Underworld by Don DeLillo
by Don DeLillo
Scribner. 827 pp. $27.50
After a long, wearying preoccupation with “minimalism,” it seems that American fiction has begun to return to more ambitious subjects. From the unwieldy, multi-pound tomes of William Gaddis (A Frolic of His Own), David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest), and Thomas Pynchon (Mason & Dixon), to the tighter and more disciplined works of Philip Roth (American Pastoral) and John Updike (In the Beauty of the Lilies), novelists of varying power and quality have recently been showing a renewed interest in the larger experience of their country and their time.
In principle, this is a welcome development. Minimalism, which, in the hands of a writer like the late Raymond Carver, could at its best achieve a certain haunted grace, had degenerated into a mannered, suffocating idiom, and a return to a more invigorating sense of public and communal life was something much to be desired. The problem, of course, is that it is not enough for novelists to have grand ambitions; they must have talents to match.
Consider the case of Don DeLillo, whose latest novel, Underworld, at over 800 pages, is his longest and most ambitious to date. A gifted writer now in his early sixties, free both of the bombast of a Norman Mailer and the hermeticism of a Pynchon, DeLillo has built a solid critical reputation and has begun to enjoy a growing influence with readers. The best of his ten previous novels—they include The Names (1982) and White Noise (1985)—are virtuoso dissections of contemporary American anomie, half-poignant, half-funny portraits of an enameled society in which ties of family, neighborhood, and religion have melted away. In Libra (1988), DeLillo moved into new fictional territory, constructing a narrative edifice upon some of the wilder conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy, and adding his own to the mix; for this act of literary speculation, he drew the fire of the columnist George F. Will but also the interest of enough readers to help the book, briefly, onto the best-seller lists.
Underworld, too, is about actual events. It began life as a novella, “Pafko at the Wall,” Pafko being the Brooklyn Dodger outfielder who on October 3, 1951, watched helplessly as a ball hit by Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants caromed off the foul pole at the Polo Grounds and fell into the lower deck for a pennant-winning home run. It turns out that, on the same date as this “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” the United States government learned that the Soviet Union had conducted its second nuclear test at a site in Kazakhstan. The two events garnered side-by-side headlines in the following day’s New York Times.
As DeLillo has explained to interviewers, this juxtaposition, which he discovered when researching news reports of the game, struck him as pregnant with meaning. The celebration that followed the game was, for him, the country’s last public event full of joy and life. Thereafter, American spectacles would be paeans to death, shadowed always by the specter of the bomb.
The Novel’s plot, such as it is, follows from this central “insight,” meandering through a bewildering maze of chronological displacements and bringing together characters with only the most tangential relationship to each other. The opening section—a reworking of the novella—tracks the adventures of Cotter Martin, a black boy from the Bronx who skips school to sneak into the ballpark on the fateful day and manages to scoop up the home-run ball. Later that night, Cotter’s unemployed father swipes the ball and sells it at Yankee Stadium to a fan waiting in line to get tickets for the World Series. The fan, in turn, presents the ball to his son, a malign, disaffected boy who fails to appreciate the gesture and who appears later in the novel as a callous airman thoughtlessly dropping napalm from his B-52 during the Vietnam war. His plane, in its turn, is mothballed in the New Mexico desert, where it becomes a giant canvas for Klara Sax, an artist inspired by the exuberant graffiti of a section in the Bronx that—to complete the circle—is not far from where Cotter Martin once lived.
The closest thing to a protagonist in the novel is a character named Nick Shay, who was also born and raised not far away. As a young man, Nick enjoys two afternoon trysts with Klara, who was then the bored wife of his high-school science teacher, a kind of Italian-American luftmensch and chess tutor to Nick’s younger brother, Matty. Matty will become involved with the atom bomb as a risk analyst at Los Alamos. It is Nick who, in the present time of the novel, has inherited the famous home-run ball. And so forth.
What is this dizzying whirl all about? DeLillo’s leitmotif the idea of waste, of lives built in response to the importunings of garbage. Nick Shay himself is an executive with a “waste-management” firm. Working as a consultant for the firm is a self-styled “garbage theorist,” a one-time political radical who used to scour the refuse of establishment figures in order to expose their secrets. The consultant has now come to believe that garbage is not what we cast out, but the prime locus of meaning in our lives: we arrange our existences so as to make room for garbage.
This whimsical notion also seemingly embraces the place of the bomb in American consciousness. Not only has actual nuclear waste become a terrible problem, but the very idea of nuclear war—of devastation on so immense a scale—is a form of virtual waste. In these many ways, DeLillo seems to be saying, Americans ordered their lives during the long cold war to accommodate the ever-present possibility of total destruction, that is, of their own “wasting.” In making way for the bomb, we pushed aside all other sources of human meaning.
A novel so patently fashioned on ideas, and out of ideas, can have power even if the ideas themselves are trite, or delusional, or false—and the ideas in this novel are all three. The real test is whether the ideas arise organically from what the characters do and think and say, and whether the characters themselves come to life on the page. Neither is the case in Underworld.
To be sure, the book brims with finely observed and finely rendered vignettes. DeLillo is a masterful mimic of voices and has a discerning eye for period flavor, from the street culture of the Bronx in the 1950’s to the Soho art world of the 1980’s; even the corporate ethos of Nick Shay’s firm merits a lovingly nuanced portrayal. All this speaks to the polish and artistry of DeLillo’s prose, but the sum of the parts, when it is not pointlessly vertiginous and disorientating, remains abstract, ungrounded, and emotionally hollow.
The characters in Underworld, in particular, are, for all the novel’s length, woefully undeveloped. Nick Shay, the narrative center, is a blank slate. Growing up tough in the Bronx, he kills a man—probably by accident, though this is left open—and is sent to reform school. How or why he joins the waste-management firm and develops a taste for baseball memorabilia, we never learn. Nor, apart from being told that he tends to be disconnected from people and events, do we discover much about his psychological make-up. A potentially meaningful story about the disappearance of his father, a small-time numbers-runner who either (in Nick’s fancied version) got rubbed out by the Mafia or just grew bored with family life, is mentioned in passing, lost in the noise of DeLillo’s busy narrative fireworks.
Which, one wonders, is worse: infinitely minute and tedious explorations of the small pains of small people, the hallmark of the minimalist school, or disjointed runs at large subjects unsustained by imagination or, in the end, by a basic commitment to the artistic requirements of the novel? At least, in the case of minimalism, one’s expectations are lower, and disappointments commensurately easier to bear. If Underworld is an example of what we are in for from our “big” novelists, it might be better, on the whole, if American writers continued to think small.