Literary Art from Agni


Plumbing the Underworld

           Few novelists have seen a rival, fewer still a collaborator, in the five decades of American experience since the Second World War to the extent that Don DeLillo has, or come as close to shaping that experience by force of his example. Recognizing Benjamin's prediction that "the distinction between author and public is about to lose its basic character" as a fait accompli, he has remained moderately prolific (over a twenty-six year period he has produced eleven novels and a play), as if conscious of his footing on the narrow path between his own instincts and what the market will bear1; Gary Harkness indicates as much in End Zone: "But let's keep things simple." DeLillo's fiction hints at a cold fusion process, a forced conjoining of two opposing tendencies, one of the systems thinker and the other (less obviously) of the aphorist. They are novels of ideas in which concepts--of power and sex, sex and the media, media and information--are in perpetual collision rather than dialogue. The classic DeLillo novels (Americana, Players, White Noise) seem to "happen"--detonate--very quickly, teaching us as much about the art of blur analysis in an age of misplaced velocities as cinema itself--more, at times, than cinema by having bared the process of the author's thinking. DeLillo's is an art increasingly reluctant to conceal itself.
           The work in progress, as a metaphor and as an art form, has a distinguished literary history: Raskolnikov and his translations, the Roquentin biography in Sartre's La Nausee, Finnegan's Wake in manuscript, Kinbote's high jinks in Nabokov's Pale Fire. From the "Navajo" documentary in Americana to Bill Grey's profoundly unfinished magnum opus in Mao II, DeLillo's use of it has had strong implications: it is a perpetually deferred narrative or intention; it signifies the displacement of lesser objects/objectives by larger and more impersonal ones; it shows the law of inertia at work in an accelerated modern world. In short, the work in progress is DeLillo's metaphor for slowness--the only thing more subversive than speed, as he has demonstrated in the labored, erosive self-education of Lee Harvey Oswald. In its size and scope, then, its graduated detail and unparalleled patience, Underworld is a very subversive book.
           Consider the events of October 3, 1951. The New York Times, for one, unable to decide which of two items deserved the bigger headline, simply paired them symmetrically: Giants Capture Pennant / USSR Explodes Atomic Bomb. The distance between the Polo grounds and Kazhakstan was momentarily closed in the public imagination; the juxtaposition, on a deeper level, visually suggested that one phenomenon had something to do with the other, but the connection was unclear. In a memorable way, notions of cause and effect had been exploded forever. Sportswriter Red Smith spared none of the hyperbole characteristic of his profession to describe Bobby Thomson's home run, the great improbability in a game that, for the Giants at least, was statistically unwinnable. "Now it is done [he wrote]. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again." 2
           DeLillo's Underworld makes no reference to this extraordinary challenge, which wasn't, in fact, a challenge at all but a suspension of disbelief in the spirit of Russ Hodges' four famous shouts, and DeLillo's purpose is not to deny the miracle but to follow its trajectory. He imagines Hodges' thoughts: "Isn't it possible that this midcentury moment enters the skin more lastingly than the vast shaping strategies of eminent lead-ers...The mapped visions that pierce our dreams?" The skin is important; DeLillo has always weighed ideas in relation to tangibles. Like another philosopher of crowds and power, Elias Canetti, he probes the secret life of the concrete. "The thing I most detest about philosophers," writes Canetti, "is the emptying process of their thinking." DeLillo is not a sensualist but his faith in the substantial interconnectedness of mind and objects (human objects, as in End Zone; "Air," "trees," "wind," "birds," as in Players; or a baseball) has become infinitely expansive. Whitman comes to mind, but only briefly. It isn't so much that everything is included, but that fewer things are left out; DeLillo's imagination makes its own room. The National Pennant game opens the novel with a breezy spontaneity, an assurance that will characterize so much of the writing in this novel. Black, fourteen year-old Cotter Martin is cutting class just to see it; we jump the turnstiles with him. Cut to the radio booth, zero in on Russ Hodges, his jowls, his expert presentiments: "something big's in the works, something's building." Cut to the field, the choreography of the players: Thomson, Lockman, Pafko, Cox, Robinson, Mays. Compare them with the four men watching the game from a box seat near the Giants' dugout: Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Toots Schor, J. Edgar Hoover. Gleason is gorging on hot dogs and beer; Sinatra's making wisecracks. Back to Cotter, who has secured a seat in section 35, in firing range of whatever may chance to catapult from home plate. Back to the field. (Meanwhile, Hoover has received word that the Soviets have conducted an atomic test. Gleason has begun to show signs of extreme nausea.) Branca is pitching; Thomson steps up to the plate.
           These are timed explosions, and when they go off the effect is orchestral, in the Ivesian sense. Things keep falling from the upper deck and dropping around Hoover and his companions; among the debris is a full-color reproduction, torn out of a Life magazine, of Brueghel's Triumph of Death panel--a macabre vision of apocalypse, in which Death is depicted as an army of skeletons slaughtering the living against a charred and devastated landscape--which has the normally sepsis-minded Hoover so fascinated that he misses the spectacle of Gleason vomiting within inches of Sinatra's oxfords. Russ Hodges is going nuts in the radio booth, a changed man. There is a feeding frenzy in section 35. The Thomson homer has rolled under a seat and possession of it comes down to a pitched battle between Cotter Martin and a white man; Cotter fights dirty, wins the ball, and America's midcentury moment "is all falling indelibly into the past."
           Causes and effects are a shambles; maybe that is why from 1951 the novel flash-forwards to 1992 and begins its crooked, disintegrating path into the past and back again. The political iconography of the Cold War--your government has photographed Death, and it looks like a mushroom--lives on in the national subconscious in a way that a baseball game, with its crude relics, cannot: as an interdicted part of ourselves. After fifty- seven year-old Nick Shay, a waste management specialist, has followed a New York taxi through the desert to visit an old friend, a conceptual artist named Klara Sax, he has an unset-tling exchange with one of her young assistants. Could the recent breakup of the USSR be a plot to trick the West? the girl wonders out loud. It must be a side-effect of Klara's current project, 230 junk warplanes painted in lush, conflicting colors and assem-bled on the sand--or even Klara herself, whom fame and success have convinced that life is essentially unreal. We are just be-ning to share his amusement when he tells us, somewhat overcon-fidently, that by contrast he "lived responsibly in the real" and "hewed to the texture of collected knowledge, took faith from the solid and unavailing stuff of our experience."
           The facts, as they come to light, tell a different story. Nick owns what he believes to be the Thomson baseball, having acquired it from a dealer in the 1980's and paid a fortune for it. For him it was one Dodgers fan's commemoration of Branca's failure: "It's about the mystery of bad luck, the mystery of loss." Klara's title for her work in progress, Long Tall Sally, is named after a B-52 used in Vietnam--whose navigator, Chuckie Wainwright, was the earliest known link to the Thomson ball after his father, a New York businessman and baseball enthusiast. The fascination of the B-52 link is that Nick doesn't know about it. He doesn't know about Cotter Martin, or Cotter's father Minx. He doesn't yet know for certain that his colleague, Brian Glassic, is having an affair with his wife Marian, or that Marian has a heroin habit. The Jesuits taught him that if you don't see a thing it's because you don't know how to look, and you don't know how to look if you don't know the names of things.
           Nick's materialistic existentialism is a compromise. Growing up in the Bronx, his outlook and personality were shaped by the unsolved disappearance of his father (a bookie), or more precisely, by Nick's obsession with the absence of facts surrounding the disappearance. Was it a mob killing, or a middle-aged man's decision to begin a new life elsewhere? When he was seventeen, Nick discharged the darker half of this unresolvable issue by killing a man himself. No writer can explore the dilemma of cognition as revealingly as DeLillo; he understands the way character, and therefore our actions, are determined by a ratio of knowledge to unknowing--or as Nick's little brother Matthew observes, "the power of an event can flow from its unresolvable heart, all the cruel and elusive elements that don't add up, and it makes you do odd things, and tell stories to yourself, and build unbelievable worlds." (There is much to admire in Matt: he was a child prodigy in chess--the "mind-modeling vigor" of the game an ideal outlet for a kid with a moody and impulsive sibling--and by his twenties he is a government researcher at a missile-test complex in New Mexico.But Matt is still very much the little brother in search of a mentor andwhat is more, he has never made the kind of mistake that would force him to step outside of himself.) Juvenile correction, followed by Jesuit counseling, set Nick on the right track but he credits the reflections of an anonymous medieval mystic as his strongest influence:

    We approach God through his unmadeness. We are made, created. God is unmade. How can we attempt to know such a being? We don't know him. We don't affirm him. Instead we cherish his negation...And we try to dev- elop a naked intent that fixes us to the idea of God. [The mystic further] recommends that we develop this intent around a single word. Even better, a single word of a single syllable.

    Nick's chosen mantra--Todo y nada, everything and nothing--distances him from us; it simply seems to further reinforce his Deniro-like trance. But as the novel's excavation of Nick's past unfolds, we are grateful for that distance, not because we do not want to know him but because half-consciously we already do.
           In 1974, we observe the art career of Klara Sax (nee Sachs) in its ascendancy, a far cry from her housewife period in the Bronx, where her husband taught science at public school and coached young Matt Shay--whose brother Nick became her lover--at chess. She has enjoyed the patronage of Louise Nevelson (who taught her that the goal of painting is to return a canvas to its virgin state), was present at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball, enjoys the attentions of a wealthy Park Avenue collector, and has considerable influence over the careers of young renegade painters. Ismael Munoz, an elusive graffitist (known, incidentally, as "writers" on the streets) whose painted trains come scuttling out of the Bronx only to be put through an acid wash, is her latest discovery--a vital channel to an urban substratum whose random outcroppings everyone has "agreed together not to notice," and from which Klara herself is excluded on all but the most abstract levels.
           The gods, in short, have been good to Klara even if her most important memories now seem to float "at the level of a glazed mosaic high on a midtown tower," and sometimes at the most critical moments, such as during the exclusive one-time screening of a lost film by Sergei Eisentstein called Untervelt: the Prokofiev soundtrack makes her think of old commercials for Lava soap. Not that the experience of Untervelt is lost on her or on the reader. A disquieting prelude, with live orchestra and a chorus line of androgynous Rockettes in slave collars, segues abruptly into the main spectacle. Simplified, the (silent, with untranslated Russian titles) picture centers around a mad scientist of the Caligari/Moreau variety and his menagerie of unimaginably misshapen human subjects, their torments and attempted escape. It could be a premonition of nuclear holocaust, or maybe of Japanese sci-fi; in any case it proves stultifying--lurid and monotonous. As Klara comprehends it,

    All Eisenstein wants you to see, in the end, are the contradictions of being. You look at the faces on the screen and you see the mutilated yearning, the inner divisions of people and systems, and how forces will clash and fasten, compelling the swerve from evenness that marks a thing lastingly.

    This apocryphal cinema is visualized for us in the fragmented, subliminal way in which it could be experienced in "real" life, as a startled Klara might experience it; as readers we can be sure we're "seeing" plastic images spalled from our own cellulose memory and projected, as it were, through a glass darkly. (DeLillo is a writer who long ago isolated one region of the brain where optical and linguistic faculties converge.) Silent, the film is at least unencumbered by language, and consequently by the involuntary associations of language, nearly always disruptive, which DeLillo (notably in Americana) has come to identify as entropic. Klara's reflections on Eisenstein are confirmed by her own example--when she hears Prokofiev she thinks Lava Soap--and integral to Underworld: individuals living in the clutter, or wasteland, of their experience--receiving, processing, experience through the bioluminescent haze of memory.
           That DeLillo arranges things so that the showing of Untervelt falls in the year of Watergate may appear to overstate the case. But here as elsewhere in the novel, synchronicity does not stop at the level of thematic device. Inevitably, as DeLillo's multiple narratives, like his ideas, surface and circulate and resubmerge, they risk considerable historical drift--not the structured irrelevancies of Libra or Mao II but a rather formless nostalgic meandering. Some of the episodes from Part Five, "Selected Fragments Public and Private," could stand on their own, and do ("October 8, 1957," for example, was published recently as a short story in The New Yorker), but too often amount to just so much hypertext. The story of Albert Bronzini, Klara's first husband, contains much wonderful writing, evocative snapshots of a long faded immigrant community, and serves as a reservoir for some of Underworld's more gnostic meditations, yet some of the material feels gratuitous. And what about the Texas Highway Killer, whose crimes are captured on video by a child (who, to her credit, does not stop the film) and replayed so often on the evening news so that it loses its meaning? Do we need, for that matter, to meet him in the flesh (as we eventually do) to better appreciate what has made the crime ironic? DeLillo possesses something of Beckett's quantum mobility within narrative time, but in Underworld, one is sometimes either hard-pressed to appreciate such redundancies--say, by assuming the redundancy, rather than the information conveyed, is the point--or at the other extreme, made too aware of the author's thesis, in which case the novel can seem didactical.
           Then again, DeLillo has never been content simply to teach by example (though he does it very well), perhaps because he feels that enough has occurred since the Kennedy assassination to make life stranger than any fiction. Maybe as a spectator of popular culture, he is aware that our public demands its writers to say what they mean, even as the language becomes increasingly idiomatic (by a dependence on buzzwords) and definitions of meaning more arbitrary. The contradiction of such a predicament is obvious to any writer, and that is why Mao II, written at the apex of DeLillo's literary celebrity, addressed the creative breakdown of of its writer/protagonist by way of conflicted dialogues about the relevance of the craft. DeLillo's Bill Gray at last calls the novel a democratic shout: "And when the novelist loses his talent, he dies democratically, there it is for everyone to see, the shitpile of hopeless prose." But does the public always see it? Or, put differently, what does the public want a writer to mean? Who, exactly, is the public?
           A week of scatological routines by Lenny Bruce, inserted among the flotsam in Part Five and set during the Cuban Missile Crisis, is recreated (or impersonated) by DeLillo with devastating authenticity. Lenny's scurrilous monologues--half verbal assault, half talking-cure--form part of an unrealized whole, and his voice remains fittingly disembodied, because he gets his biggest kick out of knocking death. (Indeed, DeLillo transforms these performances into a virtual danse macabre, in the spirit of Eisenstein himself in Que Viva Mexico, the other "lost film" associated with Untervelt.) The jokes, of course, take on race, sex, and religion--indiscriminately and for DeLillo's purposes, democratically, but someone in the audience is always walking out; Lenny can never be sure he's communicating, and we see him continually trying to disentangle himself from the web of his own ironies for the sake of the show. All of a sudden, Lenny whips out a condom and slips it over his tongue, as if to demonstrate the absurdity of self-censorship.
           It's a grand gesture, and it provides us with a working term for the social disease Underworld labors all too often to make us aware of: prophylactic thinking. Possibly DeLillo believes no reader can be aware enough of it. When we're snug in the belly of a B-52--Vietnam's flying Trojan horse--with Chuckie Wainwright fifty thousand feet over the South China Sea, it's safe sex: "First we bomb them," says the bombardier; adds Chuckie, "Then we fuck them,"

    You can't fight a war without acronyms...And where do these compressed words come from? They come from remote levels of development, from technicians and bombheads in their computer universe--storky bespectacled men who deal with systems so layered and many-connected that the ensuing arrays of words must be atomized and re designed, made spare and letter-sleek.

           The sense of security from such a height is intoxicating and, finally, surreal:

    the bombs fluttered down on the NVA and the ARVN alike ...The bombs also fell on the Vietcong, the Viet Minh, the French, the Laotians, the Cambodians...the Maoists, the Taoists, the Buddhists, the monks, the nuns, the rice farmers, the pig farmers, the student protesters and war resisters and flower people, the Chicago 7, the Chicago 8, the Catonsville 9--they were all, pretty much, the enemy.

           The mentality is familiar enough; its long-range implications less so. "Watched from a safe distance," remembers Matt Shay--one of Chuckie's "bombheads"--from an Army training film, "this explosion is one of the most beautiful sights ever seen by man." Louis, Chuckie's bombardier, practices his trigger hand over a Nevada test site in a plane with padded windows sealed with Reynolds Wrap; even so, when the bomb explodes he can see his own bones through a pillow. If J. Edgar Hoover, curator of state secrets, indulges in high-profile gatherings that appear to compromise his fear of airborne microbes, it is because the crowd is similarly compromised; to savor its transparency, he must hazard his own. Prophylactic thinking, then, is no less menacing because it does not work--any more, apparently, than its more up-to-date variant, political correctness (a development DeLillo stops short of exploring directly), whose methods would be understood to betray the same misanthropic mistrust of public self-knowledge. In Underworld the bomb represents a light that dawned beneath the skin in spite of all precautions, capturing as on a photographic plate the hard contours, the texture and vanished substance, of one's own mortality.
           "Das Kapital," a kind of epilogue, is an experiment in cinema obscura, at once unanticipated and rather novelistic in its contrasts. Kazhakstan (where a private company is now setting off nuclear explosions underground as a way of eliminating large shipments of waste for foreign clients) and New York are reunited. In the Bronx, a nun and charity worker named Sister Edgar--former schoolteacher of the Shay boys--takes a personal interest in two neighborhood curiosities: Ismael Munoz (now afflicted with AIDS) and a homeless wild child, known only as Esmeralda, who needs only a few pages to become vivid to us. When Esmeralda is raped and brutally murdered, the act seems so effortless and arbitrary that it could be the work of a keystroke; yet within days the incident is picked up by the media and nationally mourned, and when we last see her, it is as a saintly apparition on the face of a billboard. Death--change--in a keystroke: on a certain plane of cyberspace, offers Underworld by way of resolution, such earthly miracles take place continuously--with the provision that they share the plenum with their antithesis, Kazhakstan's on-line tabledancer, Interactive Sonya.3
           "If the world is where we hide from ourselves," Libra asked from 1963, "what do we do when the world is no longer accessible?" The paradox of the Cold War is that it imposed on our society a pattern of order whose living symbols were, for many of the same reasons, as propitious as they were perilous: information networks, satellite technology, global perspective. Underworld is a history of the virtual cyberspace this ambition represents. For the faithful, it is a Creation story; when we read "Everything is connected in the end," it is as if the author were making a fiat, on the strength of which the novel's vast configuration of narratives will merge, like separate continents, into a single mass--if they have not yet appeared to do so.
           Confirmed DeLilleans may never agree on the motivations behind this grand gesture of a book and its place in the novelist's more suggestive and perhaps less confrontational work. With this memorial to lost time, DeLillo has thrown us a curve. When Manx Martin (Cotter's father) is prowling around Yankee Stadium with his son's baseball, confident that he will find a white buyer for this piece of the True Cross, and suddenly realizes that no one has any reason to buy the story, he is like the sign painter in The Bicycle Thief, only with fewer illusions. The awkwardness of the moment may be DeLillo's own, but it also sums up all the anxieties of the age that shaped him and informs his greatest fiction. In 1951 American suspicions had not only begun to out-number our certainties, but rendered us insensible to the poetry of our uncertainties. The world would soon become a terrible classroom where students would have to be their own teachers.

    1 Or for that matter, believe--though this consideration is not confined to literature. "The question of whether the world will end in fire or in ice, with a bang or a whimper," wrote Christopher Lasch less than twenty years ago, "no longer interests artists alone. Impending disaster has become an everyday concern, so commonplace and familiar that nobody any longer gives much thought to how disaster might be averted."

    2 quoted in The Giants Win the Pennant! The Giants Win the Pennant! by Bobby Thomson, et al. Zebra Books, 1991

    3 To this writer, DeLillo's conjoining of a feminine mystique and the more or less genderless web, where we uneasily feel "the grip of systems" that elicit a physical and spiritual surrender, both invokes and confounds comparison with Henry Adams' forceful synthesis of the Virgin and the Dynamo. Invokes, because Adams' attempt to trace the trans- ference of energy that had passed from a medieval icon to a modern generator evolved into a history of Force, and of human efforts to impose an artificial Unity on its manifestations; confounds because Adams, equating manifestation and multiplicity, predicted that "mind was henceforth to follow the movement of matter," and unity, if it existed at all, would have to "shift for itself." Beyond the superficial similarities--the autobiographical overtones, the use of historical persons as characters--Underworld shares the Education's genius for interpretative history and the sheer pleasures of peripetetic inquiry.