Politics and Society

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Underworld, by Don DeLillo: A Review

 Don DeLillo’s 11th novel, Underworld, published in 1997, opens with a 3-page scene so precisely focused and beautifully written that, regardless of the daunting prospect of 800+ pages, I just could not wait to take the plunge, to burrow ever deeper, to plumb the depths –- you get the idea -- to delve into this 'Underworld.' But delving isn’t what DeLillo has in mind, as evidenced by the disappointingly rare occurrence of such close attention in the rest of the tome. Instead, he seems rather to skim over the lives and surface phenomena of a generation like a video camera, pausing only occasionally to expand on the scene; to polish the lens, so to speak, but not to delve. At least, not the kind that I was now hoping for; the kind first suggested by the opening scene. (My own precise!):

     The Polo Grounds in Brooklyn, 1951: the sight of a now famous/infamous playoff game between the Dodgers and the Giants: Outside, a group of ticketless boys, like a miniature horde of Vandals, masses for attack, awaiting their moment to gain entrance to the stadium - by hook or by crook - knowing full well that by concerted action some lucky few are bound to succeed though others will likely fail. And so, by common, unspoken consent – and despite their evident ignorance of one another – they jointly resolve to take a collective chance. When the time is perfectly right, they charge the turnstiles!
    This is Underworld at its best. In this scene, the author focuses his writing first on the group, then on one boy, Cotter Martin, and focuses so attentively you can almost hear his heart beat with anticipation; you can feel, not just the fervid wisdom of consent, but you seem to witness even his mental act of subordination to the strategy. When he dashes, you can almost measure the strides of his sprint in your own breaths!  And when Cotter vaults the turnstile, the writing slows to freeze-frame: there he is, suspended in mid-flight, no longer a squirrelly kid, but a rare vision of instinctive, youthful competence, (right before us!) stretching out of his own awkwardness and fear, achieving grace. You almost cheer or laugh out loud when he crashes on the concourse tiles, split-legged and gangly, but then recovers himself in time to run off into the ruck of the giant crowd to witness the all-or-nothing ballgame—wagging two upturned, middle fingers at the flummoxed gatekeeper and the Cop behind his back. This is good writing!
   This is delving into the very nature of an event and it is marvelous! And when he (all too rarely) delves, he does it with such skill that we are actually grateful for it. His verbal portraiture of J. Edgar Hoover and his man-Friday, Clyde Tolson, alone is almost worth the time spent reading the whole book. His fictive rendition of Lenny Bruce’s stage performances is a close second. Would that he had done it more often!

    Underworld begins with ‘the game of the century’, which involved the mighty “shot heard ‘round the world”—Bobby Thompson’s 9th inning, one-out, two-run homer off of Ralph Branca’s curve ball, which won for the Giants a pennant they had otherwise lost. This happens while J. Edgar Hoover, in the stands with Jacky Gleason and various other Hollywood celebrities, is quietly receiving word about the underground detonation of a nuclear bomb by the Soviet Union. So begins the era—roughly 35 years--covered by this novel. Young Cotter is in the stands and seated in the very section into which the fateful baseball is driven (“tomahawked”, as the radio announcer says), and he comes up with it-- though, without a ticket to validate his presence there, that ball and its provenance are bound to become the stuff of legend;  or, at least, the stuff of this legend. (In fact, the actual home-run ball – the real McCoy – has never been produced or attested!)
    For, Underworld is, structurally speaking, the story of that ball and its wayward journey from the innocently eager hands of Cotter Martin to the not-so-clean hands of the book’s default protagonist, the waste management specialist, Nick Shay. The ball’s ricochet trajectory after the game is the only true organizing principle of the novel’s many disparate parts. In short, the novel is a cut-and-pasted collage of tenuously connected stories of the lives and times of an assortment of characters, mostly fictional, but some historical: mostly people who knew either Cotter Martin or Nick Shay (Cotter’s father and Nick’s wife, for example, as well as a ‘older woman’ with whom Nick once had a brief affair), and some people who didn’t. And then there are a few others.
    For no obvious reason, Nick Shay and the saga of his middle-age conversion to middle-class complaisance and wisdom stands at center stage, at least, as much as anyone does. For, in this post-modernist montage, the individual characters and their respective stories bear so little causal relation to one another, that any suggestion of a overarching organization, like subordination of characters to supporting roles or catalysts of action, is only virtually tenable. Instead, the characters are, like the sections of the book, related only in occupying differing spaces at the same time, or conversely, different times in the same book. Or, while they are singly doing different things together in different places, they jointly inhabit only the era under view. History, you think? No. For the era is not rendered chronologically. Nor is it rendered with any other principle of unity or division. Rather, DeLillo’s erratic omniscience jumps like the ricocheting baseball back and forth in time, to chapters devoted to various decades, to sections devoted to various people and events, all “coordinated” in books devoted to various themes, which are hardly distinguishable as themes at all. (Even the title is drawn from a largely forgotten and forgettable underground film by a nearly forgotten filmmaker.) It is like a jigsaw puzzle without the connections.  Fun? Sure if you spell “fun” without the ‘f’.

    If this sounds bewildering, it means that I’m doing my job. I found the best way to think of DeLillo’s Underworld, especially regarding its structure, is as a giant mobile suspended in a great space as an art installation, not least because it really wants to be a work of Art. (And it nearly succeeds.) All of the disjointed pieces (read: story fragments) are of a piece, i.e. they are made from the same stuff, by the same techniques, and excepting chances of shadow and light, they are rendered with, more or less, equal clarity. There’s a disturbing refusal to relate part to whole throughout.  Each section of exposition has a different size and shape--though some are so reminiscent of others that it seems they might have belonged together in some original whole, while others seem to be smaller reflections of larger forms, mere parallel forms, only now seen at an odd angle—and, by design, their spatio-temporal diffusion precludes any decisive judgment about their original unity. 
    It is a modular structure, united mainly by our desire to see connections--or to imagine them when vision fails. (I admit that, at two points, I began to skim through thirty-fifty pages looking for a reason, or a recognizable thread, to rejoin the pattern. This is, for me, a fatal flaw: when I no longer care what the writer cares about, the relationship between reader and text is seriously broken.) This, apparently, characterizes the protagonist’s relation to the era in which he lives. (Marshall McCluhan said:’ The medium is the message, right?’) Similarities and insinuations are abundant, as are echoes and possible parallels: but not in a way that one can affirm as more than a suggestion, followed by a question mark. There are, for instance, the ever-present planes, always coming into view on the horizon, or from the horizon – always coming in to land – are they symbolic of something? Or are they rather just a leit motif the author uses to suggest the possibility of significance, like a literary echo whose original sound and meaning has been lost in the reverberations? We are free to think so, or not, I guess. And this could be the point of the novel. After all, I don’t know for sure what he had in mind.

    The same is true of the characters involved. They are disconnected from each other in the commonest ways and they achieve connection, if at all, in the commonest ways. Most of the events of their lives seem as arbitrary as Nick’s eventual possession of the baseball. Some of them are guided by a passionate conviction, or hampered by a repressed libido, or hobbled by a secret wound, or driven by a primal fear. All heady stuff, alright. However, none of this explains the novel. None of it accounts for them being together in the same story, except that they exist at the same time. But none are particularly representative of that peculiar time for all that. They variously combine to create a milieu.
     Underworld presents the era as the milieu in which Nick Shay grows up and eventually comes to terms, so to speak, with the mysteries of his own life. He makes peace with the past by learning not to delve but, instead, alas, to ‘open up.’  Perhaps we are to see the age, then, as the crucible of his becoming? No, this would be, too causal, too old-fashioned. The post-modernists, I think, would rather call the era the interpersonal-historical space in which his life’s narrative finds its contextualization. (Thank God for that: if they didn’t call it such, it would sound like rather dull stuff, wouldn’t it?) Ok, but it’s still a tough slog at 800+ pages for just the vapidest axiom of middle class wisdom. And what have we won, then, other than the triumph of form over content?
    Sadly, form cannot redeem content. Nor can the cut-and-paste method of this novel redeem the form. For me, this book is a good argument for the suzerainty of ‘The Editor.’ A good editor, like a skilled surgeon, would have excised 100 – 200 pages without drawing aesthetic blood and allowed the patient to get on with his narrative life without the fugue-like digressions and inconsequential ramblings that hamper his relationship with his readers. (It might also have allowed space for more delving into the events of the lives depicted, as was done so well in so few episodes!) Unfortunately, size for its own sake, has become an intrinsic value for many authors of modern American literature, as if we didn’t know there’s a lot going on in the world. And it has this acquired value as well, that it signifies the author’s post-modern bona fides.
    The main trouble with Post-modernist literature, it seems to me, is one of balance: it is, that the form-function fit very often makes no sense, often because the formal element greatly outweighs the content. Yes, form is the essential element, but form all on its own, or mostly so, is simply boring. Think of a syllogism. Profound, huh? Not so much! Absolutely fundamental, yes—but boring just the same! This is the problem with DeLillo’s approach. It yields too much fluff, too much dry stuff, with a few funny lines and some titillating word play--DeLillo ends his send-up of J. Edgar with the editorial aside: “Mother Hoover’s cuddled runt”--but little of lasting value.
    Why the extravagance of props (Like the play-by-play radio broadcast, or J. Edgar’s obsession with “The Triumph of Death”)? All of this while the signature event of the age--the nuclear arms race that menaced the entire world-- is rendered merely as a backdrop of inconsequential absurdity. How could he NOT do something with that? Is there a message in that overlook, too? This is Existentialism without the angst! It is the dumbing-down of history in de-constructivist sheepskin: the re-normalization of absurdity, made palatable for the middle-class and middle-aged consumer. Enthusiasms like this do not bode well for American literature. In the end, we still don’t have a compelling case for the scissored narrative or the skyline crowded with irrelevant planes, and we barely care what Nick Shay will teach his daughter at the dump.
    Facing writers’ fatigue (or maybe carpal-tunnel syndrome) at the end, DeLillo asks: “How do things end, finally, things such as this—peter out to some forgotten core of weary faithful huddled in the rain?” Well, if that’s what you’ve got, Don, I’ll take it. I’m ready for the end, however it comes. But, please, not the laughable New Age-Old Time wisdom, ‘It’s all connected in the end”. That would be too . . .
     Oh damn, he’s done that too!

    There are denominations and sects in literary criticism as there are in religion. Some Modernist and Post-modernist preachers will say this book is good for your literary soul; like penance, or obeisance to the dietary laws. (It has garnered serious attention in America and is listed as a 'must-read' and an item on the 100-best lists on a number of venues.) I worship at a different altar. To those who forego this one, I would offer a dispensation; to those who take it up, a warning: beware false gods. It’s not a bad book (the writing is too good for that), but not a good one, either. Like Post-modernism itself, it’s merely interesting!

P.S.    Here, months later I came across this discussion of James Wood's critical review of Don DeLillo's Underworld, and was deeply impressed. There is obviously more to the book than I initially gave it credit for, and this consideration has spurred a renewed interest. Most good and all great books warrant a second reading; this review convinces me, at least, that DeLillo's Undeerworld deserves a second shot.


  1. "It’s not a bad book (the writing is too good for that), but not a good one, either. Like Post-modernism itself, it’s merely interesting!"

    I generally agree with this take on Underworld,, and I have long battled with equal parts fascination and tiredness with the designations of "post-modern." However, in the context of DeLillo's other works, I would counter that this one is more than "not bad/not good." I've found his works to have no happy medium; they're either brilliant or tedious. Yes, more editing would have helped, but I still find it to be an excellent book, especially in an era that finds some books long and drawn out merely for the sake of being classified as "epic."

  2. Hi Jamie,
    and thanks for your thoughts and comments! I think I agree with your own assessment of DeLillo's work - especially as it applies to the various parts of 'Underworld': "they're either brilliant or tedious". For me, the tedium was too great to rate it higher. It detracted too much from the pleasure or interest of reading, without offering a compensating or redeeming value. Perhaps waste disposal is just not a very compelling metaphor!
    I admit I still have no clear sense of what he was hoping to do in this work. (If the message is 'the age of the nuclear arms race was really anti-climactic', I think he should have probed deeper.) You make a good point though, and I will give him further thought,in the broader context you mention.
    Thanks, kjml