Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Underworld" Don DeLillo

This enormous sprawling book is the depository of the American century: cold war paranoia, the bomb, drugs, the counter culture, the FBI, portraits of American cities no less realistic or detailed or atmospheric than Joyce’s Dublin: Los Angeles, Las Vegas, New York. Lenny Bruce, jello, the Zaprusker tape, softball memorabilia. There are many memorable characters, both major and minor, whose connections with each other all gradually are made clear, and many memorable historical events: the Democratic convention riots in 1968, the North east blackout in the early 60s (reading which puts me in mind of descriptions of the chaos on the streets during the attack on the World Trade Center). Two themes underpin its structure: garbage and softball.
The opening section about the famous softball game -which also coincided with the testing of the Russian bomb- is minutely described and extraordinarily fascinating. The stolen softball makes its reappearance again and again throughout the book as a linking device. (Proust’s little phrase, Homer’s epithets). The theme of garbage runs throughout the book: it is the profession of the main character, and the nuclear waste issue is also highlighted.
The language of the novel is lucid, clear and DeLillo has a habit of repeating mundane phrases or sentences to show how the mind treads water in the quotidian. However, this does sometimes have the effect of padding, and the book is rather too long.
The impression of reading it, however, is one of coldness. This is a cold book, compared with say the warmth of other American giants: Bellow, Pynchon, Gaddis. Two reasons for this I think: one is that DeLillo is not a comic writer. Bellow and Pynchon especially achieve their humanity and warmth through a profoundly ludic vision of life, whereas I have a sneaking suspicion from reading Underworld that DeLillo takes himself and his American century rather too seriously.
Second, for a book that aims to capture the entirety of the American experience, there is a curious omission: the literature of the century. Bellow, by comparison, gets his depth by his reverence for and passionate commitment and enthusiasm for the literature of the past, whether he includes it in his work, refers to it in passing or merely echoes it, as does Pynchon. This book however, seems to exist in the vacuum of popular culture: Lenny Bruce is the closest we get to a cultural artifact, or the artist Sax, who deals in conceptual or visual art. The word here is stripped of its high cultural associations and becomes an ahistorical democratic object, equally useful for dealing with waste or describing sport. DeLillo’s attempts at a beauty of prose (he likes to close chapters with sentences that have a momentarily arresting rhetorical echo to them) seem a bit perfunctory, and on close examination come across as inauthentic.
There is no doubt though, that it is the Americans who have written the great carpet-bag novels of the 20th century. The Dickens, Balzac and Tolstoy of our time are not British, or even Indian, but American: Bellow, DeLillo, Pynchon and Gaddis. Beside these giants, contemporary British novelists read like lukewarm tea.

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