Don DeLillo, Underworld

UnderworldUnderworld by Don DeLillo

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I personally have no objection to Underworld, DeLillo’s 1997 masterpiece, a sprawling canvas or canvass of Cold War America in the shadow of the atomic bomb written self-consciously at the end of history. It’s the least boring 800-page novel I have ever read, not because it tells a thrilling story (it tells no story at all) but because every page contains some arresting phrase, original description, trenchant insight, resonant allusion, or sly and slanted joke. It stars J. Edgar Hoover and Lenny Bruce, a germophobe nun and an ambitious conceptual artist, a paranoid nuclear scientist and a kind-hearted science teacher; it’s set from the 1950s through the 1990s—except that the narrative runs backward, countdown-style—everywhere from a famous baseball game in midcentury New York City to a clinic for radiation victims in Kazakhstan, encompassing Phoenix and L.A., Vietnam and Texas, and various deserts where weapons are tested or art constructed, “the white spaces on the map.” Most surprisingly, DeLillo, the least autobiographical of novelists, comes home and writes almost an indepedent novella evocative of his own Bronx childhood among the Abruzzese immigrants, for whose talk and way of life his eye and ear are absolutely flawless, if I may say as one who observed the decline of a similar milieu in my own childhood, over a generation later and in another city. On the back cover of the first edition, Michael Ondaatje quotes Whitman: “It contains multitudes.” There’s even, in a section about 1950s suburban domesticity, a recipe for “Jell-O chicken mousse.” What more do you want?

Some people, I’m sorry to say, want a plot and characters. This is the most cogent objection to Underworld—that it’s not really a novel at all—made most convincingly by James Wood in his famous essay “Against Paranoia” (collected in The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief). For Wood, DeLillo accomplishes an almost too-perfect mirroring of form and content. The Cold War, the atomic age, was unavoidably an epoch of paranoia, of private life so smothered by the proliferation of state secrets and the constant intrusion of public danger that one couldn’t help but desperately scan the detritus of the everyday, the materials of the culture, for signs and portents of what it all meant and who was really in charge. And in response DeLillo crafts a novel organized not by the development of characters or the logic of events initiated by recognizable human volition, i.e., a plot. Instead, he organizes his novel by theme and symbol.

There are characters in Underworld: Nick Shay, a troubled and violent Bronx teen who grows up to work in corporate waste management; his brother Matt, a nascent chess prodigy in youth who becomes a nuclear scientist; Albert Bronzini, Nick’s humane science teacher and Matt’s chess tutor, cuckolded (unbeknownst to him) by Nick himself; and Klara Sax, a one-time amateur painter and latter-day renowned conceptual artist, baffled lover of the teenaged Nick and errant wife of Bronzini.

Yet DeLillo doesn’t so much follow these characters through their lives as array moments in their lives for us according to occult correspondences with the novel’s pre-established set of themes and images: mass media, waste of all kinds, political paranoia, urban poverty, and various forms of countercultural or avant-garde artistic resistance. And character in DeLillo is never very particularized, anyway, except in grotesque minor figures; character for him (here he strangely resembles Virginia Woolf of all people) tends to be a hazy locus for affect and rumination, so that his figures, as reviewers sometimes complain, all tend to sound alike. “They thought they knew the mystery of living in her skin,” DeLillo writes of Klara Sax’s uncomprehending friends, but he doesn’t know it any better for being able, beautifully, to conjure it. Bronzini alone feels like a full-flesh novelistic protagonist. In the chapters devoted to him it becomes clear that this 38-year-old urban ambler, this amateur scientific speculator, this gentle and kind-hearted cuckold, is so memorable only because he is DeLillo’s homage to Leopold Bloom, a recasting of the modern Ulysses as Italian-American Bronx flâneur, this time a Catholic with a Jewish wife: “Bronzini thought that walking was an art.”

While the novel’s structure is admittedly inorganic, DeLillo doesn’t work abstractly. His objective correlatives and their patterned entanglements as leitmotif and figure-in-the-carpet are always as concrete as we could wish, from a condom store in suburban Arizona in 1992 to an adolescent masturbating into a condom in the 1950s, from Matt’s fear that canisters of Minute Maid orange juice and of Agent Orange result from the same industrial process to the billboard ad for orange juice that becomes the screen for an urban miracle in the late-20th-century Bronx. And for DeLillo’s central symbol, we follow the disappearances and reappearances of the baseball that ended the 1951 Giants-Dodgers playoff game, which (with J. Edgar Hoover in attendance) took place on the same day the Soviet Union first tested an atomic bomb. DeLillo claims that this real-life confluence of events was germinal to the book: public festivity’s swan song before the nuclear threat made mass humanity not a ludic celebrant but an object of the superpowers’ destructive calculus.

For James Wood, the novel’s formalism capitulates to the paranoia it claims to analyze and contest, inciting the reader to draw apophenic connections among unrelated phenomena rather than to feel for personae whose travails are not reducible to history’s determinants. Underworld, in Wood’s telling, is a reverse War and Peace, a chilly monument to zeitgeist rather than a reminder that warm-blooded individuals make and make up the world. Which, as a critique, would almost be fair—except that, in forcibly annexing DeLillo to a tradition he nowhere summons (19th-century realism) and neglecting the tradition to which he belongs (19th-century Romanticism and 20th-century modernism), it fails to find the actual wellspring of character and humanity in Underworld.

For Underworld is, first of all, in the high tradition of the American novel, which, as umpteenth observers from Nathaniel Hawthorne forward have told us, has never been a novel at all, not a sober realist social survey, but a weird symbolic prose-poem, an inward voyage projected out onto the national landscape. Underworld places itself in this tradition with its first sentence: “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” The first thing to say about this sentence is that it pays tribute to two sentences from the Great American Novels of the early 1950s, the period when Underworld begins: the first sentence of Bellow’s Adventures of Augie March (“I am an American, Chicago born”) and the last sentence of Ellison’s Invisible Man (“Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”). The second thing to say is that, like a line of poetry, the sentence admits of two readings, with “American” as either a noun, which makes the sentence a direct address to the American reader, or an adjective modifying “voice,” declaring a national origin and destiny for the novel’s style. So this is an American romance, and you have to read it like a poem; and, as in Bellow’s and Ellison’s novels, or Faulkner’s and Melville’s before them, the sensibility and suffering that emerges is less the sojourning protagonists’ and more that of the organizing and presiding consciousness. As in a book of poems or in a long poem, it’s the poet you get to know best, and not for nothing does Underworld, in its final one-word sentence, echo no novel at all but the century’s most famous poem, The Waste Land. “Shantih shantih shantih,” Eliot chants in Sanskrit, which DeLillo puts into plain American: “Peace.”

With those poetic parameters established, we are, I think, free to enjoy the novel, perhaps the 20th century’s last unambiguously great novel, with a clean conscience. And there is much to enjoy at the basic level of readerly pleasure. Even the macro-structure itself, which I earlier accused of inorganicism, is attractively strange. As mentioned, except for the 1950s-set prologue and the 1990s-set epilogue, the six long central sections move back in time from 1992 to 1951, as if to trace the authorial present back to its midcentury origin in the various “shots heard round the world”—the home run that wins the playoff game for the Giants, the Soviets’ nuclear test, and, more obscurely, Nick’s shooting of a heroin addict in a Bronx basement. Each section is named for some major or minor cultural object, from Breughel’s Triumph of Death to Marx’s Das Kapital. My favorite, the enchantingly mysterious phrase that convinced me to read the book when I was a teenager, is section two’s “Elegy for Left Hand Alone,” which (I later discovered) alludes to a concerto Ravel wrote for pianist Paul Wittgenstein (Ludwig’s brother) who lost his right hand in the Great War.

While no adept at suspenseful plots—only a critic of secret state and corporate plots—DeLillo is second to none at rapturously evoking places, often places we as readers aren’t usually privileged to go. Part of the pleasure of Underworld is finding ourselves here, there, and everywhere, and feeling as if we’ve been there all our lives. Most glamorously, perhaps, is the bohemian “rooftop” world where middle-aged Klara Sax glides through the summer of 1974:

It was the rooftop summer, drinks or dinner, a wedged garden with a wrought iron table that’s spored along its curved legs with oxide blight, and maybe those are old French roses climbing the chimney pot, a color called maiden’s blush, or a long terrace with a slate surface and birch trees in copper tubs and the laughter of a dozen people sounding small and precious in the night, floating over the cold soup toward skylights and domes and water tanks, or a hurry-up lunch, an old friend, beach chairs and takeout Chinese and how the snapdragons smell buttery in the sun.

This rapt eye and incantatory voice—again, poetry—proves to be as thematic as the garbage heaps and paranoia; this miracle of the everyday is the form-content collusion Wood misses in his haste to indict. For DeLillo insists that this attention to the everyday, this non-paranoid apprehension of things in and for themselves, is the innocent (in the sense of un-self-conscious) relation to the world that capital-P politics and capital-M media obliterated in the 20th century. The paranoid nun Sister Edgar offers a ruefully funny counterexample:

At the sink she scrubbed her hands repeatedly with coarse brown soap. How can the hands be clean if the soap is not? This question was insistent in her life. But if you clean the soap with bleach, what do you clean the bleach bottle with?

The antidote to the Catholic nun’s phobic non-relation to things is provided by a Catholic priest, Father Paulus. He teaches at the Jesuit reformatory in Minnesota where Nick Shay is sent as a teen after semi-accidentally killing a man in the Bronx. And his pedagogy is to force Nick to know the names of everyday objects. He puts his shoe on the desk and has Nick catalogue the parts (Ondaatje, we see, was right to evoke Whitman). He comments:

“Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren’t important, we wouldn’t use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Say it,” he said.


“An extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace.”

With this in mind, we understand why DeLillo places art—art of all kinds, from stand-up routines to experimental cinema to urban graffiti—at the heart of the novel, since art can refresh, reveal, and reinvent a world grown routine or menacing in our media-saturated and politics-haunted perception.

At the literal center of the book, DeLillo juxtaposes two artworks in the aforementioned summer of 1974. There is a (fictional) lost film of Eisenstein’s titled Unterwelt, which Klara incongruously watches at Radio City Music Hall, and, in the city’s own Unterwelt, the ambitious subway-car graffiti of the tagger Moonman 157, which will later be echoed in Klara’s own vast conceptual project of repainting decommissioned B-52 bombers in the southwest desert. Both works of underground art testify to what struggles or thrives in the shadows of great power conflict. Their micro-politics, proliferating in the USSR’s and USA’s hidden or unmapped spaces, mark DeLillo as a writer of the postmodern moment. First, Moonman:

But you have to stand on a platform and see it coming or you can’t know the feeling a writer gets, how the number 5 train comes roaring down the rat alleys and slams out of the tunnel, going whop-pop onto the high tracks, and suddenly there it is, Moonman riding the sky in the heart of the Bronx, over the whole burnt and rusted country, and this is the art of the backstreets talking, all the way from Bird, and you can’t not see us anymore, you can’t not know who we are, we got total notoriety now, Momzo Tops and Rimester and me, we’re getting fame, we ain’t ashame, and the train go rattling over the garbagy streets and past the dead-eye windows of all those empty tenements that have people living there even if you don’t see them, but you have to see our tags and cartoon figures and bright and rhyming poems, this is the art that can’t stand still, it climbs across your eyeballs night and day, the flickery jumping art of the slums and dumpsters, flashing those colors in your face—like I’m your movie, motherfucker.

And then Klara’s rumination on the Eisenstein film, which she takes to be a coded gay testament. This chimes not only with the closeted J. Edgar Hoover, who appears twice in the novel, but with Moonman too, himself a gay underground artist, as well as with the section title, “Cocksucker Blues,” borrowed from the name of a Rolling Stones documentary:

This is a film about Us and Them, isn’t it?

They can say who they are, you have to lie. They control the language, you have to improvise and dissemble. They establish the limits of your existence. And the camp elements of the program, the choreography and some of the music, now tended to resemble sneak attacks on the dominant culture.

You try to imagine Eisenstein in the underground of bisexual Berlin, forty-five years ago, with his domed head and somewhat stunted limbs, hair springing from his scalp in clownish tufts, a man with bourgeois scruples and a gift for sublimation, and here he is in the Kit Kat or the Bow Wow, seamy heated cellars unthinkable in Moscow, and he’s dishing Hollywood gossip with men in drag.

I’m terribly fond of Judy Garland, he once said.

But you don’t want to be too modishly knowing, do you? He was a dynamo of ideas and ambitious projects but it isn’t clear that he had the sexual resolve to realize actual contact with either men or women.

Look at the figures in long shot on the low smoky line of the plain. All Eisenstein wants you to see, in the end, are the contradictions of being.

DeLillo is canny, not to say “too modishly knowing,” when he makes outlaw homosexuality east and west the personal-is-political sign of the postmodern condition hollowing out great-power politics from within. But he is not taken in by history’s end either, nor history’s putative “right side.” The novel’s late-’90s-set epilogue is titled “Das Kapital,” and it is equally clear-eyed about how postmodernism’s vaunted “diversity” will become complicit with our present century’s own totalizing enervation of cultural vitality:

Capital burns off the nuance in a culture. […] But even as desire tends to specialize, going silky and intimate, the force of converging markets produces an instantaneous capital that shoots across horizons at the speed of light, making for a certain furtive sameness, a planing away of particulars that affects everything from architecture to leisure time to the way people eat and sleep and dream.

DeLillo ends the novel with an ambiguous miracle, the angelic apparition, later immortalized on the early internet, of a murdered Bronx girl on a billboard; and since media and politics and money will always fail us, since the things of this world (both bodies and belongings) are destined to end in one waste land or another, why shouldn’t this very Catholic (if at times also somewhat Jewish) novel conclude by insisting that transcendence itself may be the only answer?

Failing that, we must find some paradoxically attentive-unconscious way of living, immersed and observant in what DeLillo calls “the world hum,” but never abstracted, not watching ourselves to the point of paralysis or scrying the world for signs of impossible cohesion—all this implied in the very staccato and hymn that alternate in DeLillo’s unsurpassable prose, and stated outright by the shadowy Nick in his final monologue, my favorite, with which I’ll end:

I long for 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.