DeLillo's Underworld: The Pointlessness of Things to Come
Lenny seized the mike and cried, "We're all gonna die!"
Is cyberspace a thing within the world, or is it the other way around? Which contains the other and can you tell for sure?
Don DeLillo, Underworld
Don DeLillo's Underworld partly deals with our deep-rooted attachment to the news, identifying the cravings of a people unable to grasp (literally) the truth. As if knowing what has to be known (the news, by its simplest definition) will allow us to attain some power over this frighteningly overwhelming world. American literal mindedness spells relative doom to fiction writers -- in a nation which never really believed in fiction's efficacy except when it shows power to be on bestseller lists or start Civil Wars. In DeLillo's previous book, Mao II (a novel concerned with the fate of the novelist in late 20th century America), his main character, Bill Gray, believed the novel's function should not be to achieve power but to put a character and meaning in the world. This essay aspires to realize this very function for Underworld.
The distinction between fact and fiction hasn't disintegrated, nor has history ended, but we live in an era which must comprehend events in a mode which transports us from fact to fiction and back again to fact without a passport. The bleakness of DeLillo's vision of America has less to do with the conspiracies and threats of mass extinction during the Cold War than that these conspiracies and threats grew out of something more primary. America has become pointless as it becomes more overwhelmed by its go-getter techno-logic; America has gradually lost conviction in itself. We must fight past terms like post-modern, post-nuclear, post-paranoid, post-posthumous, to understand what's really happening in the world or what's really happening in Underworld. DeLillo intimates in this book that the distinction between fact and fiction has not disintegrated, nor has history ended, but that we live in an era which must comprehend events in a mode which transports us from fact to fiction and back again to fact without a passport.
Underworld is America in the last half of the twentieth century. The bleakness of DeLillo's vision of America has less to do with the conspiracies and threats of mass extinction during the Cold War than that these conspiracies and threats grew out of something more primary. America has become pointless as it becomes more overwhelmed by its go-getter techno-logic; America has gradually lost conviction in itself. Underworld does not represent anything new or "post-" for DeLillo but the playing out of themes from the previous novel, Mao II (which showed the growing irrelevance of the writer in America) but on a much larger canvas. DeLillo understands why we're going under, gurgling micro-softly under our word-processed Internet poisons. The cultural diagnosis of our technological gehenna was done thoroughly in White Noise wherein information and toxicity have their first real date. Underworld marries nuclear warfare and the waste products of civilization.
It's the irresistibility of the process, stupid! The nature of the our morbid fascination. Starting with the onslaught of Kennedy assassination conspiracies (we can't escape JFK), we're caught up in a profusion of attempts to regain something the nation had lost. The possibility of conspiracy titillates. The media perform their mission by perpetuating the titillation, devoting themselves to the minutiae of many events in the last twenty years: the English nanny case in Massachusetts, Jon Benet Ramsey, the Versacci death, O.J., retro-John Kennedy indiscretions, and Jackie Kennedy auctions.
Underworld underscores the pathos of our fascination in its sections on the Texas Highway murders. A girl videotapes a driver in another car, who notices this and waves to her. Suddenly he's shot by a serial killer, and the videotape becomes instant news fodder, like O.J.'s automobile chase or Jon Benet dancing on-stage in a white hat, while the public repeatedly relives the experience via video and television. The replays, not meaningful in themselves, reflect a hunger for knowing what happened. Knowing what happened will set us free -- the sound byte of contemporary American culture. Many of Underworld's characters follow the Highway Serial Killer's act. The first few times the kick or spasm of interest remains; then they search for nuances, possibly even clues, that an inadvertent camera glance catches sight of the killer prior to the shooting. For each report on the serial killer, the video is aired. Soon the routine stultifies the public and a search for a new, Ur-event begins. Unexpectedly the serial killer himself surfaces, calls a CNN talk show, and the video procures a new life! After the killer breaks into a house to call to CNN, he experiences an apotheosis:
He talked to her on the phone and made eye contact with the TV. This was the waking of the knowledge that he was real. This alien-eyed woman with raving hair sending emanations that astonished his heart. He spoke more confidently as time went on. He was coming into himself, shy but also unashamed, a little vain, even, and honest and clever, evasive when he needed to be, standing there in a stranger's house near a lamp without a shade and she listened and asked questions, watching him from the screen ten feet away. She has so much radiance she could make him real. (270)
In this and many other scenes in this section, DeLillo's themes, descriptions, and characterizations meet to create an emotional texture that seems more real here than any other work, fiction or non-fiction.
The video itself is introduced a hundred pages before:
It is unrelenting footage that rolls on and on. It has aimless determination, a persistence that lives outside the subject matter. You are looking into the mind of home video. It is innocent, it is aimless, it is determined, it is real. (156)
DeLillo reveals the mechanics of our fascination. The awful and the mysterious, like ancient rites of human sacrifice, leaves the community breathless and wary. "The tape has a searing realness." (157) Destiny will take shape from the video. Watching it over and over. The man with a Stetson hat waving at the videocam suddenly slumps over. Can life end that quickly? While he's being filmed!?
The chance quality of the encounter. The victim, the killer and the child with a camera. Random energies that approach a common point. There's something here that speaks to you directly, saying terrible things about forces beyond your control, lines of intersection that cut through history and logic and every reasonable layer of human expectation. (157)
Unexpectedly, DeLillo describes the very novel we are reading. Not just the stylistics, but his basic themes and commentaries on contemporary America. His novel's random energies reach the singular point of a serial murder on videotape replayed on television thousands of times to a public eager for its true meaning. This episode becomes a paradigm for all our watching, the "epidemic of watching"; from serial murders to serial watching (channel surfing) few of us stand blameless.
The three main characters -- Nick and Matt Shay, Klara Sax -- are at once developed and not as compelling as characters in previous DeLillo novels. Nick, for example, tries to understand what's missing from his existence. He moves from adolescent manslaughter to a turn with the Jesuits in Minnesota to becoming an expert on toxic waste, all the while being obsessed by the disappearance of his father when he was young and by obtaining the baseball Bobby Thompson hit against the Dodgers to win the Giants the pennant in 1951. This latter pursuit defines Nick's character: he's a Dodger fan, and having this emblem of that great Dodger defeat alleviates an invisible burden; likewise, it binds him to the American desire to somehow retrieve an essence through some material product. His career in waste management takes him to Khazakstan to hear a pitch on the benefits of underground nuclear explosions to eliminate the worst of our waste -- his angle on the toxic ends American consumer culture. What goes around we try to keep from coming around to our backdoor. Unlike Jack Gladney in White Noise, Nick, as well as Matt and Klara, will not seek a transcendent program so much as shift from one end of life to the other seemingly without great conviction in themselves, their marriages, their country, or anything.
Two men of strong but wildly contrasted convictions appear in several sections of Underworld: Lenny Bruce and J. Edgar Hoover. Although not the only personages snatched from public life, these two men curiously evoke greater pathos than we feel for Nick, Matt, or Klara. The trick of Underworld's characterizations underscores the inversion of public and private life in the last half of the twentieth century. The figures on the edge of the novel (but in the center of historical events) take on greater life than those in the center. Part of the trick -- a completely compelling one, I might add -- has the reader unsure of these figures reality or unreality. For the novel's prologue, with Frank Sinatra, Toots Shor, Jackie Gleason, and Hoover, we can delight in the prospect that these men may have been together in the same row at the Polo Grounds; we can even believe a Truman Capote rascally enough to invite Edgar and his lifetime lover, Clyde Tolson, to the Black and White Ball in November, 1966. DeLillo's Hoover suffers in cold, ascetic isolation with his lifetime companion and broods over death, Commies, and hippies. Singular feelings for Clyde, however, are lost amidst the FBI director's peculiar misanthropy, and we feel his poignant isolation and desire. It's when we read the Lenny Bruce routines that we might start to shake our heads and say "this feels too true to be fiction."
We catch Bruce during several routines coast-to-coast corresponding to the hottest days of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Indeed, we catch not just routines but the essence of Bruce's stand-up improvisational inspiration. Some reviewers have wondered whether DeLillo used Lenny's own routines and monologues, and I must admit that I wondered also. I had never been so convinced by a real life portrayal, although I would not attribute my response completely to DeLillo's technical expertise. Like his section on the videotaping and showing of the serial killing, the novel operates in a nearly blissful way. Themes, content, person merge into a fictional singularity. The laws of fiction break down. In Underworld, this singularity represents an extraordinary novelistic density. The Bruce routines. Or the serial killer watching his murder on television. The near epic implications of the search for the Thompson homerun ball. More than just a blurring of reality and fiction. Reality is fiction and vice versa -- and I humbly believe this will be recognized eventually as one of DeLillo's finest accomplishments. This mesh of the real and unreal supercedes all discussion about the problem of isolating a "problem" about too much fiction in news reports or too much history in novels. This is precisely why Wag the Dog (1997), as a supposed parallel to particular current events, comes up so miserably lame.
In this black hole-like density, what do we find? The Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis. The Kennedy administration. Lenny talks acerbically about the crisis at a time when few people openly challenged Kennedy's moves, and ever fewer the myths. He's not blinded by the image that the administration tried to convey (then and since) of the best and brightest:
"Kennedy makes an appearance in public and you hear people say, I saw his hair! Or, I saw his teeth! The spectacle's so dazzling they can't take it all in. I saw his hair! They're venerating the sacred relics while the guy's still alive." (545)
How can I be sure that this represents the insights of Lenny Bruce who foresaw a nation incessantly bewitched by style and flair? The monologue on Kennedy (and his heirs) is what Tim O'Brien calls a true war story: "What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way."
My knowledge of Lenny Bruce is scant. I was alive but not directly aware of him during the years 1960 to 1966. My inclination has been to dismiss him as overrated especially when comedians gave him testimonial correct raves. His performances on old tapes weren't impressive, i.e., I did not think him very funny. Nervous, jerky, strung out, yes. Nor did I have patience with Dustin Hoffman's version of his life. The very first awareness I had of Lenny Bruce occurred when I was twelve and saw a newspaper item on November 23, 1963, which said that Bruce was jeered by a crowd in a London nightclub for making jokes about the Kennedy assassination. I was horrified if not disgusted by this irreverence. Here was a guy that was unrelenting after the bitter end! Since then fragments of his life and act have crossed my path but none as compelling or more true than DeLillo's -- so true that I have gained a new-found respect for him. Why?
DeLillo inhabits Bruce, makes him more real than Lenny ever was. We should all be so lucky. But by entering Bruce's act, using the act as a concentrated point of attack on the budding image glut which will soon demoralize America, truths about Clinton's precursor become as lucid as their names:
"All right, these men deciding our fate. They're going in and out of solemn meetings all day and night. White shirts, cuff links, striped ties. But their names are where it's at. Adlai Stevenson. Adlai. Gases you right down to your Capezios, right. . . . And if anyone else uses this name within a five thousand mile radius of our Adlai, we'll pay to have him killed" (591).
Also Dean Rusk: "Look out for men with one syllable in each name. Unyielding motherfuckers" (591). About McGeorge Bundy:
"How do you survive childhood with a name like that? Was his name reversed at birth? A mistake at the hospital? Of course not. They did it. They marked him for greatness. Besides, he had a grandmother named McMary" (592).
And it goes on. Roswell Gilpatric. Alexis Johnson. Llewellyn Thomson. W. Averill Harriman. Bromley Smith. The names, the attitude that named the names, spelled Power. The power oozed from their pores. They advised Kennedy. Kennedy breathed their air. He knew about power from his father. Political and sexual power. He might not have matched his advisors' denominated might and resolute place in the American power structure, but he could outshine them with his image of Power and greatness. Succeeding presidents would have more talent, may even have used power more successfully than Kennedy, but they would falter when trying to match his image.
In the mid-Sixties Paul Simon wrote that he had been "John O'Haraed and McNamaraed," in a wry if weary response to the ways of power. In the nineties we can update Simon's verse: "I've been James Carvilled and Disney-whirled!"
They'd all survived a hellish week and he'd gone dragging through four club dates coast to coast in a state of graduated disarray and now it was over and he was safe and he was appearing in concert and he should have been standing here chanting We're not gonna die We're not gonna die We're not gonna die, leading them in a chant, a mantra that was joyful and mock joyful at the same time because this is New York, New York and we want it both ways.
-- Don DeLillo, Underworld (629)
1. Cf. Steven Starks' "The Cultural Meaning of the Kennedys," The Atlantic, January, 1994, vol. 273, no. 1, pp. 18-22. Starks argues that given more scandals, the greater John Kennedy becomes in the public's imagination. Dying young helped as well. But it was the way Kennedy campaigned for the White House that allowed his private exploits to take over his myth. The relation of campaign and presidency I will explore in section 1. I won't be surprised if Clinton's exploits earn him a similar legendary status (not exactly the one he wants).
2. This "we" includes the CNN-watching Saddam Hussein.
3. DeLillo's critique of contemporary America bears a strong resemblance to the work of social critic Christopher Lasch. Jackson Lears, writing on Lasch's The Culture of Narcissism in The New Republic, gives what could pass for an analysis of Underworld's characters: "Narcissists were not pleasure-seekers (indeed, their obsession with pleasure revealed their inability to sustain it); they were people unable to see the boundaries between self and world, wandering in the hall of mirrors that was our image-saturated society." (10/2/95, Vol. 213 Issue 14, p 46).
4. Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried, Penguin Books (New York, 199), p. 78.
All references to Underworld are taken from the hardback Scribner edition, 1997. An earlier version of this essay appeared in the now-defunct Internet magazine UnderCurrents.