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.


JK said...

I also forgot to mention that this book solved the mystery of the meaning behind the title of the Jawbox song "LS/MFT." For years I labored over what it could possibly mean (Lake Shore, Michigan Fun Time--after Division St. is referenced in "Motorist?")

Lucky Strike Means Fine Tobacco.
L.S.M.F.T. = ex-acronym slogan pre-"it's toasted"

DeLillo and J. Robbins are cut from the same cloth.

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