Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Pnin - Vladimir Nabokov

Pnin was published in March of 1957. Though mostly written after the completion of Lolita, it was published one year before that volume would be available in America, though two years after its publication in France. Americans were aware of Lolita but generally not able to obtain it, so when Pnin was released by the same author, many people took notice and Nabokov enjoyed his greatest success yet, though it would be nothing compared to the American reception of Lolita.

I can't imagine there being a shorter Nabokov novel than this, so if one wants a little dose of him without the heavy committment of a few weeks, Pnin is for you. I like it better than anything else except for Pale Fire and Lolita. It's significantly more engaging than Bend Sinister and more pleasant and enjoyable than Laughter in the Dark. It's not Pale Fire, but Pnin does appear briefly as a character in that book. It's not Lolita; Nabokov is in much safer territory here. But I imagine it is one of the best--and it won't be possible to verify that for a long time, so intimidating is his oeuvre--alongside perhaps Ada, which is his longest and which I hope I can review one day.

Like Pale Fire, Pnin resists categorization. In the first place, it appeared in pseudo-serial form in The New Yorker prior to publication, with several revisions made in the interim. In the second place, there are seven relatively short chapters which are barely connected by transition and blur the line between short story and novel chapter. It's fair to say Pnin is definitely a novel--not a collection of short stories--but it will be a different novel than you have ever read.

Chapter 1 details Professor Timofey Pnin's miscalculated train voyage to deliver a lecture to a Woman's Club, in which he has apparently brought the wrong lecture, but which is not really revealed in the text until the last words of the final chapter. Weird. Fantastic opening.

Chapter 2 is the story of Pnin's family life. The love of his life, Liza, who has married several other men besides him, often under random chaotic circumstances including a suicide attempt and revolutionary psychiatric practice, and her son (with the man who made a cuckold of him, Dr. Eric Wind) and Pnin's surrogate son, the high-school aged extraordinarily talented artist Victor. In Chapter 2, Liza comes to visit Pnin at his new home, which is in a room sublet by another professor and his wife at the college they both teach at, Waindell. Their daughter has gotten married and Pnin has taken her room. Liza comes to visit and he is overjoyed and he waits with baited breath for her to reveal the reason she came, what she had to tell him. When she reveals her purpose, it is both mundane and heartbreaking.

Chapter 3 is "a day in the life" of Pnin, lecturing at class, going to his office, returning a book to the library because somebody else wants it, which he can't believe, and hearing a random utterance which will later greatly affect his circumstances. I am trying to remove spoilers.

Chapter 4 is like a mini "portrait of the artist as a young man" starring Victor. Indeed you almost forget this book is about Pnin, until you realize the real subject of the chapter is Victor's first visit with Pnin, where he is meant to meet him at a train station, which results in a funny little mistake. Most of Pnin is comic and gets most of its laughs from Pnin's poor use of English and surprisingly confusing accent. Pnin gets Victor a couple of gifts, which don't go over that well, but which is still heartwarming in a way.

Chapter 5 is the story of where Pnin vacations in the summer, and his first attempts at learning how to drive. Here he falls into a nostalgic reverie which is one of the more enjoyable departures of the novel.

Chapter 6 is the most famous part of the book--where Pnin throws a "house-heating" party in the home he has recently rented entirely for himself. He is at his happiest here, though he is about to receive some unfortunate news--though it is only because of his stubbornness that it will affect his life.

In what may be the most inventive part of the book, Chapter 7 reveals the narrator's relationship with Pnin. The narrator who has made sly reference to himself at a few points finally enters the narrative and becomes a character. It is not Nabokov himself, but it would be easy to make that mistake. Some of the autobiographical elements of this novel are probably more revealing than in any other book by Nabokov excepting his autobiography, and gives a very realistic portrait of the life of a college professor, and campus life in general. As the introduction by David Lodge states, it is one of the first examples of the "campus novel" genre, after Mary McCarthy's The Groves of Academe in 1952. (I take some issue with this claim--This Side of Paradise doesn't take place entirely on a campus, but couldn't it be considered that?)

To my chagrin, Nabokov cannot resist besmirching the reputation of a certain then-recently-departed German author:

"Literary departments still labored under the impression that Stendhal, Galsworthy, Dreiser, and Mann were great writers." (102)

To that I have to reply, "What do you want, Vladimir?" In all of my years of reading, I have never had to choose between two authors because I knew one author thought the other one's work was terrible. Nabokov is a literary genius and also a genius when it comes to cutting other authors down to size. In this case, it is traumatic for me. I will continue to love them both, and continue to point out every instance I find of Vladimir speaking badly of Thomas. Though Mann was 24 years older than Nabokov, and did not write in English, they are representative of their era in that one left Nazi Germany and one left Communist Russia, both emigrated to America, and both have contributed a few of the major works to the canon of Great Books--though Nabokov would probably disagree. Still, I wish we could leave this superiority-complex and arrogance out of books and all get along nicely, but that isn't Nabokov's style. Regardless, one is able to forget about it when Liza reveals a letter to the narrator in the final chapter:

"The letter has by chance remained among my papers. Here it is:
'I am afraid you will be pained by my confession, my dear Lise' (the writer, though using Russian, called her throughout by this French form of her name, in order, I presume, to avoid both the too familiar 'Liza' and the too formal 'Elizaveta Innokentievna'). 'It is always painful for a sensitive (chutkiy) person to see another in an awkward position. And I am definitely in an awkward position.
'You, Lise, are surrounded by poets, scientists, artists, dandies. The celebrated painter who made your portrait last year is now, it is said, drinking himself to death (govoryat, spilsya) in the wilds of Massachusetts. Rumor proclaims many other things. And here I am, daring to write to you.
'I am not handsome. I am not interesting. I am not talented. I am not even rich. But Lise, I offer you everything I have, to the last blood corpuscle, to the last tear, everything. And, believe me, this is more than any genius can offer you because a genius needs to keep so much in store, and thus cannot offer you the whole of himself as I do. I may not achieve happiness, but I know I shall do everything to make you happy. I want you to write poems. I want you to go on with your psychotherapeutic research--in which I do not understand much, while questioning the validity of what I can understand. Incidentally, I am sending you under separate cover a pamphlet published in Prague by my friend Professor Chateau, which brilliantly refutes your Dr. Halp's theory of birth being an act of suicide on the part of the infant. I have permitted myself to correct an obvious misprint on page 48 of Chateau's excellent paper. I await your' (probably 'decision', the bottom of the page with signature had been cut off by Liza)." (136-137)

These and other small emotional, comic, linguistic asides like--
"Chateau, who looked so jaunty, with one hand in the pocket of his white flannel trousers and his lustring coat rather rakishly opened on a flannel waistcoat, cheerfully said that in the near future he would have to undergo an exploratory operation of the abdomen, and Pnin said, laughing, that every time he was X-rayed, doctors vainly tried to puzzle out what they termed 'a shadow behind the heart'.
'Good title for a bad novel,' remarked Chateau." (93)
--make up the majority of the pleasures of the text. This is "light entertainment" for Nabokov, but a more serious novel than anything being published today anyways. When you've read the two more "important" books by Nabokov, Pnin will be an enjoyable palate cleanser.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury

Almost exactly a year ago, I saw Ray Bradbury speak from his wheelchair on UCLA's campus, not more than a few hundred yards where he composed Fahrenheit 451 around 1950. Fifty-eight years later, aged 87 or so, Bradbury remained vivacious despite his being mostly confined to a wheelchair (he did stand for a moment at the beginning as if to bow, and he wore his large medal from France), which is a testament to the good that California can do for a person's health. But I saw him speak because he was the biggest name at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books (I missed Gore Vidal due to poor planning and underestimation of his popularity--which I still deeply regret), and it is still remarkable to me how many people crowded into that "Agent's Voices" panel discussion, and sad to remember that David Foster Wallace's agent had been one of the three. More on that here http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2008/04/tobias-wolff-jane-smiley-ron-carlson.html (and note rogue typo along with now-embarassing tirade) and here http://flyinghouses.blogspot.com/2008/04/ray-bradbury-042608-royce-hall-ucla.html (and note the error of the author's age).

I had been meaning to read Fahrenheit 451 for somewhere around the last ten years. One of my now ex-coworkers told me he had read it for school in sixth grade. Is it written for sixth graders? It could be understood by them. The content is not objectionable. It's a vaguely subversive book that is meant to inspire revolt against an increasingly complacent future without complex ideas. It's probably a good book for junior high and high school students. As a college student, I should have included it in my independent study on the political novel in the 20th century. I would excise the portions about the comparison between All the King's Men and Primary Colors (though I was attempting to show there are only 2 kinds of political novels--the first a re-imagination of society as we know it, the second a novel "about politics") and compare 1984, Brave New World, and Fahrenheit 451.

First of all, while I enjoyed Fahrenheit 451, found it breezy, entertaining, funny, bizarre, and moving at times, it doesn't stretch to the heights of Orwell's or Huxley's masterworks. Orwell has telescreens, nonstop surveillance, Big Brother, a whole totalitarian political agenda realized. Huxley has soma, three classes of human beings, "feelies," hypnopaedic conditioning, and vacations to exotic places like Utah. Bradbury has the mechanical hound (potentially the star of the novel), "seashell" headphones, VW beetles that go 100 MPH everywhere, outlaw English professors, and firemen who start fires instead of putting them out. While Orwell and Huxley are making larger societal critiques, Bradbury sticks to one subject: books.

Now, here is one area where Huxley and Bradbury can converge: the arrival of the Kindle, perhaps the most evil instrument of technology to have been invented yet. Let me qualify that statement: it's not all bad--people will still be reading, at least, and writers will simply have to accept a new form of payment for their production, a la iTunes for musicians. I don't believe file-sharing will have an adverse effect on authors, and I don't believe libraries will cease to exist. I worry that people will start looking at little screens more often than they already do--Blackberry, iPhone, iPod (the only nicety I am guilty of having--but who doesn't!), Nintendo DS (not so different from Gameboy now some 20 odd years old), Facebook all the time, whatever it is that Twitter is, and on and on...--perhaps there's nothing WRONG with it, per se, but as someone that doesn't do all that stuff, I feel very left behind on this whole cultural revolution stuff--and feel that it is too expensive and not worth the effort for a person like me. I do feel left out, but I don't feel that these gadgets would improve my life anymore. But this isn't about me--this is about book burning.

Sure, six years before this book was written, Nazi Germany burned books, and that's the clearest precedent here: remove information so as to best manipulate the masses. I do not know how America could become like that. There were various restrictions on Google in China, I seem to recall, a few years back. It doesn't seem like Bradbury's warning is all that necessary (that said, it still makes for a compelling narrative). It appears that his spiritual cousin of the telescreen, "the walls" of the living room, where Mildred (main character Guy Montag's wife) spends most of her time, are the sole source of entertainment, and that they include a "family" that the viewer feels they are a part of--not so different from the way people get attached to TV shows, and pretty sharp of Bradbury to portray at the dawn of the television age:

"'When did it all start, you ask, this job of ours, how did it come about, where, when? Well, I'd say it really got started around a thing called the Civil War. Even though our rule book claims it was founded earlier. The fact is we didn't get along well until photography came into its own. Then--motion pictures in the early twentieth century. Radio. Television. Things began to have mass.'
Montag sat in bed, not moving.
'And because they had mass, they became simpler,' said Beatty. 'Once, books appealed to a few people, here, there, everywhere. They could afford to be different. The world was roomy. But then the world got full of eyes and elbows and mouths. Double, triple, quadruple population. Films and radios, magazines, books leveled down to a sort of pastepudding norm, do you follow me?'
'I think so.'
Beatty peered at the smoke pattern he had put out on the air. 'Picture it. Nineteenth-century man with his horses, dogs, carts, slow motion. Then, in the twentieth century, speed up your camera. Books cut shorter. Digests. Tabloids. Everything boils down to the gag, the snap ending.'
'Snap ending,' Mildred nodded.
'Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet (you know the title certainly, Montag; it is probably only a faint rumor of a title to you, Mrs. Montag) whose sole knowledge, as I say, of Hamlet was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors. Do you see? Out of the nursery into the college and back to the nursery; there's your intellectual pattern for the past five centuries or more." (54-55)

So that is one reason--people don't have the time to read, so books are no longer necessary. But burnt so they can never be read? That is an effect, as Beatty later explains, of not wanting to weigh two sides of an issue:

"Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it. White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book. Serenity, Montag. Peace, Montag. Take your fight outside. Better yet, into the incinerator. Funerals are unhappy and pagan? Eliminate them, too. Five minutes after a person is dead, he's on his way to the Big Flue, the Incinerators serviced by helicopters all over the country." (59-60)
"Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of noncombustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change. Don't give them any slippery stuff like philosophy or sociology to tie things up with. That way lies melancholy. Any man who can take a TV wall apart and put it back together again, and most men can, nowadays, is happier than any man who tries to slide-rule, measure, and equate the universe, which just won't be measured or equated without making man feel bestial and lonely. I know, I've tried it; to hell with it. So bring on your clubs and parties, your acrobats and magicians, your daredevils, jet cars, motorcycle helicopters, your sex and heroin, more of everything to do with automatic reflex. If the drama is bad, if the film says nothing, if the play is hollow, sting me with the theremin, loudly. I'll think I'm responding to the play, when it's only a tactile raction (Ed: note proofreading error--s/b 'reaction') to vibration. But I don't care. I just like solid entertainment." (61)

This reminds me of people at my first job in California who would be like, "You're so good, you read a lot." They wish they had the time to read. It's not a worthwhile pursuit since they have so many other things they need to take care of and worry about. Leisure time is better spent in front of the television where you can quantify how long you are going to be free from other activity--not like the unpredictability of book, which depends on your doing a lot more work.

Should I give away the plot? Guy Montag meets a girl named Clarisse who questions everything about their society--he sort of even gets a crush on her, though she is 17 and he is married--and so he starts questioning everything. His wife Mildred is thoroughly drugged out and at her first appearance, has just attempted suicide by sleeping pills. Elsewhere in the novel she shows practically zero sign of depression. Beatty is the fire captain, who acts like the character of Mustapha Mond in Brave New World or O'Brien in 1984, who explains the society and therefore provides the most compelling moments.

After writing this review, I feel like Fahrenheit 451 is more important than I initially gave it credit for, and is perhaps closer to society in 2009 than either Huxley's or Orwell's works. It's not as extremely different as the other two. But I feel like, Orwell and Bradbury are clearly against their societies, whereas Huxley is less transparent in his aims. For me, Huxley is the most prophetic of the three, particularly since his book was also the earliest, and has been able to see clearly some 70 years into the future. Bradbury does anticipate the loneliness and isolation of our times, but that is less his motive than to argue in favor of literature, not unlike John the Savage in Brave New World who wants poetry, pain, sadness, everything, which causes Mustapha Mond to reply, "You are reserving the right to be unhappy." Orwell's might be the greatest novel of the three, but Huxley's is the wildest vision, and the most compelling for its sheer imaginative quality. Bradbury belongs right alongside them. History will treat this book as kindly as it does the other two, and let us hope that at least one of the three will be read for generations to come--whether on Kindle or paper.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Underworld - Don DeLillo

In the weeks following 9/11, thousands of desperate conspiracy theorists pointed towards a variety of signs and signifiers as proof that the attack had been pre-ordained. People said that Wilco's album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot prefigured the event. The cover of that album is the famous twin tower parking garage in Chicago. Songs like "Ashes of American Flags" and "Jesus, Etc." seemed eerily topical. But that was only one notable item. In the literary world, the cover of Don DeLillo's 1997 tome Underworld spooked anyone aware of its existence--a stark black and white photo of the World Trade Center, a cross atop of church steeple in front, a bird with what seems a very large wingspan feet from the building, and a huge mess of fog enveloping the scene so the tops are not visible. Did DeLillo know that the 1994 attacks would be repeated? Was the choice of cover photograph a bit of precognitive excess? Is DeLillo the prophet of our times? The reader of Underworld will find few clues to support these wild, supernatural questions. It is all more a sad coincidence. Still, one might consider DeLillo's Mao II, which posits the author and terrorist as being spiritual brothers, and his most recent novel Falling Man, which uses 9/11 as a launching pad for the narrative, as further proof that all of his writing is intricately connected in a cryptogrammic maze. One could even point to 2003's Cosmopolis as a warning for the financial crisis that would occur five years later on Wall St.

I had the pleasure of meeting DeLillo briefly at the Union Square Barnes & Noble on his promotional tour for that book in April or May of 2003. I had recently put out my first ambitious larger-scale piece of writing entitled "Autointoxication," which reprinted a page or two from White Noise as a kind of reverse epigraph, and I wanted him to see it, and hoped that he wouldn't sue me. He read from Cosmopolis, I bought a copy, and I got in line to have him sign it. A few people had managed to convey a sentence or two in their brief moment with the master, and I worried about a failure of confidence, while entertaining a daydream that he might read the piece on his way home, become transfixed and ecstatic, and help me to become a published author at 20. The moment came and I handed over my copy of the book and believe I said, "Mr. DeLillo, I'm a huge fan, I love your work. Would you like a copy of my zine?" I know he only said a few words back to me. "What's a zine?" he responded curtly, perhaps a bit annoyed. "It's kind of like a book in a way," I said back. "Oh, sure." I handed him a copy, took my autographed copy of his book, felt happy I had accomplished my goal, and thought that he would probably throw it away or read a page of it, become disinterested, and dispose of it some other way.

Anyone who has not read White Noise should go out and get it from the library immediately. Underworld may be DeLillo's piece de resistance, but I cannot recommend it as highly as White Noise, which is infinitely more digestible, razor-sharp in its focus, very, very funny, and eloquently composed. A friend of mine suggested that it prefigured the proliferation of Prozac with its Dylar tablet. But onto the real subject--what is Underworld about?

1) The 1951 baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants where Bobby Thomson hit the "Shot Heard 'Round the World"
2) Nick Shay, waste management executive, and Klara Sax, famous artist.
3) A staggering cast of characters like Albert Bronzini, high school chemistry teacher and chess master, Matt Shay, younger brother to Nick and chess pupil, Sister Mary Edgar, a long-term nun given to corporal punishment, J. Edgar Hoover, FBI director, celebrity hobnobber of indeterminate sexuality, Frank Sinatra, singer, Jackie Gleason, comedic actor, Lenny Bruce, stand-up comedian, Brian Glassic, friend of Nick Shay, Marian Shay, wife of Nick, recreational heroin user, Cotter Martin, original owner of the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" ball, Manx Martin, his father that sells it on impulse, Marvin Lundy, tracker and eventual longtime owner of the ball, Ismael Munoz, 'train-tagging' artist and Bronx community steward, the Texas Highway Killer, a serial killer in the spotlight over several decades, Eric Demming, friend and co-worker of Matt Shay, and nuclear radiation fallout alarmist, and Janet Urbaniak, girlfriend and wife to Matt Shay, nurse who runs for 11 minutes straight from her hospital through a rough neighborhood to her apartment shared with other nurses.
4) American society from 1950-2000

Underworld is DeLillo's version of the Great American Novel. It is not a failure by any stretch, but it is not for everyone. It could have used better editing, but that would have detracted from its size and scope, which extends towards nearly every element of cultural information that arose during the Cold War period and after. It is roughly the same length as The Magic Mountain. It is not as good as Magic Mountain, but it is much closer to the sadness of our present reality. It's a very realistic novel, there's very little in it that sounds totally made up.

So....Nick Shay has some horrible secret in his past that DeLillo holds off on revealing until somewhere in the late 700's, but one that the reader will be able to know much earlier--though the actual event of which should be surprising, as it was for me. Klara Sax was once wife to Albert Bronzini, and slept with Nick twice when he was 17 and she was 32 or so, and she eventually became a renowned artist who is decorating over 200 defunct military planes in a desert in the Southwest at the opening of the novel--that is, after the 70 page "prologue" which is probably the greatest literary account of a baseball game yet to have been written.

The prologue was once published separately, and some people might enjoy reading that on its own. The rest of the novel has very little in common with it, beyond the three "Manx Martin" chapters, and a few notable appearances of J. Edgar Hoover later on. Nick Shay is the final owner of the baseball, and it may be some sort of symbol in the book that I am not able to confidently state, and one way to describe Underworld is to say "It's about 'The Shot Heard 'Round the World' baseball and all of the hands its travels through," but the baseball doesn't account for the majority of the plot in the novel.

While there may be conspiracy theories about the cover, I would like to offer my own conspiracy: the page 420 test. This test can be applied to any book with more than 420 pages. The reader should look to page 420 and see if there are any references to pot smoking on it. If the book passes the test, then the author is either aware of its significance, or really just obsessed with pot smoking because it occurs constantly throughout the work, or has really just let something with no real significance happen to occur due to serendipitous printing or extremely precise and drugged out typesetters:

"He'd smoked something that had made him immobile. But not just immobile. Matt was not a user except at parties, where he'd go through the sociable motions, taking a pull on a long-stemmed pipe with a clay bowl that was tamped with a grassy substance. But the thing he'd toked last night was either a rogue strain of hashish or standard stuff laced with some psychotomimetic agent. And he was not just immobilized. And somebody sat in front of him and spoke thickly into his face in a ridiculous movie accent evidently meant to be Prussian." (420-421)

In the case of Underworld, I think it is the third possibility. There is a fair amount of drug use in the book, along with drinking and cigarette smoking, but I don't know how much DeLillo would care about passing the 420 test and exciting the imaginations of academiliterate stoners with too much time on their hands. There is also lots of sex in the book. Probably the most inventive sexual aspect is the scene in the store Condomology, which occurs near the beginning of the novel, and which reminded me of White Noise:

"Behind the products and their uses we glimpsed the industry of vivid description. Dermasilk and astroglide and reservoir-tipped. There were condoms packaged as Roman coins and condoms in matchbook folders. Brian read aloud from the copy on the boxes. We had natural animal membranes and bubblegum scenting. We had condoms that glowed in the dark and foreplay condoms and condoms marked with graffiti that stretched to your erection, a letter becoming a word, a word that expands to a phrase. He did a little Churchill--We shall wear them on the beaches. We had lollipop condoms, we had boxer shorts printed with cartoon characters shaped like condoms standing on end, sort of floaty and nipple-headed, who spoke a language called Spermian." (111)

While there is something entertaining and notable and occasionally profound about every "movement" of the book (6, plus 1 prologue and 1 epilogue), Parts 4 and 5, "Cocksucker Blues" and "Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry (Selected Fragments Public and Private in the 1950s and 1960s)" struck me as the strongest. The former is a loving portrait of New York City in the summer of 1974, the "summer of rooftops" for Klara Sax. Two memorable scenes involve viewing the Zapruder film in a techie's apartment (which reminded me of a scene from the film Slacker), and viewing the banned-lost-rare-uncovered Sergei Eisenstein film Unterwelt which comprises the centerpiece of the novel as a whole.

Many of the chapters follow random narratives for many times smaller supporting characters, but the best of these is the one about the Texas Highway Killer, who calls up a television station and admits he is the real one and answers questions from the anchorwoman Sue Ann. It was too bad there was only one of these chapters:

"They talk about head trauma. They talk about is he adopted or was he abused? The problem is all in the spacing. If you fire out the window on the driver's side, which you have to do if you don't want to shoot across the width of your own car and the space between your car and the other car, you still face the problem of having to fire across the space between cars and the width of the other car because the other driver's side is the far side in relation to your position at the wheel. You are not going to shoot a passenger. If you shoot a passenger, then the driver is liable to take evasive action and note your license number and make of car and color of hair and so on. So you are going to shoot lone drivers and you are going to fire out on the window on your side using the left hand to hold the weapon. But the fact is, as he eventually figured out, that if you shoot with the right hand, the natural hand, your projectile travels the same distance across the same spaces, pretty much, as the self-taught method of the left hand. He figured this out after victim five or six, he forgets which, but decided to stick with the left hand as the shooting hand even though it made more sense to steer with the left hand and shoot with the right. Because the right hand was the born hand." (267-268)

Finally, there are mentions of the World Trade Center for which the cover photograph is not inappropriate:

"The World Trade Center was under construction, already towering, twin-towering, with cranes tilted at the summits and work elevators sliding up the flanks. She saw it almost everywhere she went. She ate a meal and drank a glass of wine and walked to the rail or ledge and there it usually was, bulked up at the funneled end of the island, and a man stood next to her one evening, early, drinks on the roof of a gallery building--about sixty, she thought, portly and jowled but also sleek in a way, assured and contained and hard-polished, a substantial sort, European.
'I think of it as one, not two,' she said, 'Even though there are clearly two towers. It's a single entity, isn't it?'
'Very terrible thing but you have to look at it, I think.'
'Yes, you have to look.'
And they were out of ideas for a while, standing at the ledge and taking in the baleful view together, uncomfortably, she thought, because esthetic judgments feel superficial when you share them with a stranger, and finally she sensed a rustle, a disturbance in his bearing that was meant to mark a change of subject, earnest and determined, and he said to her, still looking towards the towers, he whispered actually, 'I like your work, you know.'
'Very sympathetic.' (372)

And earlier in the novel, in relation to a New Jersey waste dump, some 15 years later in chronological time, where the cover photograph is most clearly ascribed:

"He imagined he was watching the construction of the Great Pyramids at Giza--only this was twenty-five times bigger, with tanker trucks spraying perfumed water on the approach roads. He found the sight inspiring. All this ingenuity and labor, this delicate effort to fit maximum waste into diminishing space. The towers of the World Trade Center were visible in the distance and he sensed a poetic balance between that idea and this one. Bridges, tunnels, scows, tugs, graving docks, container ships, all the great works of transport, trade and linkage were directed in the end to this culminating structure. And the thing was organic, ever growing and shifting, its shape computer plotted by the day and hour. In a few years this would be the highest mountain on the Atlantic Coast between Boston and Miami." (184)

I don't think you should read Underworld as your introduction to DeLillo--White Noise should be that--but Underworld was named "runner-up" in the New York Times Book Review of the Best Fiction of the last 25 Years list. Beloved was #1. The co-runners up were Updike's 4 Rabbit novels, Roth's American Pastoral (on the short list of future Flying Houses reviews), and Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. You will need to take a good month out of your time to make room for this novel, though some people read a lot faster than me. It would be hard to absolutely hate this book--everyone should find something in it that they like--and though it may wear you down, it keeps you reading to the end by virtue of its comparatively short, dovetail-narrative chapters. It may not explain why 9/11 happened, but Underworld is an extraordinarily thorough document of America in the latter half of the 20th century that few others will ever match, or even want to attempt. If there was a list for Best Fiction About the Last 50 Years, Underworld would be #1.