Book Review of Underworld,
by Don DeLillo
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 8/25/12
Having heard the hype, for years, about Don DeLillo’s long 1997 novel, Underworld, and its being a Postmodern ‘masterpiece,’ I was thinking the work would be something in the unreadably puerile vein of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, perhaps involving parodies of the sort of goombahs from a bad Martin Scorsese gangster film. Were that the case I would have started this essay with something along the lines of: Support the arts- do NOT buy this book! Thankfully, it was not. In fact, the book is not even, in any remote sense, a Postmodern novel, as the only thing about it that can even remotely be called Postmodern is that it is told in a non-linear fashion.
Herein the definition of the term
1 : of, relating to, or being an era after a modern one <postmodern times> <a postmodern metropolis>
2 a : of, relating to, or being any of various movements in reaction to modernism that are typically characterized by a return to traditional materials and forms (as in architecture) or by ironic self-reference and absurdity (as in literature) b : of, relating to, or being a theory that involves a radical reappraisal of modern assumptions about culture, identity, history, or language <postmodern feminism>
Definition 2 is the relevant one, and, as regards to a, Underworld
fails on that score, for the novel is almost void of humor, after its famed
prefatory novella-cum-prologue, titled, The Triumph Of Death (originally
released as Pafko At The Wall). As regards b, the novel is
anything BUT reappraising of culture, identity, history, or
language. But, even taking the cynic’s approach to PoMo, that it is style over
substance, it still fails, for almost all PoMo writing is hype over substance,
for is there any real discernible ‘style’ in a Thomas Pynchon, William
T. Vollmann, David Foster Wallace, or the other dregs of that movement?
Playing with fonts, unneeded
annotation, characters that are not characters, merely ornaments to hang a joke
or inside pun upon?
At best, it is a severely underdeveloped first draft or set of notes (a
précis) for a rather conventional tale of a set of vaguely connected and
severely underdeveloped characters with no real relationship to each other, much
less a sustained narrative thrust. All good narrative flows out of good
character development, and, to be a good character, that character need
not be likable but needs to be interesting, explicable, or merely just
relatable. And these lacks are embodied most deeply and
troublingly in the book’s very title, Underworld. According to DeLillo,
the title refers to the hidden nature of most of American life and history in
the unconscious of most people. Ok, that’s a
potentially interesting twist on the expected Mafia-drenched overtones most
would expect, except that the characters in the novel are hardly part of an
underclass. In fact, they are mostly working class stiffs, the very backbone of
this nation’s history. They are, in fact, at the center of the American Dream,
and the American cultural identity.
Hence, rather than opening this essay with the Support the arts- do NOT buy this book! trope, perhaps I should have started it with something along these lines: Flour. Water. Parbaked. This is what first came to mind whilst reading Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel, Underworld. The book is divided into eight sections, including the aforementioned prologue, set on October 3rd, 1951, the day of the decisive playoff game for the National League pennant, involving the Brooklyn Dodgers and San Francisco Giants, who came back from a 13.5 game deficit in the standings to tie the Dodgers. The game was won, 5-4, by the Giants, on a walk-off home run by Bobby Thomson, off of the Dodgers’ Ralph Branca. Part 1 is called Long Tall Sally, and set from Spring-Summer 1992. The rest of the novel goes backwards in time, until the Epilogue, titled Das Kapital, which is set back in the 1990s, during the rise of the Internet. Part 2, Elegy For Left Hand Alone, is set in the Mid-1980s–Early 1990s. Part 3 is The Cloud Of Unknowing, and occurs in the spring of 1978; Part 4 is Cocksucker Blues, taking place in the summer of 1974; Part 5 is Better Things For Better Living Through Chemistry (Selected Fragments Public and Private in the 1950s and 1960s); and Part 6 is Arrangement In Gray And Black, set from Fall 1951–Summer 1952.
Other than trying to enliven what is really a dull story about dull characters, there really is no reason for the non-linear structure. Had DeLillo simply followed the tale chronologically, there would be nothing lost, and, perhaps, something gained. I caveat with that perhaps because lackluster character development, bland dialogue- often with forced pseudo-profundity (it’s amazing that DeLillo is often praised by critics for having great dialogue- yeah, compared to Dave Eggers and that ilk, but compared to true masters- hell no!), and no real narrative (and not in the good way that a great novel like A Tree Grows In Brooklyn could be called plotless) simply cannot be enlivened by attempting to disguise that lack in non-linearity. Worse, is the fact that all this anomic and odorless fart of a tale follows the well written opening novella which, while not a great work unto itself (a bit too long; a bit too unrealistic in the forced comedy of name dropped celebrities like J. Edgar Hoover, Jackie Gleason, and Frank Sinatra (Gleason pukes on Sinatra’s shoes); and a bit too heavyhanded in the pop psychology of the import of the moment in the American psyche), is certainly a promise that goes unfulfilled. Yes, it’s a bit much to expect DeLillo (or any currently published novelist, outside of William Kennedy or, perhaps, Charles Johnson) to have sustained his good to very good pace in the 49 page novella over the 760 or so remaining pages, but if one wants to justify the claims that this book is great, or epic, well, it should be able to, at least, come close to the novella’s highs.
Let me deal with the book in the way it deserves to be dealt with- its worthy opening, and its almost pointless remainder. The novella starts at the playoff game in the old Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants, and leads up to The Shot Heard ‘Round The World. Before that we get banter between Gleason and Sinatra, along with celebrity restaurateur Toots Shor, who make fun of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Along with the celebrities, the baseball players, and Giants’ radio announcer Russ Hodges- of the famed call ‘THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT! THE GIANTS WIN THE PENNANT!’- the tale follows a young black boy, named Cotter Martin, who ends up with the game-winning baseball, which he wrests away from another Giants fan he’s been talking with. He gives it to his father, Manx Martin, who later sells it for a mere $32.45, even though there’s no proof of the provenance of the memorabilia. The ball ends up with a guy named Marvin Lundy, who, in turn, sells it to Nick Shay, the de facto ‘main character’ and protagonist of the novel, who spends the bulk of the book trying to return to his youth, and the things the ball represents to him. The novella ends with the game, and its moment, all ‘falling indelibly into the past.’
The rest of the book follows a not too large cast of characters through rather pedestrian lives, so to call the book ‘epic’ is about as appropriate as calling it Postmodern, as, to be epic, the book would have to deal with large ideas, in large times, with large characters. Underworld is bereft of all three. Since there is no plot, to speak of, merely a series of vaguely interrelated vignettes that barely prick at the reader’s curiosity, let me address the main characters of the book. Klara Sax is the main female protagonist of the tale. She is a thirtysomething aspiring artist and somewhat noted wannabe socialite who cheats on her husband, Albert Bronzini, with a teenaged boy. Eventually, she divorces Albert, and two later husbands. DeLillo describes her thus:
Klara conducted dialogues with her body, reminding herself before she got out of a chair where it was she wanted to go, to the kitchen maybe for a spoon, and exactly how she would have to get there. She needed to locate her body in a situation, tell herself where she was, sometimes looking back as if she might still be sitting in the chair.
This gives one an idea of what DeLillo is like, at his best, with pungent and cogent little observations about his creations. Unfortunately, despite such brief sketches, when left to the rigors of sustained narratives, his characters descend into dull puppets, generically lolling through obvious situations, with dialogue that never gets under the skin of the characters’ psychologies. The boy Klara cheats with is Nick Shay, a Bronxer, who accidentally killed a friend as a teen, and spent time in juvy, then a Jesuit reform school. Nick ages into a waste management executive for a company called Waste Containment. His main driving force is trying to explain why his father abandoned his family when he was but eleven years old. He comes up with an elaborate tale in which his father is rubbed out by Mafiosi. In fact, his career in garbage seems inspired by the idea that his father ended up in a garbage dump. The reality is that his father left, one day, to get some cigarets, and never returned, yet his personal mythos helps relieve the boredom of inspecting garbage dumps. He has a younger brother, Matty, who is taught chess by Albert, then is sent off to Vietnam, and later becomes an egghead at a think tank, after a career in nuclear technology. Later in his life, Nick tries to track down Klara, who is commissioned to repaint old Cold War era fighters and bomber planes. Nick’s wife is Marian- and their marriage is faithless, his mother Rosemary, and his father Jimmy Shay, who was a booky, before skipping out on his family. Aside from these main characters, there are a few recurring characters, including Nick’s pal, Brian Glassic- a waste consultant, the Texas Highway Killer- a symbol of the futility of existence. Another one is Ismael Muñoz (aka Moonman 157), a graffiti artist that Klara Sax obsesses over, and desires to promote. He is the lone character whose existence seems wholly symbolic, as he paints angels around the city to commemorate kids who’ve been murdered and volunteers for a nun, to help feed the indigent. J. Edgar Hoover also has a role as a sort of beacon of the past, with thoughts on philosophy, the painting The Triumph Of Death, by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, and sadomasocistic sex. Comedian Lenny Bruce plays a similar role, basically mocking the conventions of the mid-20th Century. Minor characters dart in and out, and so do minor events, like a Vietnam bombing run by a friend of Nick Shay’s, which is set in a specific plane that ends up being one of those that Klara Sax will repaint, after decommissioning, a quarter century after the bombing run. Yet, because none of the events, post-prologue, sticks in the minds of the average reader as worthwhile, do to poor conception and execution, the opportunities for deeper explorations of time, space, and causality are wasted.
DeLillo is better when describing larger events, rather than focusing in on situations involving only a few characters. He also has a dozen or so points where he shows an ability to raise deep points and offer possibilities:
Coming home, landing at Sky Harbor, I used to wonder how people disperse so quickly from airports, any airport – how you are crowded into seats three across or five across and crowded in the aisle after touchdown when the captain turns off the seat belt sign and you get your belongings from the overhead and stand in the aisle waiting for the hatch to open and the crowd to shuffle forward, and there are more crowds when you exit the gate, people disembarking and others waiting for them and greater crowds in the baggage areas and the concourse, the crossover roars of echoing voices and flight announcements and revving engines and crowds moving through it all, people with their separate and unique belongings, the microhistory of toilet articles and intimate garments, the medicines and aspirins and lotions and powders and gels, so incredibly many people intersecting on some hot dry day at the edge of the desert, used underwear fistballed in their bags, and I wondered where they were going, and why, and who are they, and how do they all disperse so quickly and mysteriously, how does a vast crowd scatter and vanish in minutes, bags dragging on the shiny floors.
However, too often, DeLillo spends too much of his novel’s time posing- or, rather, having is characters posing. In trying to hagiographize Moonman 157, DeLillo veers into unwitting parody, as he has no idea about the subculture of New York City’s subways and its denizens:
At Columbus Circle he changed to the Broadway train because he had business at the end of the line. He got on a train that was bombed inside and out by Skaty 8, a thirteen-year-old writer who frantically tagged police cars, hearses, garbage trucks, who took his Krylon satin colors into the tunnels and tagged up the walls and catwalks, he hit platforms, steps, turnstiles and benches, he’d tag your little sister if she was walking by. Not a style king, no way, but a legend among writers for the energy he put forth, getting his tag seen by major millions and then two weeks ago, and a genuine regret went through Ismael as he recalled being told, he slumped and sagged all over again and felt the deepest kind of soldierly sadness– Skaty 8 hit by a train while he’s walking on the tracks under downtown Brooklyn.
People moved along the car, they skated to a seat, they looked at display ads above the heads across the aisle, all without eye motion that you could detect with the most delicate device.
Ismael used to walk the tracks when he felt sorry for himself. Those were foregone times. He’d pop an emergency hatch in the sidewalk and climb down into a tunnel and just, like, go for a walk, be alone down there, keeping the third rail in sight and listening for the train and getting to know the people who lived in the cable rooms and up on the catwalks, and that’s where he saw a spray-painted scrawl, maybe five years ago, down under Eighth Avenue. Bird Lives. It made him wonder about graffiti, about who took the trouble and risk to walk down this tunnel and throw a piece across the wall, and how many years have gone by since then, and who is Bird, and why does he live?
And the guy who reached around saying excuse me please.
He rode up the edge of Manhattan headed for the Bronx. There was no art in bombing platforms and walls. You have to tag the trains. The trains come roaring down the rat alleys all alike and then you hit a train and it is yours, seen everywhere in the system, and you get inside people’s heads and vandalize their eyeballs.
The descriptions, from ‘soldierly sadness’ to ‘vandalizing eyeballs,’ reek of an old man (DeLillo was 60 when the novel came out) trying to evoke how cool he is. It’s not MFA mill level bad writing- larded with 3-4 clichés per paragraph, just null and anomic and, as the book unfolds, utterly pointless, for none of it- good nor bad- serves any later nor higher purpose.
In a similar vein, DeLillo ascribes far too much to characters whose actions he shows, throughout the tome, are little more than zombies. Here is a description of waste consultant Brian Glassic’s thoughts at the sight of a landfill:
He saw himself for the first time as a member of an esoteric order, they were adepts and seers, crafting the future, the city planners, the waste managers, the compost technicians, the landscapers who would build hanging gardens here, make a park one day out of every kind of used and eroded object of desire.
Again, this is, in and of itself, not bad writing. But, in the context of the novel, the character’s continuum, and the utter lack of sustained depth in the tale, this ‘epiphany of shit’ is not only out of the character’s character, but also wholly out of the semi-omniscient narrator’s character. And, as with the Moonman 157 passage, directly above, it ultimately comes to no end, and, more importantly, it neither augurs nor facilitates anything greater.
And this leads the typical, and even good or great, reader, to simply not be intrigued by any of the characters, who are a series of slightly off-gray characters set against a wizened and gray backdrop. Their movements and peregrinations through the decades seem a bare rustle of the wan against the chromatic universe’s bustle.
In an online review of the book, a critic named Jim Duncan summed up the book well:
But when I had to return it to the library a few days before we moved, 350+ pages in, I didn’t feel any real need to finish it. I just didn’t care about any of these people.
This summation came after an opening parry:
A friend and I once had a lengthy late-night argument—as only heavily inebriated college-age people can—about what meaningful distinction there was between liking something, and actually thinking it’s good. Playing devil’s advocate, I was arguing that it’s absurd for someone to say, “I don’t like X, but I think it’s good”—that this was a straight cop-out. “No, I didn’t really like 2001, but I thought it was good.” By not liking it, don’t you really think, deep down, that 2001 was bad in some basic way, even if you can’t articulate it? Or, similarly, if you claim to like something while simultaneously admitting it’s bad, doesn’t that mean that you secretly think it’s good?
Of course, the answer is clearly no, as there need be no overlap between assertions of excellence and simply liking something, just as one might think a woman is gorgeous, yet also a raving bitch you cannot stand. They are utterly distinct domains of human reaction. But, while scanning dozens of the book’s blurbs, not a single ‘prominent’ (read- published) critic dared to state the utter sense of apathy that Duncan mentions. Like him, I too, now typing this almost a week after finishing the book, would be almost utterly helpless in describing, even at the macro level of detail I have, any of the events or characters I have, sans my notes, on Post-its, of the book. It utterly washed over me, yet, years later, without looking things up online, I can recall the smell of fresh baked bread, as described in the opening of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, the obstinacy of Bartleby in Bartleby The Scrivener, the loneliness of the General, in Sandor Marai’s Embers, as he waits for Konrad’s return, or the addled joy and despair of Billy Pilgrim in many scenes in Slaughterhouse-Five. And this is not because I am a lazy reader, rather because DeLillo simply ran out of story, and tried to bloat a good to very good novella into a monstrosity of a novel without extending the story’s scope and cast of characters to be commensurate to the tale he hoped to tell.
And, aside from the actual tale not having any heft, the fact is that DeLillo does nothing to delineate the main characters: they could be one or the other and the book suffers from this confusion. As example, in Chapter 3 of Part 5 of the book, called Better Things For Better Living Through Chemistry: Selected Fragments Public And Private In The 1950s And 1960s, pages 539 through 542 read:
We were about thirty miles below the Canadian border in a rambling encampment that was mostly barracks and other frame structures, a harking back, maybe, to the missionary roots of the order- except the natives, in this case, were us. Poor city kids who showed promise; some frail-bodied types with photographic memories and a certain uncleanness about them; those who were bright but unstable; those who could not adjust; the ones whose adjustment was ordained by the state; a cluster of Latins from some Jesuit center in Venezuela, smart young men with a cosmopolitan style, freezing their weenies off; and a few farmboys from not so far away, shyer than borrowed suits.
“Sometimes I think the education we dispense is better suited to a fifty-year-old who feels he missed the point the first time around. Too many abstract ideas. Eternal verities left and right. You'd be better served looking at your shoe and naming the parts. You in particular, Shay, coming from the place you come from.”
This seemed to animate him. He leaned across the desk and gazed, is the word, at my wet boots.
“Those are ugly things, aren’t they?”
“Yes they are.”
“Name the parts. Go ahead. We’re not so chi chi here, we’re not so intellectually chic that we can't test a student face-to-face.”
“Name the parts,” I said. “All right. Laces.”
“Laces. One to each shoe. Proceed.”
I lifted one foot and turned it awkwardly.
“Sole and heel.”
“Yes, go on.”
I set my foot back down and stared at the boot, which seemed about as blank as a closed brown box.
“There’s not much to name, is there? A front and a top.”
“A front and a top. You make me want to weep.”
“The rounded part at the front.”
“You’re so eloquent I may have to pause to regain my composure. You've named the lace. What's the flap under the lace?”
“I knew the name. I just didn’t see the thing.”
He made a show of draping himself across the desk, writhing slightly as if in the midst of some dire distress.
“You didn’t see the thing because you don't know how to look. And you don’t know how to look because you don't know the names.”
He tilted his chin in high rebuke, mostly theatrical, and withdrew his body from the surface of the desk, dropping his bottom into the swivel chair and looking at me again and then doing a decisive quarter turn and raising his right leg sufficiently so that the foot, the shoe, was posted upright at the edge of the desk.
A plain black everyday clerical shoe.
“Okay,” he said. “We know about the sole and heel.”
“And we’ve identified the tongue and lace.”
“Yes,” I said.
With his finger he traced a strip of leather that went across the top edge of the shoe and dipped down under the lace.
“What is it?” I said.
“You tell me. What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s the cuff.”
“The cuff. And this stiff section over the heel. That’s the counter.”
“That’s the counter.”
“And this piece amidships between the cuff and the strip above the sole. That’s the quarter.”
“The quarter,” I said.
“And the strip above the sole. That’s the welt. Say it, boy.”
“How everyday things lie hidden. Because we don’t know what they’re called. What’s the frontal area that covers the instep?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know. It’s called the vamp.”
“The vamp. The frontal area that covers the instep. I thought I wasn’t supposed to memorize.”
“Don't memorize ideas. And don’t take us too seriously when we turn up our noses at rote learning. Rote helps build the man. You stick the lace through the what?”
“This I should know.”
“Of course you know. The perforations at either side of, and above, the tongue.”
“I can't think of the word. Eyelet.”
“Maybe I’ll let you live after all.”
“Yes. And the metal sheath at each end of the lace.”
He flicked the thing with his middle finger.
“This I don’t know in a million years.”
“Not in a million years.”
“The tag or aglet.”
“And the little metal ring that reinforces the rim of the eyelet through which the aglet passes. We’re doing the physics of language, Shay.”
“The little ring.”
“You see it?”
“This is the grommet,” he said.
“The grommet. Learn it, know it and love it.”
“I’m going out of my mind.”
“This is the final arcane knowledge. And when I take my shoe to the shoemaker and he places it on a form to make repairs- a block shaped like a foot. This is called a what?”
“I don't know.”
“My head is breaking apart.”
“Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren’t important, we wouldn’t use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Say it,” he said.
“An extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace.”
His white collar hung loose below his adam’s apple and the skin at his throat was going slack and ropy and it seemed to be catching him unprepared, old age, coming late but fast.
Now, it’s worth noting that DeLillo is almost always singled out, by critics, for being a ‘Master’ of dialogue. Critic Ted Gioia (yes, the brother of poetry’s infamous Sugar Daddy) writes:
But the cinematic quality of DeLillo's writing is especially evident in his dialogue. No modern writer constructs more engaging conversations than Don DeLillo, and one would need to look to the film industry (Quentin Tarantino comes to mind) to find someone in his league. It’s not just clever repartee- heaven knows we hear enough of that on TV in mind-numbing thirty minute and sixty minute chunks. Rather it’s DeLillo’s rare ability to capture that strange moment when two people are communicating, but really aren’t; when they are talking past each other, engaging in conversations that are almost simultaneous soliloquies.
It is interesting to note that Gioia actually thinks that Quentin Tarantino writes good dialogue. Tarantino writes good dialogue for cartoon characters, not real characters. Had Gioia mentioned John Cassavetes or Woody Allen, his critique would have seemed more serious. Go ahead, reread the above conversation, in light of Gioia’s claim. Are you engaged by it? Then look at Goia’s ballocksed last sentence: he actually praises DeLillo for what is a flaw- not real dialogue, but its opposite. This is not to say that one cannot construct a good scene with characters talking past one another, but that is NOT what DeLillo does, attempts, nor what Gioia thinks he even means.
That all stated, the priestly banter is a good example of typical Dellilan dialogue. Before this excerpt, Nick Shay is visiting a priest, who inquires of him. Yet, the shift to the discussion of the parts of a shoe comes wholly out of nowhere, as in most fictive dialogue that strives to be ‘deep,’ announcing itself like a neon sign in a desert. Then there is the problem of the very mechanicality of the exchange. There are no ums or whats. There are no asides nor digressions, as happen in real life. Worst of all is how the reader gets lost a third or so of the way through without markers of who is saying what, because there is nothing that distinguishes the two speakers, as their converse descends into longueur. And, in the chapter just before, we had a whole digression on one of Nick Shay’s other friends. The rest of this section goes on about Senator Joseph McCarthy, but the point is that the whole shoe digression is forced and self-conscious, for DeLillo is so clearly telling the reader, ‘Here, buddy, this is where I discourse on the value of the quotidian. Hell, in fact, he has his priest even orgasm over the word: Quotidian things. If they weren’t important, we wouldn’t use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Now, this is, compared to the vapid and deliterate dialogue found in the works of David Foster Wallace, James Frey, or Dave Eggers or the trite and melodramatic conversations abounding in the works of Rick Moody, T.C. Boyle, or Joyce Carol Oates, not bad dialogue, but, in reality, not good dialogue, for the reasons stated above. There is no offhanded poesy. Great written dialogue usually has the characters talking about a thing that their words never overtly touch on- perhaps the characters are at a hospital, awaiting news on the dire health of a comrade, as they recall a game or adventure they had at the age of six, so that their game metaphorically connects back to the event that spurred the dialogue, even as the characters are lost in their shared past. But, with DeLillo, this never occurs. DeLillo’s conversations and characters are always right there, speaking like fifth rate refugees from an Ingmar Bergman screenplay. And, the reality is, this is one of the better examples of dialogue in the book.
Another foible that plagues much of DeLillo’s prose is the overuse of modifiers. Great writing does not feel a need to modify every noun and verb, or even modify modifiers. There is a poesy and power that comes from taking unadorned words and placing them, and what they describe, in unfamiliar ways that evoke a Negative Capability- an Aha! moment that makes the usage seem both familiar, even as it is the very freshness and uniqueness of its essence that has invoked the light bulb.
Here is a typical example, the very ending of the book, that phases out on a computer screen:
And you can glance out the window for a moment, distracted by the sound
of small kids playing a made-up game in a neighbor’s yard, some kind of
kickball maybe, and they speak in your voice, or piggy-back races on the weedy
lawn, and it’s your voice you hear, essentially, under the glimmerglass sky,
and you look at the things in the room, offscreen, unwebbed, the tissued grain
of the deskwood alive in light, the thick lived tenor of things, the argument of
things to be seen and eaten, the apple core going sepia in the lunch tray, and
the dense measures of experience in a random glance, the monk’s candle
reflected in the slope of the phone, hours marked in Roman numerals, and the
glaze of the wax, and the curl of the braided wick, and the chipped rim of the
mug that holds your yellow pencils, skewed all crazy, and the plied lives of the
simplest surface, the slabbed butter melting on the crumbled bun, and the yellow
of the yellow of the pencils, and you try to imagine the word on the screen
becoming a thing in the world, taking all its meanings, its sense of serenities
and contentments out into the streets somehow, its whisper of reconciliation, a
word extending itself ever outward, the tone of agreement or treaty, the tone of
repose, the sense of mollifying silence, the tone of hail and farewell, a word
that carries the sunlit ardor of an object deep in a drenching noon, the
argument of binding touch, but it’s only a sequence of pulses on a dullish
screen and all it can do is make you pensive- a word that spreads a longing
through the raw sprawl of the city and out across the dreaming bourns and
orchards to the solitary hills.
As an experiment, remove all the modifiers from the penultimate paragraph, and read the paragraphs side by side. When done, you will note that the modifiers did not add a single thing to the images and emotional content. In fact, it probably helped distract many a reader. This is because, unless there is a specific reason for the modified word, one that has an import before or after its use, there is usually almost no reason to modify a word. It is frill, and DeLillo likely could have cut his book by a hundred or more pages just by using a leaner, unmodified prose.
Then there is the book’s last word, sentence, paragraph. Is it to mean ‘peace out,’ the state of peace, some hippy sentiment, or another of the terms possible meanings? No matter which, it adds nothing to the already overmodified ending. It’s the pseudo-poet given way to the pseudo-prophet, and a very weak ending to a book that starts so well.
Let’s compare the mediocre to bad dialogue and overmodified sentiments of the last two excerpts with some prose from the book’s opening novella-cum-Prologue. Check out the leaner descriptions (with a few slips into ungainly modifiers):
In the radio booth they’re talking about the crowd. Looks like thirty-five thousand and how do you figure it. When you think about the textured histories of the teams and the faith and passion of the fans and the way these forces are entwined citywide, and when you think about the game itself, live-or-die, the third game in a three-game playoff, and you say the names Giants and Dodgers, and you calculate the way the players hate each other openly, and you recall the kind of year this has turned out to be, the pennant race that has brought the city to a strangulated rapture, an end-shudder requiring a German loanword to put across the mingling of pleasure and dread and suspense, and when you think about the blood loyalty, this is what they're saying in the booth- the love-of-team that runs across the boroughs and through the snuggled suburbs and out into the apple counties and the raw north, then how do you explain twenty thousand empty seats?
The engineer says, “All day it looks like rain. It affects the mood. People say the hell with it.”
The producer is hanging a blanket across the booth to separate the crew from the guys who’ve just arrived from KMOX in St. Louis. Have to double up since there’s nowhere else to put them.
He says to the engineer, “Don't forget. There wasn’t any advance sale.”
And the engineer says, “Plus the Giants lost big yesterday and this is a serious thing because a crushing defeat puts a gloom on the neighborhoods. Believe me, I know this where I live. It’s demoralizing for people. It’s like they’re dying in the tens of thousands.”
Russ Hodges, who broadcasts the games for WMCA, he is the voice of the Giants- Russ has an overworked larynx and the makings of a major cold and he shouldn’t be lighting up a cigarette but here he goes, saying, “That’s all well and good but I’m not sure there really is a logical explanation. When you deal with crowds, nothing's predictable.”
Russ is going jowly now but there are elements of the uncomplicated boy in his eyes and smile and in the hair that looks bowl-cut and the shapeless suit that might belong to almost anyone. Can you do games, can you do play-by-play almost every day through a deep summer and not be located in some version of the past?
He looks out at the field with its cramped corners and the overcompensating spaces of the deep alleys and dead center. The big square Longines clock that juts up from the clubhouse. Strokes of color all around, a frescoing of hats and faces and the green grandstand and tawny base paths. Russ feels lucky to be here. Day of days and he's doing the game and it's happening at the Polo Grounds- a name he loves, a precious echo of things and times before the century went to war. He thinks everybody who’s here ought to feel lucky because something big’s in the works, something’s building. Okay, maybe just his temperature. But he finds himself thinking of the time his father took him to see Dempsey fight Willard in Toledo and what a thing that was, what a measure of the awesome, the Fourth of July and a hundred and ten degrees and a crowd of shirtsleeved men in straw hats, many wearing handkerchiefs spread beneath their hats and down to their shoulders, making them look like play-Arabs, and the greatness of the beating big Jess took in that white hot ring, the way the sweat and blood came misting off his face every time Dempsey hit him.
When you see a thing like that, a thing that becomes a newsreel, you begin to feel you are a carrier of some solemn scrap of history.
Note how the modifiers, when used, are not so melodramatic. In the last sentence, the word solemn could be argued to be superfluous, as used in its context, but, it alliteratively makes sense and sounds well. Now, go back and read the book’s penultimate paragraph, and seriously, do glimmerglass or tissued or mollifying or drenched work as well? Hell, a de facto modifier is made out of the noun newsreel. So, not only is the Prologue better written, and almost a wholly discreet work from the rest of the book, but it’s manifestly better, by a large margin, and shows up just how poor the rest of the book that follows is, by comparison, even as, here and there, it lends the ungainly rest of the novel bits and pieces of its poesy, metaphoric content, and a few other bits of goodness.
Now, let’s compare the previously dealt with, and stilted, conversation between Nick Shay and the priest with this early conversation between Cotter Martin and the man he will take Thomson’s home run ball away from:
The empty seats were Cotter’s first surprise, well before the lights. On his prowl through the stands he kept seeing blank seats, too many to be explained by people buying a beer or taking a leak, and he found a spot between a couple of guys in suits and it's all he can do to accept his good luck, the ease of an actual seat, without worrying why there’s so many.
The man to his left says, “How about some peanuts hey?”
Peanut vendor’s coming through again, a coin-catching wiz about eighteen, black and rangy. People know him from games past and innings gone and they quicken up and dig for change. They’re calling out for peanuts, hey, here, bag, and tossing coins with thumb flicks and discus arcs and the vendor’s hands seem to inhale the flying metal. He is magnet-skinned, circus-catching dimes on the wing and then sailing peanut bags into people’s chests. It’s a thrill-a-minute show but Cotter feels an obscure danger here. The guy is making him visible, shaming him in his prowler’s den. Isn’t it strange how their common color jumps the space between them? Nobody saw Cotter until the vendor appeared, black rays phasing from his hands. One popular Negro and crowd pleaser. One shifty kid trying not to be noticed.
The man says, “What do you say?”
Cotter raises a hand no.
“Care for a bag? Come on.”
Cotter leans away, the hand going to his midsection to mean he’s already eaten or peanuts give him cramps or his mother told him not to fill up on trashy food that will ruin his dinner.
The man says, “Who’s your team then?”
“What a year hey?”
“This weather, I don’t know, it’s bad to be trailing.”
The man looks at the sky. He's about forty, close-shaved and Brylcreemed but with a casual quality, a free-and-easy manner that Cotter links to small-town life in the movies.
“Only down a run. They’ll come back. The kind of year it’s been, it can’t end with a little weather. How about a soda?”
Men passing in and out of the toilets, men zipping their flies as they turn from the trough and other men approaching the long receptacle, thinking where they want to stand and next to whom and not next to whom, and the old ballpark’s reek and mold are consolidated here, generational tides of beer and shit and cigarettes and peanut shells and disinfectants and pisses in the untold millions, and they are thinking in the ordinary way that helps a person glide through a life, thinking thoughts unconnected to events, the dusty hum of who you are, men shouldering through the traffic in the men’s room as the game goes on, the coming and going, the lifting out of dicks and the meditative pissing.
Man to his left shifts in the seat and speaks to Cotter from off his shoulder, using a crafty whisper. “What about school? Having a private holiday?” Letting a grin slide across his face.
Cotter says, “Same as you,” and gets a gunshot laugh.
“I'd a broken out of prison to see this game. Matter of fact they’re broadcasting to prisoners. They put radios in cell blocks in the city jails.”
“I was here early,” Cotter says. “I could have gone to school in the morning and then cut out. But I wanted to see everything.”
“A real fan. Music to my ears.”
“See the people showing up. The players going in the players’ entrance.”
“My name’s Bill Waterson by the way. And I’d a gladly gone AWOL from the office but I didn’t actually have to. Got my own little business. Construction firm.”
Cotter tries to think of something to say.
“We're the people that build the houses that are fun to live in.”
Peanut vendor’s on his way up the aisle and headed over to the next section when he spots Cotter and drops a knowing smile. The kid thinks here comes trouble. This gatemouth is out to expose him in some withering way. Their glances briefly meet as the vendor moves up the stairs. In full stride and double-quick he dips his hand for a bag of peanuts and zings it nonchalant to Cotter, who makes the grab in a one-hand blur that matches the hazy outline of the toss. And it is one sweetheart of a moment, making Cotter crack the smile of the week and sending a wave of goodwill through the area.
“Guess you got one after all,” says Bill Waterson.
Cotter unrolls the pleated top of the brown bag and extends it to Bill. They sit there shelling the peanuts and rubbing off the tissuey brown skin with a rolling motion of thumb and index finger and eating the oily salty flesh and dropping the husks on the ground without ever taking their eyes off the game.
Bill says, “Next time you hear someone say they’re in seventh heaven, think of this.”
“All we need is some runs.”
He pushes the bag at Bill once more.
“They’ll score. It’s coming. Don’t worry. We’ll make you happy you skipped school.”
Look at Robinson at the edge of the outfield grass watching the hitter step in and thinking idly, Another one of Leo's country-boy krauts.
“Now there’s a law of manly conduct,” Bill says. “And it states that since you’re sharing your peanuts with me, I’m duty-bound to buy us both some soda pop.”
“That sounds fair enough.”
“Good. It’s settled then.” Turning in his seat and flinging up an arm. “A couple of sportsmen taking their ease.”
Note the difference in the two conversations. Yes, one is aiming to be didactic, but does so in a forced stridency, while the other is at a baseball game, but captures the natural laconic rhythms of the game, and even nicely deals with the issue of race in a sly yet believable way vs. the self-consciousness of both the didactic priest and the mind-numbed wannabe computer zombie. About the only thing wrong with the Bill-Cotter conversation is when Bill says he’ll buy Cotter a soda pop, rather than a soda, as ‘pop’ has never been used the way it is in the upper Midwest, to describe soda.
In these excerpts I’ve shown DeLillo’s logy with words, as well as his anomic storytelling abilities. Oftentimes, in reviews of novels (especially those written in the last few decades of the PC and Postmodern MFA writing mill era), I lament the lack of a good editor to trim out the verbosity and fug of words that often litter the bad novels under my scrutiny, but the reality is that, even with a good old time edit of worth, the books in question would still be worthless, for they offer absolutely nothing. This is not true with Underworld. It is a potentially good novel, if trimmed to 300 or 400 pages, or if actually deepened to 12-1500 pages. But, having read this book, DeLillo is at his worst when bloating the simple into the attempted abstruse- especially when political, so a 3-400 page novel is likely where these ideas could have reached the level of a good, solid novel worth reading.
Here’s an example of DeLillo preening with no subtlely, when Nick Shay declaims about corporate America:
Corporations are great and appalling things. They take you and shape you in nearly nothing flat, twist and swivel you. And they do it without overt persuasion, they do it with smiles and nods, a collective inflection of the voice. You stand at the head of a corridor and by the time you walk to the far end you have adopted the comprehensive philosophy of the firm, the Weltanschauung.
Whether one agrees or not with the character’s claims, the fact is that Nick Shay is simply not that deep enough of a character to even express such a sentiment, much less bloviate with a German word. This is DeLillo nakedly slipping through his characters, and this is fine as the semi-omniscient narrator, but when it comes out of nowhere, with a character the reader has found to be inane and shallow, it shows that the writer is more intent on didacticism than art. This is why God made bumper stickers, or so the religious would declaim.
Other flaws occur when characters of note, like Cotter and Bill, and tales of potential- like the peregrinations of Bobby Thomson’s pennant winning home run ball (one of the better passages in the post-Prologue portion of the book comes when the reader learns that Nick Shay wasted $35,000 on a ball that likely is not the actual ball Thomson launched into Cotter’s mitts), are given shortshrift, in favor of the terminally dull Klara Sax, and the pointless serial killer tale. Then, the revelation of Nick Shay’s accidental killing of his friend is revealed, and the reader shrugs, because we’ve seen the man do far more ethically dubious things. Yes, perhaps, psychologically, it’s more cogent for the character to obsess on the death of his friend, and the unjust punition he received for it, but, to the reader, its being set up as the grand ‘twist’ of the book causes an inevitable letdown that could have been avoided had the book been chronologically based. In this way, and in a few other less salient subplots, the bulk of the book’s reverse chronology comes off as a mere stunt, not a cogent literary tactic. Also, when characters are dropped for hundreds of pages, then reappear, it is difficult for a reader to even recognize them as a reappearing character, rather than a new one. This is because, if one employs such a tactic, two indispensable things are needed: 1) a strong narrative arc (regardless of chronological direction), and 2) strong, memorable, and necessary appearances by the recurring characters.
Then there is the issue of DeLillo’s so-called Postmodernism, but, as stated early, and clearly shown in these excerpts, DeLillo is clearly a classically realistic novelist. Some critics, in attempting to row against the tide, have made claims comparing DeLillo to Charles Dickens, but this comparison is as faulty and absurd as calling him a Postmodernist. Why? Because, while Dickens’ characters often descended into parody, satire, and, at their worst, mere caricatures, he was, at his best, in his best protagonists, such as Pip, Oliver Twist, or David Copperfield, plus a number of other characters, able to craft real characters of depth and range. And, even when not at his best, his characters were colorful and memorable, yet, as I mentioned earlier, I can barely recall any major events and plot points from Underworld, and the characters are forgettably grise. And merely playing with non-linear narratives does not make one a Postmodernist. If so, then writers as diverse as Homer, James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Joseph Heller, Laurence Sterne, and Kurt Vonnegut, amongst many others, would have to be considered Postmodernists. Clearly they are not, and many wrote long before that bane of art was espoused. Yet, if one looks at DeLillo, the realist, one must conclude that he is not a very good realistic writer (excepting parts of the Prologue), for his phrasings revel in the very banality and dullness of realistic Realism, rather than embracing the literary Realism, which presents the illusion of reality via the seeming offhand poetic tangency of allusions and dialogue, and the concision of large ideas hidden in seemingly simple exchanges. None of this resides outside of the Prologue, which itself, is sometimes overly long and too comic where it should be serious, and vice-versa. Aside from the didactic dialogue, airy modifiers, longueurs, and narrative anomy, Underworld’s biggest flaw, as critic James Wood notes, is that it has ‘no single individual who absolutely matters.’
In this, the hit and miss Wood is absolutely correct. After the Prologue, I was ready to state that DeLillo was that rare published writer who might actually be worthy of all the blurbery he received. Over 750 pages, and two days, later I returned to my Dart Toss assessment when encountering a piece of good writing by a writer who has produced nothing else of consequence. Perhaps the emotion and pungency of the Dodgers-Giants playoff was so special to DeLillo that he wrote on autopilot? He was Divinely Inspired? He got lucky? Underworld is, at the least, a notch or two above the typical MFA writing mill trash of recent decades, but the only real argument it can inspire is whether or not its Prologue is well enough written to lift the whole gray hulk above being bad and into the alms of mediocrity. That this book placed behind Toni Morrison’s Beloved (another book of potential that fails due to anomic editing and a damning of its good characters and plots for lesser ones), in a 2006 poll of writers as the best work of American fiction of the last quarter century shows just how far American literature has fallen in these times.
One might pat DeLillo on the back for at least attempting something of depth, but we all know where good intent leads. The amazing thing is that, as a writer who has sent his and his wife’s great works to agents for years, all of the clichés that are used in rejection are actually present in this book, as well as the overwhelming bulk of published novels, from chick lit to granny novels to YA and vampire books to so-called ‘literary fiction’ as this. One simply cannot relate to any of the book beyond the prologue because one gets bored of the zombies foisted onto a melodramatic stage adorned with nothing but predictable twists of little consequence. A Tree Grows In Brooklyn was about nothing in particular, but everything. Underworld is about nothing in general. Had DeLillo dropped his turgid philosophies and embraced a single idea, something as simple as the old ‘is a memory a thing you have or a thing you have lost?’ idea, the book may have been something, for both its depth and concision. What is the 1951 playoff game about? In the book it is really just about itself, because it fails as a metaphor outside of the Prologue, and this is emblemic of so many other, even smaller failures.
The best opening of a chapter, outside of the Prologue, occurs on page 222, Chapter 7 of Part 2:
How deep is time? How far down into the life of matter do we have to go before we understand what time is?
The old science teacher, Bonzini, moved through the snow, slogging, dragging happily, head down, his cigar boz tucked under his arm- the scissors, the combs, the electric clipper to do the nape of Eddie’s neck.
We head out into space, line up the launch window and blast off, we swing around the planet in a song. But time binds us to aging flesh. Not that he minded growing old. But as a point of argument, in theory only, he wondered what we’d learn by going deeper into structures beneath the standard model, down under the quantum, a million billion times smaller than the old Greek atom.
Yet, despite this intrigue, this almost Loren Eiseleyan turn of phrases, DeLillo never follows up on this start, neither in the chapter that follows, nor the over 600 following pages. It’s as if he has used up so much energy in its conjure that he is doomed to burbling through the rest of the chapter. Similar bouts of ennui follow other interesting moments, such as when two black characters speak of the U.S. Census possibly underreporting the number of blacks in the country, so that whites’ fear level stays low; or when Nick Shay obsesses over the number 13 in relation to the playoff game, or Bronzini’s thoughts on the connections between tangerines and Tangiers, Algeria. All of these things are merely tossed up, to give an illusion of depth, art, and literature, where none exists, for depth, art, and literature depend on connecting things. They thrive in the interstices between the obvious, and obviousness is all DeLillo’s book can muster, not the subtle shadings within. Underworld, in this sense, might have more aptly been titled Overworld, but, then, we wouldn’t wanna go gettin’ all artsily Postmodern now, would we?
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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