Underworld, by Don DeLillo, Scribner, 1997, 827 pages, hardcover
Remember the movie Forrest Gump, with Tom Hanks so good in the title role? Remember the sense – not so much of homesickness but of history sickness, historical nostalgia – that came over you as you watched the show? I know when I saw the movie I felt I shared in forty years of American experience. And I wasn’t alone. All of us in the audience identified with the innocent fool Gump. And so it became possible for all of us to review together in an emotional way everything that had been tragic in American public life over the past four decades.
The fact that a Vancouver audience felt such a complete sense of sharing in American history demonstrates the near-total effectiveness of the movie. It also testifies to the amazing power of American popular culture. And (as I realized yet again a few years ago when I saw members of a Nelson audience rise to its feet and clap at the end of Air Force One) it says something about our indifference to our own history, a point I’ll come back to later.
In a different way, in a different key, Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld provides the same sensation of sharing in American life. Forrest Gump offered its weight of sorrow fully orchestrated, plush and obvious. Underworld gives its readers a keener, sharper melody. And along with the tensile strength of its sentences, the intricate structure of the book most contributes to its force.
The book opens with a 25,000 word Prologue, “The Triumph of Death,” which many reviewers called a breakthough piece of prose for DeLillo. It first appeared in Harper’s as the novella “Pafko at the Wall,” and it describes the 1951 pennant race game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, decided at the last minute by Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard round the world.” In The New York Review of Books Luc Sante suggested that the text
is a tour de force of cinematic writing – not text that is camera-ready (as is practiced by too many writers these days), but that challenges the movies at their own game. It zooms, dollies, tracks, cuts from close-ups to long shots and back, assembles thousands of bits of visual and auditory information into a montage that spectacularly renders the entire experience….He can not only deliver the effect of single shots spliced together (“A man slowly wiping his glasses. A staring man. A man flexing the stiffness out of his limbs”)…he can also cut suddenly into and out of various viewpoints – four of them, though the effect is multitudinous.
The Prologue goes on for 60 pages, thrilling in its complexity, photographic in its precise, overlapping, black-and-white details, capturing everything – the whole ballgame and all that surrounds it. (The game the reader sees and hears even includes a brilliantly rendered conversation between J. Edgar Hoover, Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and Toots Shor.) After the home run, the reader enters the mind of radio announcer Russ Hodges, one of the four viewpoints DeLillo has been moving in and out of:
This is the thing that will pulse in his brain come old age and double vision and dizzy spells – the surge sensation, the leap of people already standing, that bolt of noise and joy when the ball went in….
The raincoat drunk is running the bases. They see him round first, his hands paddling the air to keep him from drifting into right field. He approaches second in a burst of coattails and limbs and untied shoelaces and swinging belt. They see he is going to slide and they stop and watch him leave his feet. All the fragments of the afternoon collect around his airborne form. Shouts, batcracks, full bladders and stray yawns, the sand-grain manyness of things that can’t be counted.
It is all falling indelibly into the past.
Then a cut. The Prologue ends and Part 1 – “Long Tall Sally: Spring – Summer 1992” – begins. The protagonist, Nick Shay, a taciturn man who works in waste management, is speaking: “I was driving a Lexus through a rustling wind.”
In that cut, in that movement between the two sentences (physically separated, in this beautifully designed book, by a single page, black at the bottom) the deepest effect of Underworld starts to be felt. As the book proceeds, the reader encounters five more parts. Note how the chronology progresses: “Elegy for Left Hand Alone: Mid-1980s – Early 1990s”; “The Cloud of Unknowing: Spring 1978”; “Cocksucker Blues: Summer 1974”; “Better Things for Better Living Through Chemistry: Selected Fragments Public and Private in the 1950s and 1960s”; and finally “Arrangement in Gray and Black: Fall 1951 – Summer 1952.”
In other words: the way this 827-page book is constructed deliberately impedes our usual expectations when we read a novel. It moves backwards in time, not forwards. More precisely, it doesn’t move. It sits still. You move through it. Underworld presents itself as a gigantic act of assemblage, a collage of pieces that the reader goes through, travels through, instead of being carried along by. As one thoughtful reviewer noted, you read Underworld somewhat the way you read Eliot’s The Wasteland; and as you read you feel the way you do when you read Eliot’s poem.
How to describe this feeling? Obviously DeLillo could have structured his book more conventionally. He could have gone straight from the ballgame to his dazzling evocation of the Italian Bronx in 1951 and then kept on going. But he took a risk because he wanted to produce a book that makes you feel the weight of history, the weight of memories. He wanted in the first place to evoke that ghostly, spread-out, sorrowful feeling – that often confused feeling which is nonetheless intense, as if you had dived to the bottommost stratum of experience – which you have when you wake from a dream in which the dead have come back, and 1969, say, or 1980 uneasily mixes with the present.
And in the second place he wanted to evoke that strange modern sense of history we’ve all developed from spending so much of our lives sitting in front of a TV set watching the news. Everything comes back on TV news, repeats itself: Tiananmen square, last week’s murder in White Rock, the end of World War One, an abduction in Saskatchewan ten years ago. Everything exists simultaneously.
And so it is in Underworld. As you read you develop a sense that the dozens of characters – the thousands of details – all have a simultaneous life. This odd simultaneity gives everything that happens in the book that modern historical quality of seeming to have always been there, to be re-occurring again and again. Maybe you’ve seen those black and white World War Two images that appear every so often on television – tanks moving through rubbled streets, Russian soldiers advancing on Berlin. Have you noticed how they never lose their power to convey the all-but-overwhelming weight of the 20th century? They keep reappearing. Hitler keeps reappearing. JFK keeps coming back. The helicopter gunships used in the Vietnam war – their particular shape and sound – again and again fill the TV screen. The young man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square keeps returning.
It all keeps coming back. It is all there at once. A gigantic collage. Almost at the start of the 20th century Eliot recognized that a new sensibility had developed in the West, a feeling that all of history was present at any given moment – that the dead kept returning, again and again. Moreover, he recognized that in connection with this strange new phenomenon the individual was no longer the significant factor. What counted was the crowd.
DeLillo concurs. “The future belongs to crowds,” he wrote in Mao II. And in the third paragraph of Underworld he writes: “Longing on a large scale is what makes history.”
In a recent interview DeLillo noted that he has been interested for years in the following passage in John Cheever’s journals, written after Cheever attended a ballgame in Shea Stadium:
The task of an American writer is not to describe the misgivings of a woman taken in adultery as she looks out of a window at the rain but to describe 400 people under the lights reaching for a foul ball…or the faint thunder as 10,000 people, at the bottom of the eighth, head for the exits. The sense of moral judgements embodied in a migratory vastness.
A migratory vastness – no phrase I can think of better describes Underworld. And it explains in another way why DeLillo took the risk he did with this huge novel. Storytelling, with its forward-moving progression in time, always involves the fate of individuals, single selves. But history joins us to what is outside ourselves. It makes the self less important. (Which is why it was so crucial that Forrest Gump, if he was to embody recent American history, be an exemplary figure, almost a character out of a fairy tale.)
Does this seem too abstract? Actually it isn’t hard to feel yourself as an historical being. Think of that eagerness you have to watch the evening news; and think of how you feel when you click it on, knowing that millions of others are doing the same thing. Think of how you feel when you watch a Nike ad, when you line up at London Drugs, when you stand still with others in an elevator, when you see the crowd you are part of reflected in the plate glass of a building downtown. To feel yourself as an historical being is to feel that your individual fate is attenuated, a bit submerged, in comparison to your existence as part of a collective. This is the feeling DeLillo successfully and at times overwhelmingly evokes.
So far I’ve been trying to get across Underworld’s overall effect. I’ve wanted to suggest the way it contains, and evokes, our modern awareness of history.
But this risks making the book sound schematic. It isn’t. You don’t just travel through Underworld. You live in it. It’s true that DeLillo isn’t afraid of being an essayist, of saying things. He is a public writer, interested in the contemporary world. But he has also developed a formidable power to evoke the texture of different lives, to give people voices, to show them interacting – and to do it all with a steely, rough prose full of the hard sound of American life – a quick prose, exact and laconic and a terrific pleasure to read sentence by sentence.
What especially excites in this book is the way actual history mixes with the history DeLillo has invented. Something hard to describe appears in Underworld which before now I’d found only in a kind of cartoon version in the novels of James Ellroy. I’m referring to the actual atmosphere of the past 50 years in the United States: black-humoured, nightmarish, amphetamine-driven, stunning in complexity.
Every review of the book that I’ve read has noted the great sequences in which DeLillo brings the comedian Lenny Bruce to life. What makes these sequences so absorbing isn’t just how they put Bruce in front of you; what also engrosses you is the way the whole atmosphere of the early 60s – that period during the Cuban missile crisis the year before John Kennedy was shot – is resurrected like a kind of glowing historical plasma. Here’s a small piece:
He did the opening again, checking the line for style and fit.
“Good evening, my fellow citizens.”
A stir of renewed anticipation – maybe they wanted him to pursue the presidential thing, but he waved it off again and stood there sort of humming at the hips, doing a little wobble that seemed to get the next thought going.
Then he did the shrillest sort of falsetto.
"We’re all gonna die!”
This cracked him up. He bent from the waist laughing and seemed to be using the mike as a geiger counter, waving it over the floorboards.
“Dig it, JFK’s got this Russian man-bull staring him down, they’re pizzle to pizzle, and this is a guy Jack doesn’t know how to deal with. What’s he supposed to say? I shtupped more debutantes than you? This is a coal miner, he’s a guy who herded farm animals barefoot for a couple of kopeks. He’s been known to stick his fist up a sow’s ass to fertilize his vegetable garden. What’s Jack suppose to say to him – a secretary gave me a handjob on the White House elevator? This is a guy who craps with the door open on state occasions. He has sex with his bowling trophies.”
DeLillo captures perfectly the way Bruce would improvise – the way he’d lurch along, getting caught on a line, a sentence, another line, until finally he found his bit. And because he brings Bruce’s speil so fully to life, he also evokes, in an almost uncanny way, that coffee-and-sugar sweatiness, that hard-talking, hey-guy atmosphere of the early 60s that Bruce floated in. You can hear Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack in Bruce’s bits; you can hear Dean Martin drawling to an interviewer about the great dump he had that afternoon.
Still, for me the finest prose in the book comes near the end. In Part 6 DeLillo takes the reader through the Fordham section of the Bronx where he lived as a young man. It’s 1951 again. And DeLillo’s mastery of dialogue, the wiry moodiness of his sentences are electrified by a new intensity. He is exploring Nick Shay’s youth, and as he takes Nick through the streets, listening to people, catching the cool, passionate feeling of those days, the reader can’t help but think that he’s returning to his own young manhood. Whatever, this is the best writing DeLillo’s done:
“I seen him with that girl he goes with. Loretta,” the second butcher said.
“You think he’s getting some?”
“I know he is. Because I look at his face when they walk by.”
“Nicky, tell me about it. Make me feel good,” the butcher said. “Because I’m reaching the point I have to hear other people’s, you know, whatever it is they’re doing that I’m not doing no more.”
“I think he’s a cuntman. Up and coming.”
“This is true, Nicky?”
Nick’s mood was improving.
“I think he’s getting so much there’s not enough left over for the rest of us,” the second butcher said, Antone, barely visible behind the display case.
“Make me feel good, Nicky. I stand here all day, I look at them go by. Big women, short women, girls from Roosevelt, girls from Aquinas. You know what I say to myself. Where’s mine?”
“Nicky’s got yours. He’s got mines too.”
“Him, I could believe it.”
“And you know why, Joe?”
“He’s doing something he shouldn’t be doing.”
“He’s got that pussy smile when he walks by. Which could only mean one thing. The kid is eating box lunch at the Y.”
“Sboccato,” the butcher said happily, berating Antone, rasping the word from deep in his throat. Foulmouth.
Nick went to the door and opened it and waited for a woman to walk past and then flicked his cigarette toward the curbstone.
“Who’s better than him,” Antone said.
“You going to school, Nicky?”
“He goes when he goes. Hey. Who’s better than him?” Antone said. “I would give my right arm.”
Antone took the bag out of the case. It held chops, chicken breasts and fresh bacon. He passed it over the top to Nick.
“Who’s better than you?” he said.
“Be good,” Cousin Joe said.
“My right arm I would give. Look at this kid.”
A taste of blood and sawdust hung in the air.
“Regards to your mother, okay?”
“Be good, okay?”
“Be good,” the butcher said.
Love and the hot pain of remembrance; emotion brimming like tears in one’s eyes. From moment to moment DeLillo evokes that.
Underworld is about the United States – or to give it its legendary name, America. Reading it, responding to it, I realized the degree to which American culture is my culture. At the same time I realized the smaller but decisive degree to which it isn’t.
Here in Canada, more maybe than in any other country in the world, the American cultural empire has enforced a strange bifocal vision. We “see American” in the middle and long distance – in our news and entertainment; and in the near distance, in our interactions with each other and the natural world, we “see Canadian.” I don’t know if this phenomenon can be called colonial. Maybe some other word would be more accurate.
But I do know it’s real. And because Underworld is, among other things, a great essay on the United States, it challenged me to think about Canada and the literature we currently produce. My first thought was: Why don’t we have books with this density and force? And immediately the answer came to me: We don’t have them because we’re a small country, lacking the conflicts – and the interest – generated by an imperial power. But it also struck me that because we “see American,” the conflicts we do have don’t grip us – we seem to be unable to imaginatively take hold of our past.
A couple of years ago I saw the Warner/Dreamworks movie Deep Impact which was playing at the Granville Cineplex downtown. Sharon and I were comfortably seated at the edge of the row. The audience was just right: not so big we felt crowded, but not so small we felt lonely. We watched the Eaton’s ad, a fast montage of disgusted girls putting on clothes that the rest of the world wanted them to wear. Not bad. Then came the trailers, loud and fast, one advertising The Newton Show.
All right. I grabbed a handful of popcorn. This was fine. The hors d’oeuvres were being served and in a moment the feature banquet would start. Then – incredibly – the National Film Board logo filled the screen.
Old-fashioned fiddle music started to play and the NFB logo gave way to a pencil and watercolour animation of a kid walking jerkily down a country road. His feet didn’t quite touch the ground.
Somebody in the audience hissed. Opening credits rolled. The short – because of course it would be a short – was “The Sweater,” yet another version of the Roch Carrier memoir. “Get it off!” somebody muttered.
I felt embarrassed. I was ashamed to have this old-fashioned piece of Cancult inserted into the show we were watching.
As it turned out, the piece wasn’t bad. But as soon as it ended, and the animated helicopter swooped howling through the ultramodern city, letting us know we were listening to DDS sound, the effect of the short died away and we were back in the world of real entertainment.
Invariably, colonized countries see their history in received terms – that is, they see it the way the imperial power sees it. Maybe that’s why I felt embarrassed. Maybe that’s why somebody in the audience hissed and another person muttered at the screen. And maybe that’s why Sharon’s two boys spent dozens of hours when they were growing up drawing jets on whose sides they carefully printed the letters USAF.
Reading Underworld made me reflect not just on the surreal power of the United States. It also made me think of that country’s gravity, its density, the way, like a giant star bending rays of light, it distorts and alters everything around it. Delillo’s achievement lies in the fact that he has produced an analogue of his nation, an object whose heft and complexity, far from being overdone, are in fact just barely sufficient for their purpose.
A Canadian book of similar scope – what would it read like? I have a few ideas. They’re the ideas of someone born and raised in Western Canada. They have to do with density and weight. With history. We should read Hugh Brody’s books on Canada’s aboriginal people, Terry Glavin’s books with their new vision of BC, Brian Fawcett’s Virtual Clearcut, which describes a raw and ugly frontier culture as yet unexplored. We should see these and similar books as a foundation. We should meditate on them; above all we should stare long and hard at our past, recognizing in it the centrality of the Natives and the bush. Then we can begin.
May 12, 2004