- Underworld by Don DeLillo
Picador, 832 pp, £10.00, February 1998, ISBN 0 330 36995 4
‘There is a world inside the world,’ Lee Harvey Oswald repeats in Don DeLillo’s novel Libra (1988). The phrase suggests wheels within wheels, partly because Oswald is obsessively riding the New York subway when we first hear it. ‘There’s more to it,’ David Ferrie says in the same novel. ‘There’s always more to it. This is what history consists of. It’s the sum total of all the things they aren’t telling us.’ Surface and secret: even when people dispute the details, the names and the numbers, they accept this two-world structure. Larry Parmenter, another character in Libra, believes ‘that nothing can finally be known that involves human motive and need. There is always another level, another secret, a way in which the heart breeds a deception so mysterious and complex it can only be taken for a deeper kind of truth.’ This is getting a little fancy, but then Libra is perhaps the last really good novel of the great age of American paranoia, the age that began just before the Kennedy/King assassinations, and faded away somewhere in the early Nineties. It’s not that the Forties and Fifties didn’t have their paranoias, or that we are short of paranoids now. It’s that people didn’t always believe, and don’t have to believe, that what they don’t know is the deep, secret, missing truth. In less paranoid ages ignorance may just be ignorance.
Underworld , like Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon , is in this sense a post-paranoid novel. When one of DeLillo’s characters thinks of ‘the paranoid élite’, we are meant to catch the friendly irony, the flicker of nostalgia. These are people who believe that the first moonwalk was ‘staged on a ranch outside Las Vegas’, and then transmitted on television as if from space. Later in the novel paranoia is severely, clinically redefined, a rebuke to our lazy usages. A man has smoked some bad hashish, or some hashish laced with something else.
Paranoid. Now he knew what it meant, this word that was bandied and bruited so easily, and he sensed the connections being made around him, all the objects and shaped silhouettes and levels of knowledge – not knowledge exactly but insidious intent. But not that either – some deeper meaning that existed solely to keep him from knowing what it was.
This is Parmenter’s theory treated as an evil illusion, but Underworld also shows us paranoia gone popular, infinitely democratised. A character walking past a place in San Francisco called the Conspiracy Theory Café is scornful of its elaborate, educated pretensions: ‘He believed the well-springs were deeper and less detectable, deeper and shallower both, look at billboards and matchbooks, trademarks on products, birthmarks on bodies, look at the behavior of your pets.’ This man also believes that Gorbachev’s birthmark represented the map of Latvia, a signal of the impending collapse of the Soviet system, and that thousands of fans stayed away from the Giants-Dodgers baseball game in 1951, in spite of its immense importance as the last play-off before that year’s World Series, because they ‘sensed catastrophe in the air’. The game, although the fans couldn’t yet know this, was played on the day America learned that Russia had exploded its own atom bomb.
But where Pynchon’s novel is a long, looping farewell to the idea of conspiracy, almost to the idea of narrative, DeLillo’s explores conspiracy’s legacy or, more precisely, a world bereft of conspiracy, in mourning for the scary, constricting sense the old secrets used to make. ‘This is what I respected about God,’ one of the characters in Underworld says. ‘He keeps his secret. And I tried to approach God through his secret, his unknowability.’ And later: ‘All the banned words, the secrets kept in white-washed vaults, the half-forgotten plots – they’re all out here now, seeping invisibly into the land and air, into the marrowed folds of the bone.’ There’s a paradox here, because the seeping secrets are still invisible, although out in the open. What they have lost is their prestige, their power as secrets. The thought corresponds to DeLillo’s haunting phrase about a particular day of excitements: ‘It was all falling indelibly into the past.’ We can’t erase it, but it will never again be anything but the past. History is no longer the things they aren’t telling us, it is the things we keep telling ourselves, the souvenirs we line up and look at, the secrets which are only stories now. It’s not that we know the world has no meaning, only that we can’t guess at the meaning it has or hasn’t. In Libra , coincidence is a cop-out, a name for a plot that still eludes us. In Underworld, it’s a pattern that chance makes, taunting us with the mockery of meaning. Or seems to make, seems to be taunting us with – those paranoid habits are hard to shake. In accordance with this logic, DeLillo’s book is as tightly plotted as Pynchon’s is loosely strung, and the bomb-and-baseball superstition attributed to a character is also part of DeLillo’s own narrative structure, the basis for his astonishing virtuoso prologue.
‘The evening had the slightly scattered air of some cross-referenced event’, we read in Underworld , but the novel has the entirely unscattered air of events and figures and memories which are cross-referenced several times over. J. Edgar Hoover recurs at different junctures. There are brilliant re-creations of Lenny Bruce’s edgy stand-up routines. He is ‘a handsome guy’ who ‘resembled a poolshark who’d graduated to deeper and sleazier schemes’, and Bruce’s repeated reminder, offered during the Cuban missile crisis, that ‘We’re all gonna die’, is said to give the comedian and his audience a spooky and unlikely pleasure. ‘They can hear the replacement of human isolation by massive and unvaried ruin.’ The television series The Honeymooners , now known chiefly through its role in Back to the Future and through endless re-runs, is born a day or so after the big baseball game, and crops up all over the book. The Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination is echoed by a child’s video which accidentally picks up a man being killed on a Texas freeway. DeLillo wonders whether the serial killing ‘has found its medium’ in video, ‘or vice versa’. Both films are shown endlessly on television, and compulsively watched: ‘You don’t think of the tape as boring or interesting. It is crude, it is blunt, it is relentless. It is the jostled part of your mind, the film that runs through your hotel brain under all the thoughts you know you’re thinking.’ And more ambitiously:
She thought to wonder if this home movie was some crude living likeness of the mind’s own technology, the sort of death plot that runs in the mind, because it seemed so familiar, the footage did – it seemed a thing we might see, not see but know, a model of the nights when we are intimate with our own dying.
If a man works on nuclear weapons in New Mexico, his brother works on waste, including nuclear waste, in Arizona and around the world, and we are reminded that the father of both these men may have been wasted, in another, more idiomatic sense, by the Mafia. A whole section of the novel is set in New York during the garbage workers’ strike of 1974. ‘Waste is an interesting word that you can trace through Old English and Old Norse back to the Latin, finding such derivatives as empty, void, vanish and devastate.’
Russia had the bomb, but America had the famous bombers, and an artist formerly known for her work with junk is now, in 1992, spray-painting some 230 disused B-52s, a sort of ready-made sculpture in the desert, and another sign that an age is over. This art is already anticipated by the graffiti work on the New York subways in the Seventies, lavishly evoked in the novel and the famous Moonman 157 is shown to be still alive and ailing in the Bronx in later times. The Bronx itself is like a historical register, a world of neighbourhoods become battlefields, and a reminder that the late 20th century, in many places, looks just like the Middle Ages. In DeLillo’s prologue, pages of Life magazine come floating through the air and into Hoover’s hands. They show a reproduction of Bruegel’s Triumph of Death , which is reproduced again (and again) in the New York of the Nineties. Sister Edgar, a nun who works with the poor in the Bronx, thinks of the catacombs in Rome, and the skeletons there who will rise to chastise the living – ‘death, yes, triumphant’ – but what she is looking at is a hundred subway riders coming up out of the ground because of a fire. ‘When hell fills up, the dead will walk the streets’ is a favourite local saying, and Sister Edgar grimly thinks it’s happening a little ahead of time. ‘The streets were taking on a late medieval texture,’ another character muses, ‘which maybe meant we had to learn all over again how to live among the mad.’ People come up out of the ground in the (imaginary) rediscovered film by Eisenstein, Unterwelt , which gives the novel its title, and seems to anticipate the atrocities caused by nuclear accidents. And other atrocities. The ravaged figures in the film are ‘people persecuted and altered, this was their typology – they were an inconvenient secret of the society around them.’ Another secret out at last.
When critics and readers praise DeLillo they often speak about his sentences, as if sentences were what he wrote, rather than words or phrases or paragraphs or books. The cue comes from DeLillo himself who in Mao II (1991) has a writer say that he’s always seen himself in sentences, that he’s ‘a sentence-maker, like a doughnut-maker only slower’, and that ‘every sentence has a truth waiting at the end of it.’ This last sentence is manifestly not itself true, and although DeLillo does write wonderful sentences, like the one quoted above about ‘massive and unvaried ruin’, some of the others can get a little sticky, like doughnuts only more talkative: ‘A hollow clamour begins to rise from the crowd, men calling from the deep reaches, an animal awe and desolation.’ ‘The deep discordance, the old muscling of wills, that unforgiving thing in the idea of brothers’. ‘Longing on a large scale is what makes history.’ Er . . . maybe. ‘When people tell rat stories, the rat is always tremendous.’ Now there’s a sentence.
In fact the most interesting syntactic unit in Underworld is the paragraph, or more precisely the evoked image or moment, instantly intercut with another image or moment. All of DeLillo’s stories in this novel run in parallel with other stories, restlessly zig-zagging from one time or place or connection to another. This is true even of conversations, which are always conducted on several fronts, non sequiturs being retrieved by sequels, sequels beings interrupted by new non sequiturs. Here’s a simple example:
At home we wanted clean healthy garbage. We rinsed out old bottles and put them in their proper bins…
He never committed a figure to paper. He had a head for numbers, a memory for numbers.
We fixed her up with a humidifier, the hangers, the good hard bed and the dresser…
The first ‘we’ is a mother and two boys, in the old days in the Bronx. ‘He’ is the absent father. The second ‘we’ is one of the boys and his wife, and the ‘her’ is the mother – the time is now the Nineties. The whole narrative relies on our hanging onto stories in our heads, being ready for their return – the effect is about as close to simultaneity, or a split-screen, as one could get on pages that run in lines and have to be turned over one after another. But the tour de force, and the reader’s induction to this method, is the prologue.
It recounts the famous baseball game of 1951, and it does it in such a way that you don’t need to know or care about baseball to catch the suspense and the dizzying implications of the game’s conclusion. If you do care about baseball you are presumably eye-deep in legend as soon as you realise where you are: the now demolished Polo Grounds, New York, 3 October. We get the following points of view mingled with many others: that of Cotter Martin, a 14-year old black boy, who has jumped the turnstiles to get in for free; that of Russ Hodges, a radio commentator; those of J. Edgar Hoover, Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason who have arrived together. Gleason is playing hookey from a rehearsal for The Honeymooners , has been drinking hooch and stuffing himself with junk food, and is sick on Sinatra’s shoes at the climactic moment of the game. Hoover is preoccupied, because an agent has just crept up to him and told him about the Russian bomb. Old jokes, like the one about Speedy Gonzalez, are glimpsed in moments of their early life, and Life magazine not only brings Bruegel into the scene, it shows a picture of Sinatra with Ava Gardner. All this stuff has fallen indelibly into the past, but DeLillo retrieves it by the sheer energy and movement of his prose, and his shifts of angle, and by threading into the story of the game – the Giants are losing, it seems they cannot win, they win at last on an unlikely home run from Bobby Thomson – the story of the fight for the ball Thomson hit into the stands. After much struggle, and being chased along the streets until he makes it home to Harlem, Cotter manages to keep the ball. But then his slippery, drinking father sees money in it, and once the boy is asleep makes off with it and sells it. Throughout the novel, in a series of cross-referenced moments, the ball reappears, a collector’s item passing through various hands, coveted mainly, it seems, for the least obvious of reasons. Not by Giants fans, in memory of the great occasion, and not for money or curiosity, but by Dodgers fans, as a tangible trace of the instant of loss, defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. Loss is important in Underworld , a tune played in many keys. The home run ball stands for history in its most immediate and elusive sense: you can handle it, you can touch time past, but it’s also just an old ball. It’s significant too that no character in the novel knows the whole story, how Cotter got the ball, and how his father sold it. So history, as detectable record, the reverse trail back to 1951, stops one stage short of the game itself, at the man the father sold the ball to. Only fiction bridges that last gap.
This public history is mirrored in the private history of Nick Shea, as we dig deeper into his past to learn the circumstances and the meaning of his killing a man when he was 17. He is the person who works in waste; whose father was perhaps wasted and perhaps just walked away, like the many legendary men who went out for cigarettes and never came back. Nick, once a Dodgers fan, now possesses the magic baseball, the emblem of loss, and is the only character given the privilege of a first-person narrative. He looks back with longing on ‘the days of disorder’:
I want them back, the days when I was alive on the earth, rippling in the quick of my skin, heedless and real. I was dumb-muscled and angry and real. This is what I long for, the breach of peace, the days of disarray when I walked real streets and did things slap-bang and felt angry and ready all the time, a danger to others and a distant mystery to myself.
This is a little soft-centred in spite of its tough stance, and DeLillo presumably doesn’t want us to endorse this rabid nostalgia, only to see where it might come from, and how much of it there may be about. But the questions remain. What happens when only danger, portrayed here as the loser’s dream of life, makes us feel real? What is the connection between danger and secrets? Between secrets and waste?
DeLillo’s novel, like recent novels by John Updike and Philip Roth with more openly ironic and regretful titles (The Lilies of the Field , American Pastoral ), confronts and re-creates American history. The very word ‘history’ keeps flashing through Underworld as if it were an omen or a mantra. The differences are instructive, though. Public history, the record of well-known events (industrial decline, Waco, Vietnam, radical movements of the Sixties), is an instigation for Updike and Roth, material to be worked into fiction and explored through fiction’s own speculative instruments: character, plot, dialogue. DeLillo does this too, but public history is far more of a named player for him, appears ‘as itself’, the way famous stars used occasionally to appear in the movies ‘as themselves’. And with this approach goes a level of abstraction which is quite alien to Updike and Roth, and indeed to almost all writers of their generation. Asked if Nick Shea likes his work in waste, a colleague answers: ‘I think he likes it more than I do. I think he sees it in purer terms. Concepts and principles. Because this is Nick – the technology, the logic, the esthetics.’ This is a way of saying that Nick realises he is in a Don DeLillo novel, and his colleague would rather be somewhere else.
The abstraction is not a disadvantage, or not always. DeLillo’s Mao II does read like an idea for a wonderful book rather than the book itself. In Underworld , Libra and DeLillo’s earlier work, notably The Names (1982), the abstraction creates a distinctive style. The novels are full of concrete details, data, brand names, place names, slang, objects, furniture, roads and cars, and the characters talk as if they are supposed to be imitations of people who could be met outside fiction. Waste is not merely symbolic, as we all know when we drag out the garbage. But it can scarcely fail to be symptomatic, and DeLillo’s characters love to think about symptoms. They often – at their best – talk like people who are weirdly able to discuss and picture their lives as they live them, whose intelligence never sleeps and doesn’t pause for realism. They are not mouthpieces for DeLillo. They are too various for that, and he’s not a mouthing writer anyway. But they do talk and think like writers, whatever their ostensible job or art; or rather they talk and think the way everyone would if they had a writer lurking in their consciousness, just as characters in late Henry James speak not as their real-life equivalents might but as they themselves have to if they are to stretch their own emotional and intellectual possibilities as far as they will go. In James the money and the social arrangements are stubbornly real, a reflection of given history, while human behaviour is handsomely but implausibly weighted towards lucidity and grace, not a fantasy but an optimistic model, a picture of what may be our best bet. In DeLillo the world is real, but our awareness of it is magnified, as if we could see and think about almost everything we currently miss. We don’t understand the world any better for this, if understanding means knowing how it works, and/or being able to summarise history in a sentence or two. But we do experience the world, through fiction, as it hits the conceptualising mind; and we see this mind at work on the world. ‘With us,’ Lionel Trilling once wrote, meaning Americans, ‘it is always a little too late for the mind.’ In DeLillo most clearly, in Updike and Roth less discursively, the mind makes up for lost time.