrutiny. The itch went away but she was still there. What a deliverance it was for him, a release from day-to-day, he and she, so simple, being happy for a time.”

  29. Eddy August 20, 2017 at 3:40 am

    “Zaum. Transrational poetry. A hundred years ago. Words that have shapes and sounds.”

    See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zaum
    Maybe the itch itself is some form of transrational poetry, language characterized by indeterminacy in meaning. sometthing elusive but real nevertheless.

  30. Dennis Lang August 23, 2017 at 9:53 am

    Just noticed Grace’s comment. I missed it earlier. (I probably bailed out after the Calvin kerfuffle.)
    Very intriguing take!
    Thanks Grace!

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