Post-Soviet America and Don DeLillo’s ‘Underworld’

Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld opens in 1951, at a famous or infamous baseball game, (depending on whether you care more about the Brooklyn Dodgers or the New York Giants) where Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and J. Edgar Hoover sit in the stands and watch. One of the novel’s many characters, Cotter Martin, playing hooky from school in order to attend, has a blithe conversation with Bill Waterson, across racial divides, in 1951 of all times. The tone throughout is stately, smooth and as good as DeLillo gets. Is this a novel about Old America, pre the frequently articulated loss of American innocence? A great American novel about great American people in all their ordinary humanness, through which an underplayed redemption is obtained? A nostalgic paean to pre-counter-culture, old New York? Yes, and at the same time, absolutely not, there is nothing about ordinary, white bread, milquetoast America in this novel, and the closest we get to a ‘nuclear’ family is the most distorted, upsetting, Stepford-y sections in the text.

This is for the reason that DeLillo’s prose, and I mean this as praise, simply will not allow real life in:

“Then they were everywhere at once again, looped about each other, everything new for the second time, and she closed her eyes to see them together, which she could almost do, which she could do for the sheerest time, bodies turned and edged and sidled, one way and the other, this and that concurrent, here but also there, like back-fronted Picasso lovers.”

Sometimes the only response worth outlining to a quotation is, well, there it is. This is one such occasion.

But one of the many things that makes Underworld so gratifying, is, if it is straddling the Great American Baggage, it is also resisting the obvious potential response, the sort of counter-cultural, Anglo-Dutch patronymics, scattered, dispersed, yet totally connected plots and clockwork characters of Thomas Pynchon. James Wood describes Underworld as a ‘post-paranoid novel,’ and he is not suggesting, when he does so, that the novel has somehow moved beyond paranoia. One would have to be an inferior literary critic to claim that in the two-year span that produced Underworld, Infinite Jest and Mason & Dixon that the contemporary American novel was in some way done with paranoia, but he is pointing to a component of Underworld, DeLillo’s subversion of what some of his mates might be up to.

DeLillo has expressed nostalgia for the Old America of the fifties, but as was said, this is not something that Underworld expresses baldly. For many of its characters in retrospect, the Cold War was a time of certainty, one knew who the enemy was, and who you were. The good guys. When this all falls away, when Kennedy is shot, when the Zapruder film is released, when the civil rights movement exposes white supremacy, the answer is a lot less clear. Messrs Pynchon, Foster Wallace have tended to align a critique on not totally dissimilar lines along with the rise of consumerism, and these things certainly aren’t unrelated, but DeLillo has a more interesting take on the matter, and the vast, uncomprehendable quantity of waste that it produces. DeLillo’s descriptions of such things are tinged with religiosity and rather than slinging a sardonic eye the way of piled-up garbage, reaches a pitch of intense profundity, saying that we may judge our progress as a civilisation by charting our relationship with our own waste: “Civilisation did not rise and flourish as men hammered out hunting scenes on bronze gates and whispered philosophy under the stars, with garbage as a noisome offshoot, swept away and forgotten. No, garbage rose first, inciting people to build a civilisation in response, in self-defense.”

Further, the character of Marvin, the collector of baseball memorabilia, and one of the owners of the famous baseball that threads itself through the novel seems to me to be a satire of Pynchon’s metaphor-for-narrative narratives: “Marvin said, ‘’Which the whole thing is interesting because when they make an atomic bomb, listen to this, they make the radioactive core the exact same size as a baseball.’ Through the narration, the whole wandering epic, skimmed here, protracted there, Brian was confident that the man was slipshod only in the telling. The search itself had clearly been hard, fierce, thorough and consuming.’ Marvin’s submersion in his past, determined to trace the baseball’s origin story, and relate it to the bomb, is the real nostalgia, almost as if DeLillo is getting one over and getting past the paranoid maximalism of his peers. By investigating the effects of capital influx into post-Soviet Russia in the epilogue, and the new dispensation that exists between the two states in an age of invisible ideology, De Lillo is attending to something more vivid and fundamental.

This quotation gives some sense of one aspect of what it is that the Underworld of the title refers to, you’d have to read the book to get at all of them. It is a novel about subterranean connections and invisible intersections. As the novel continues, one finds oneself increasingly noticing, drawing analogies, knowing that you’re missing others that might only reveal themselves the second time around. This is Underworld’s underworld; more so than many other novels from the time, it is pointing you again and again to what is beyond the page, to what’s beneath the words. You could go mental doing it, wonder why some chapters would be more aptly named with the title that a different chapter has, in what precise order the baseball passes from one character to another, which I suppose is only fitting for a novel in which a baseball is semi-seriously analogous to the equally mythologised magic bullet. But don’t spend all your time trying to read past Underworld, not when the prose is this this:

“This was a statement she couldn’t make, partly out of personality but also because she could not feel the ordinary contentment of things the way she used to. She could not feel favoured or charmed.

He’d replaced her life with his leaving. The voice running through her head was not the voice she used to hear before he left…There was less of her now and more of other people. She was becoming other people. Maybe that’s why they called her Rose.”

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