Structure and subatomics: Don DeLillo, Underworld and the new historical novel

Jason Weaver revisits Don DeLillo’s premillennial opus of paranoia and baseball.

The title of Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld alludes both to living under the canopy of the bomb and to a world beneath us, more specifically a hell. DeLillo has publicly stated that he wanted to write about the ‘secret’ history of the Cold War: ‘… people have developed a sense that history has been secretly manipulated. Documents lost and destroyed. … I think we’ve developed a much more deeply unsettled feeling about our grip on reality’. As Peter Knight states (in Everything is Connected: Underworld’s Secret History of Paranoia): ‘Underworld creates a sense that there are larger forces in our lives over which we have no control, but which refuse to coalesce for more than a moment’. In one sense, this is the underworld of the title, a subterranean history, which is of hellish consequence; a narrative that shapes us but remains out of reach. Yet, the name also punningly compacts numerous meanings, which are ready to flare up and collide like fissile atoms. Whilst we might immediately pull out references to the book’s content – black market gangsterism as underbelly of capitalism, Eisestein’s ‘lost’ masterpiece as symbol of Cold War dialectics, the god Pluto’s connection to plutonium and the bomb, to name just a few – it is primarily in the connection of these themes that the name functions. That the title can be so loaded with references, which interact within the novel, is itself maddeningly complex. A clear sense of what the title refers to begins to break down. As Underworld obsessively demonstrates, everything connects in the end, and this absurd extension of Forster’s dictum is also hellish, in that the book is rhizomatically structured to the point of overdetermination. The meaning of the novel seems to be that meaning breaks down under the weight of infinite connection. This sense of a secret history and the overdetermination of meaning collide in the title to further complicate the equation. The underworld, then, is a place of impossibly complex interrelations over which we can have no clear grasp.

However, Underworld is a very long novel, particularly for an economical writer like DeLillo, whose previous work Mao II checked in at a quarter of this length. The premise that meaning has lost its meaning would be an indulgent one for the 800-odd pages of the work. It is the contention of this essay that DeLillo has started with the widespread sense of this premise (according to the quote above) and that the novel is an attempt to work through this idea. It is ironic that the sheer size of the book, amongst other things, promises a meaning, or a statement, which DeLillo intends to problematise. In fact, notions of the spatial are thematised within the novel, as we shall see, and it is typical of Underworld that the structure should interact with content in this way. Again, it is significant that the title also refers to location.

In a Rolling Stone interview of 1988, DeLillo outlined the controlling paradigm of his fiction:

It is … my sense that we live in a kind of circular or near-circular system and that there are an increasing number of rings which keep intersecting at some point, whether you’re using a plastic card to draw money out of your account at an automatic teller machine or thinking about the movement of planetary bodies. I mean, these systems all seem to interact to me. … The secrets within systems, I suppose, are things that have informed my work.

But they’re almost secrets of consciousness, or the ways in which consciousness is replicated in the natural world.

Although this statement is two decades old, it is a pretty clear description of a principle which organises Underworld. There is, however, a very important proviso. The quote promotes a reading of the work in terms of historical linearity. That the rings of intersection are increasing indicates an evolution that might tempt us to equate this change with the waning of the Cold War. Peter Knight differentiates between secure and our contemporary insecure paranoia. To some extent, this is borne out by the text, but it does not take into account the particular treatment of time and history in the book. By Underworld, history itself is caught in the circularity; looping, spinning backwards, connecting at dislocated points. It begins in a present tense 1952, switches to a past tense 1992, and rewinds through the decades to finish in an unspecified cyberspace. What, we might ask, is the present location in time? Furthermore, the novel itself loops, echoing jokes, images, and figures of speech in its epilogue and introduction. The text works to undermine any clear sense of historical linearity or progression.

On the other hand, we might see this as evidence of an ontological rupture between ‘our’ world and the Cold one, the lack of resemblance between the teenage Nick Shay and his middle-aged characterisation seen as further proof of this. Yet we come back to the over-abundance of connections between the two eras: the passage of the baseball through the years, for example, or the fact that the novel is bound together by the 1950’s ‘Manx Martin’ interludes.

For Brian McHale (in Postmodernist Fiction), the postmodernist novel is characterised by the foregrounding of ontological dilemmas. For example, inconsistencies between the ‘real’ world of the reader (or the material status of the book) and the ‘text continuum’ (or ‘imagined geography’) of the work are exploited to produce a kind of restless ‘flickering’, which calls into question issues of ontology around the fictional process. McHale uses the metaphor of ‘worlds’, which might impinge on one another, but cannot ultimately make sense when they come into contact. Clearly, McHale’s metaphorical war of the ‘worlds’ begs a comparison with the locational nature of DeLillo’s underworld, particularly when considering the two ideological ‘locations’ of the Cold War. Here, surely, are worlds that fail to ‘add up’? Yet, DeLillo chooses not only to emphasise the connections between East and West, but also to complicate them entirely. The dialectic, for example, a defining model for the Soviet system is played through the very construction of the Cold War binary, reaching a synthesis whereby East and West collaborate on a waste disposal method using underground nuclear blasts. The bomb that symbolised Cold War disjunction survives its historical context and alters its meaning. Furthermore, Eisenstein’s aesthetic use of dialectics is turned against the Soviet state in Eisenstein’s Unterwelt, the 1970s screening of which twists its Cold War iconography into a bizarre spectacle of American pop culture that actually manages to reinforce the politics of the film. Interpretation becomes rapidly hazardous as connections multiply and the core strand of argument is compromised by possible, competing routes.

In this way, the dialectic is raised to the level of the novel’s structure, appearing to offer clear paths of argument that cannot be sustained. Thus, the competing paradigms of the Cold War states become organising elements of the book, literalising these ideological themes. However, not only are these models locked in an incompatible competition, they also merge into one another, and even swap places. The very construction of the Cold War is shown to be connected in secret, minute ways. The novel is punning on an atomic level of connection. Not only are the Cold War nations linked, but the Cold War itself is hard to disentangle from the post-Cold War era.

The ontological dilemma that McHale illustrates is an ‘impossible’ one. Two necessarily discreet worlds exist in the same space. DeLillo’s Cold War worlds are doubly impossible. They are both independent and identical, defined and so merged that they cannot be prised apart. This certainly does not contradict McHale’s model, but his is founded on the idea of disjunction as the contemporary paradigm, whereas, according to DeLillo, the defining modern phenomena all demonstrate connectivity, whether they be the ecology, the internet or globalised capitalism. The epilogue, ‘Das Kapital,’ works with each of these examples and Underworld, as a whole, takes this connective paradigm at its word and fashions the new novel from it.

Critical reactions to Underworld have been contradictory. What each account shares is a common sense of anxiety, a tentativeness or general haziness about what it is that DeLillo has written. Philip Nel asks: ‘… is DeLillo’s work modern? Is it postmodern? Or would a term like “twentieth-century literature” suffice? For Timothy L Parrish, ‘DeLillo has surrendered to film the power once attributed to the novel’, despite the fact that the novel can rescue history from its confusions. Whilst we can confidently state that the novel is ‘about’ Cold War paranoia, what exactly does that mean? DeLillo’s language seems to offer a reading of society, his characters are very articulate theorists. When Nick and Donna discuss sex, for example, both present abstract ‘meanings’ which take in religion and fiction. DeLillo’s style is constructed around a series of apparently clear statements. Yet, critics seem to have a difficulty in constructing a satisfying account of the book.

Furthermore, interpretations seem to proceed with the assumption that Underworld is DeLillo’s stab at a ‘big statement’, thereby encouraging the search for a coherent reading. Even critics who have branded the novel a failure, have done so under the tacit agreement that Underworld attempts to embark on such a mission, even to the extent of reintroducing the unfashionable idea of the grand narrative. In keeping with the Cold War theme of secrecy, the ‘meaning’ of Underworld has been treated as a puzzle to be pieced together from scraps of information.

The publication of the book, on the cusp of 1997/98, has its fictional counterpart in the novel itself. A lost Eisenstein film, Unterwelt, has surfaced and is re-premiered at Radio City Music Hall:

It became the movie people had to see. A nice tight hysteria began to build and there were tickets going for shocking sums and people rushing back from the Vineyard and the Pines and the Cape to engineer a seat.

Just a movie for godsake and a silent movie at that and a movie you probably never heard of until the Times did a Sunday piece. But this is how the behavioural aberration, once begun, grows to lavish panic.

“But will we actually be able to sit through it?” Esther said. “Or is it one of those things where we have to be reverent because we’re in the presence of greatness but we’re really all sitting there determined to be the first ones out the door so we can get a taxi.”

With an irony typical of DeLillo’s writing, Underworld became a similar media event, a ‘must-see’ zone of something resembling desperation. ‘Lavish panic’ was certainly on display at the author’s London reading in January ’98, where a large celebrity headcount packed into the TUC Headquarters and the evening became vertiginous due to the confusing sensation of being present within one of the author’s own fictional scenarios. The tone of the audience replicated the reverence of Radio City Music Hall and the whole affair was charged with a palpable yet indefinable ‘importance’.

The novel’s publishers hitched Underworld to the millennial Zeitgeist, such as it was, simultaneously pitching the book as contender for the Great Novel of the American Century, as a summation of the Cold War, and as a sneak preview of the New World Order. Advertising, as DeLillo’s books tirelessly iterate, fuels ‘panic’ with a highly- charged vocabulary such as this. The Times did a Sunday piece, of course. Underworld‘s timing, on the threshold of two world orders, its dense structure, its overarching subject matter, its sheer size, all conspire to give the novel an aura of gravitas. It came packaged as a big statement and has consequently been read as such. Such disquiet is indicated by the ironic subtitle of John N. Duvall’s 1999 essay: ‘DeLillo and the moment of canonization.’

For some critics, the ‘reverse’ mimesis of DeLillo’s novel, the fact that life imitated the work, is seen as evidence that the book has no critical distance from that which it critiques. Yet, DeLillo has already fully documented such processes in Mao II, in which the novelist Bill Gray is lost behind a public reproduction of himself. As a ‘sequel’ to Mao II, Underworld is unlikely to replicate the problematics already discussed in the former novel, particularly as DeLillo has often spoken out in defence of the novel, such as when he told DeCurtis (in the Rolling Stone interview) that history needs fiction as an organising influence. Instead, the question becomes one of what DeLillo is offering in the act of writing, what is the novel there for, if not a necessarily absorbed social critique?

It is worth noting how DeLillo’s narrative style is almost entirely imitative of the characters’ speech patterns. Third person accounts describe in interior monologue. Thus, as the narrative voice roams around the ballgame, it shifts from character to character. The descriptions of J Edgar Hoover, for example, employ the FBI Director’s anxieties about himself. Even the affirmative statement that ‘capital burns off the nuance of a culture’ can be attributed to Nick Shay (although where the voice is located once the narrative moves into cyberspace is more difficult to ascertain). However, what we can draw from this, is that each statement is filtered, once removed from any ‘pure’ statement DeLillo might make. Consequently, we should be wary of even the clearest statement in the book. Most critics, however, have pulled their interpretation from what the character’s say, assuming that we are left with little else. Each has then tried to differentiate between ‘true’ and ‘false’ statements with regards to what DeLillo himself has said or the structure of the book. When Parrish, for example, aligns DeLillo with J Edgar Hoover or Nel argues that ‘Klara’s longing for a Cold World Order seems requited by the book’s intricate structure’, each foregrounds the words and actions of the characters, as if each were a moral personification in a didactic theatre, all at the expense of the novel’s more intricate framework.

We have already noted, however, that Underworld is overdetermined, connected to a circular infinity. Each statement is somewhere countered by its opposite, destabilising any argument we might wish to make from the content of the book. Again, the Eisenstein episode is archetypal, in that it seems increasingly to dissemble, the more it is studied. In addition to Unterwelt being twinned with DeLillo’s novel, we are also offered a 1930s Hollywood film called Underworld, a typical noir thriller about the Mob. Thus, we have the product of communist aesthetics turned against the Soviet state (Unterwelt), twinned with a capitalist movie dramatising the underworld of the free-market economy. These filmic contradictions are later dramatised within the novel. Nick Shay and Brian Glassic are flown to a Khazakhstan (where Eisenstein has possibly shot Unterwelt). The date is unspecified, but the narrative implies that this is the near future. The bomb is now being employed in a capitalist venture to dispose of the waste generated by capitalism. Elements in the novel collapse: a joke from the 1950s of the prologue is retold here; Shay, who has an affair with the married Klara, confronts Glassic over his affair with Marian. In fact, the novel dramatises the complications inherent in an apparently straightforward model of A versus B. Charles Wainwright, an advertising executive on Madison Avenue retells a story about one of their campaigns:

The agency was still in shock over the Equinox Oil campaign. … Fill up two cars with premium gasoline. One with Equinox, the other with a leading competitive brand. … White car versus black car. Clear implication. U.S. versus USSR. … We thought the Soviet embassy might lodge a complaint. We looked forward to it. Free publicity. What happens? We get complaints all right. But not from foreign governments. We hear from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. We hear from the Urban League. We hear from the Congress of Racial Equality. Because the white car beat the black car.

DeLillo takes this theme of black and white and literalises it. It appears everywhere, from the texture of the Eisenstein film to demarcation of ethnic zones in New York. In the prologue, Cotter is aware of his blackness in streets around the ballpark, it influences his behaviour; he is followed by Bill Waterson, who suddenly becomes aware of his whiteness in Cotter’s black neighbourhood. The black and white theme is played through the image of the chessboard, which Matt Shay is learning to play and is, of course, a major battlefield for Cold War supremacy. Furthermore, the black and white theme is taken to the structural level of the book itself. Whilst critics have noted the importance of the images which punctuate Mao II, the design of Underworld has so far gone unremarked. The front cover, in black and white, is shown in negative on the back. The six main parts of the book are broken up with a succession of full and half-black pages. Each of the three ‘intermezzo’ sections, concerning the black Manx family, are bracketed by black pages.

Underworld is a novel that complicates ideas of causality, built from the detritus of culture, where no element is too minute or too unconnected to be included. Critics who try to construct a causal argument from the text, fall prey to this web of connectivity, and can only advance by employing a massive repression of such minutae. In short, critics of Underworld interpret the book by denying the very secret history the novel seeks to reveal. Critics are left with the kind of faux choices invoked by the characters in response to Unterwelt: ‘Was Eisenstein being prescient about nuclear menace or about Japanese cinema?” It is the preconception, based on a received trope, that Eisenstein must be prescient about something that conditions the response to the film. At one point, Esther, whose critical faculties are thoroughly mediated in this way, claims: ‘”I don’t need to see the movie. I already love it'” Similarly, the aura of significance around DeLillo’s novel conditions the expectation of a statement about the times we live in.

So, is Underworld a postmodern statement about the impossibility of interpretation, the massive structure merely an ironic comment on novels which would promise a social critique of narrative certainty? Furthermore, is Underworld a failure? A novel made up from the detritus of culture and destined to become part of that same build up of garbage. For Parrish, ‘the very success of his narrative mimicry leads readers to worry that he is an impersonator co-opted by the narrative forms that he replays’ and ‘suggests how difficult it is for DeLillo to succeed in being both innovative and in control of his fiction’. Parrish’s DeLillo uses postmodernism to deconstruct itself in order to restore the status of the artist and seek transcendence in technology. According to Philip Nel, ‘In its richly layered language and careful structure, Underworld is DeLillo’s most “high modernist” novel to date; however, it also draws on avant-garde techniques in a more subtly effective way than his previous work’. For Paul Malty (in ‘The Romantic Metaphysics of Don DeLillo’) ‘to postmodernize DeLillo is to risk losing sight of the (conspicuously unpostmodern) metaphysical impulse that animates his work’.

The confusion of responses towards Underworld is a faultline in comprehension that DeLillo mirrors in the Unterwelt passage. That we are intended to draw a parallel between the fictional film and the fiction itself is clear, not only in their shared nomenclature. Both novel and movie share certain stylistic techniques, although DeLillo uses the comparison ironically to deflate his own ‘masterpiece’:

Overcomposed close-ups, momentous gesturing, actors trailing their immense bended shadows and there was something to study in every frame, the camera placement, the shapes and planes and then the juxtaposed shots, the sense of rhythmic contradiction, it was all spaces and volumes, it was tempo, mass and stress.

In Eisenstein you note that the camera angle is a kind of dialectic. Arguments are raised and made, theories drift across the screen and instantly shatter – there’s a lot of opposition and conflict.

It is in this ‘opposition and conflict’ perhaps that the critical difficulty lies. DeLillo has said of an earlier novel: ‘It seems to me that Ratner’s Star is a book that is almost all structure. The structure of the book is the book’. Similarly, Unterwelt is to be interpreted formally, its subject matter is incomprehensible otherwise – ‘… the film was embedded so completely in the viewpoint of the prisoners that Klara was beginning to squirm’ and ‘The plot was hard to follow. There was no plot’. We have already encountered both problems with regards to Underworld. Although very different in treatment and effect, both novel and film employ some kind of dialectical form rather than the straightforward ‘statement’ which appears to be on offer. In fact, as with Ratner’s Star, the subject matter and the form co-exist more or less equally. The montage described on the screen is not only worked into the very language that DeLillo uses to describe this event, but throughout the very structure of the book itself, which employs a broad collage of voices, modes of discourse, locations, ideas, forms of address, narrative styles.

Such a conflation of both narrative content and technique is the overriding organisational principle of Underworld. At the simplest level, the novel tells us that ‘everything connects in the end’ and this becomes part of its organisational system. In this sense, we cannot divorce the novel’s contents from its formal context. Everything in Underworld co-exists on two interconnected axes. It is as if the content of the book is a dramatisation of its formal principles, rather than the structure of the novel supporting the content as we might otherwise expect. Underworld obsessively refers to its own structure. Its collage style is echoed not only in the Eisenstein film, but also in the rain of torn paper that showers J Edgar Hoover at the baseball stadium. This in turn suggests the bric-a-brac nature of Hoover’s secret files and the invisible history they contain. The complex interplay of themes derived from black and white point to the design of the book itself, which uses an arrangement of black and white pages to organise the material. Reading as a postmodernist, we might expect such techniques to foreground the books own fictionality, its status as a material text and not a window to the world, but Underworld‘s narrative tone does not support this. The book displays none of the textual tricks and slippage that would accompany such a self-undermining work. In fact, DeLillo works at a kind of sharpened mimesis and is known for the way in which his works seem to actually ‘frame’ reality, how public events can come to seem like a ‘Don DeLillo moment.’ Ryan Simmons, for example, has noted the uncanny appearance of the Unabomber several years after DeLillo drew parallels between terrorism and authorship.

The content of Underworld relinquishes its primacy to structure. This is where the ‘meaning’ of the novel might be located. That there can be structure in this field of overdetermination, undermines the sense that we began with, the sense of a hellish underworld which offers us nothing stable. We might even go so far as to say that as content is an echo of the structural elements in the novel, which the characters are shaped by such structures. Analogously, the secret forces that shape the inhabitants of a Cold War culture are both structured and recoverable. In this sense, Underworld is indeed engaged, as Knight states, in the process of cognitive mapping offered by Fredric Jameson as a means to work through postmodern paralysis. We have already noted a spatial and historical dimension to DeLillo’s work. These are the two fields that Jameson claims are in need of ‘recovery’.

However, the notion that DeLillo’s writing offers a template for existence, in the manner of Baudelaire’s aesthetic argument that art justifies the world, supports the claim that Underworld is a work of modernism. The use of montage in Underworld, for example, has been interpreted as evidence of this. Philip Nel effectively differentiates between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ modernism:

DeLillo’s recent work, and especially Underworld, should be considered part of that “revolt” against “domesticated” modernism. But because his artistic development has roots in both “avantgarde movements” and “high modernism,” we can see in a work like Underworld a bridge between “modern” and “postmodern.” I would go as far as to say that, by relying on a modernist avant-garde (such as Surrealism and Dada) to engage the politics of postmodernity, DeLillo’s recent fiction in general challenges the validity of the modern-postmodern binarism.

The problem is that the opposition to binarism, whether it be represented by black and white or as a challenge to modernism versus postmodernism, itself functions within a dialectic framework. To oppose binarism reinscribes the dialectic under opposition.

As we have seen, however, by playing Unterwelt against Underworld, the novel does employs modernist techniques ironically only to foreground its own structural architecture. Part of this organisation is ‘the sense of rhythmic contradiction.’ Here, DeLillo does not simply tell us that ‘theories drift across the screen and instantly shatter,’ he also demonstrates it in the very act of comparison. Underworld both engages in dialectics and problematises the dialectical procedure. The equation is not one of simple opposition to binarism. In fact the novel places binarism and anti-binarism in dialectical opposition. Furthermore, each dialectic offered in the book is connected to every other, so that something resembling a rhizome of dialectics is constantly at work. Underworld is an unusually active text.

Despite the range of narrative voices, DeLillo’s style often employs the indirect internal voicing familiar from early modernist experiments in fictional consciousness. All the same, it is highly questionable as to whether any of DeLillo’s novels are interested in the dramatisation of psychological motivation. Characterisation, in the traditional sense, seems barely to be an issue at all. The population of Underworld is made up of theoretical speculative discourses, each with a worldview, a tone of voice and a proper name. Amongst the polyvocality of Underworld, however, there is a modernist voice. Indeed, the structure of the book also, at times, appears particularly to imitate Joyce. The book has something of a circularity with images of children playing in the street both opening and closing it. Sentences are echoed (‘He speaks in your voice’). The final aerial narrative echoes the final passage of The Dubliners in ‘The Dead,’ whilst this novel begins with ‘The Triumph of Death.’ Nel has noted how the final word ‘Peace’ may imitate The Wasteland – never mind the preoccupation with garbage and waste in Underworld.

We have noted Jameson’s concept of cognitive mapping. Underworld is literally an attempt to map a shifting geography. The novel abounds with maps of white spaces, of territories that are neither one thing or the other, that have changed name, changed nationality, changed ideology. Nostalgia for the apparently monolithic stability of the Cold War is demonstrated as the result of a mythic memory. We cannot hope to fix the boundaries on the map because borders melt under capitalism. But, we can map the movement of capitalism and, in doing so, diminish the hellish sense that history is out of control. Thus, the mapping process is not so much one of space, but of movement in space. Underworld begins with a boy running into a baseball ground, a restless narration that shifts from person to person, a ball that travels from the pitcher, to the bat, into the bleachers and out into the world over time and space. Movement in space. Thus, one of the novel’s organisational paradigms is the theory of relativity, Einstein’s connection to the bomb. DeLillo foregrounds structure, to undermine the notion that structure is now impossible but, like the internet, this structure is not static. DeLillo’s cognitive map is in motion.

In More Brilliant Than The Sun, Kodwo Eshun, employs the analogy of Motion Capture:

… in films like Jurassic Park and all the big animatronic films, Motion Capture is the device by which they synthesize and virtualize the human body. They have a guy that’s dancing slowly, and each of his joints are fixed to lights and they map that onto an interface, and then you’ve got it. You’ve literally captured the motion of a human; now you can proceed to virtualize it.

Underworld makes a similar move to capture the subatomics of history in motion. It is an attempt to sweep up the detritus of the (post)modern era with a literary technology that can begin to frame it. DeLillo has commented on the relation of fiction to history. Underworld is a historical novel, in the lineage of War and Peace. But, rather than employing the realist methods of this novel, it employs the emerging paradigms of the contemporary, documenting history not only in content but in the very application of these techniques.

In short, Underworld is a work of contemporary ‘history’ which does not offer ‘meaning’ in the ‘traditional’ sense of the word. It is not so much an ‘argument’ or a dialectic that demands synthesis. Talking to DeCurtis about the Kennedy assassination, DeLillo has stated: ‘I think we’ve come to feel that what’s been missing over these past twenty-five years is a sense of manageable reality. Much of that feeling can be traced to that one moment in Dallas. We seem much more aware of elements like randomness and ambiguity and chaos since then’. DeLillo cannot offer a manageable reality, but he can offer a sense of it, in structure.

Sources can be found at Literary Criticism of Don DeLillo and at the Don DeLillo Society.
Gary Marshall’s review of ‘Underworld‘.
Chris Mitchell’s review of Kodwo Eshun’s ‘More Brilliant Than The Sun‘.

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