“How do we know what we know?” And what responsibility does that knowing place upon our shoulders? What does it tell us about our past … our future?
These are some of the central questions posed by Don DeLillo’s sprawling Underworld. The first one’s a whopper, isn’t it? “We” – the first person plural – begs an answer bigger than any one of us can offer, implying entire ecosystems of culture, parenting, questioning, and history (personal and otherwise). The solipsistic construction hints at uncertainty – about the fragile nature of memory, of consciousness itself. We’re revising our answer even as we try to compose it.
DeLillo’s question, asked by a Jesuit clergyman leading up to the novel’s conclusion, seems to be addressed directly to the reader, directly to America itself. To us. Who are we? Where did we come from? And what does the answer tell us about the future?
The characters in this book are assimilated into American culture through a whole host of teachers: priests, parents, mentors, friends, and lovers. For these children of the Cold War, math class was supplemented with bomb drills designed to instill a constant state of paranoia, replete with dog tags to facilitate identification in the event of an atomic attack by the Russians.
But what if your most important teachers – your parents – are missing, or drunk … or have just given up? This is Nick Shay’s dilemma, the central character in the novel, whose father walked out “for a pack of cigarettes” when Nick was only eleven. How is Nick to grow into a responsible young man without a father figure?
From the opening line, the answer lies in language itself: “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” Language is always coming to the rescue: as a defense against some apocalyptic menace (in the hip, slick, subversive riffing of Lenny Bruce during the Cuban Missile Crisis), a means to hide our deepest secrets from others, and thus hoard power (in the clipped, repressed inner dialogue of J. Edgar Hoover and his lover), a means of coping with adolescent angst (in the rich, textured banter bandied by Nick as he climbs his way out of a dead-end Bronx adolescence), and the moral compass guiding our interactions with others (in the contemplative nostalgia of an older, wiser Nick).
DeLillo is fascinated with film. Or, more accurately, with our cultural fascination with film. In the novel’s prologue, he steadily draws the reader into an historic baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, when Bobby Thompson hit “the shot heard ’round the world” off a pitch from Ralph Branca to deliver the National League pennant to the Giants (“The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”). Using an almost cinematic approach, he variously describes the “small reveries and desperations” of the crowd, the slow, graceful interplay between the baseball players, the gruff banter of the sports announcers calling the game, the comic ribbing between J. Edgar Hoover, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and immense nightclub owner Toots Shor.
By the time the game has built to its fabled conclusion, DeLillo is able to cut quickly from one major group of characters to another, move the action or emotion forward with a few short sentences, and build a perfect collage of “the body heat of a great city” just as it’s about to enter the long, paranoid tunnel of the Cold War. Glimpsed from the mid 1990’s, as the characters reflect on their often misguided youth of the 50’s and 60’s, the Cold War offers at least an organizing principle for our cultural tendency to violence.
But now that the Cold War is over – what organizing principle do we have left? Do we bury our secrets? Our nuclear waste, unseen evidence of so many decades of war and paranoia? Nick, the former Bronx tough turned Arizona toxic waste disposal executive, does just that. He trots across the globe, digs holes miles underground, buries bright vats of toxic waste, even travels to Russia to explode some depleted nuclear sludge (ironically) via a violent, subterranean explosion.
How do we know what we know? And how are we supposed to behave once we know it? DeLillo doesn’t give us the answers directly – he doesn’t preach or sermonize. What he does do is shine a light on our violent cultural impulses. There’s a kind of aspirational freedom promised by violence, which Nick, looking back, describes perfectly:
I long for the days of disorder. I want them back, the days when I was alive on the earth, rippling in the quick of my skin, heedless and real. I was dumb-muscled and angry and real. This is what I long for, the breach of peace, the days of disarray when I walked real streets and did things slap-bang and felt angry and ready all the time, a danger to others and a distant mystery to myself.
But “dumb-muscled” force isn’t the answer, and Nick knows this. He’s seen the deformed Russian toddlers, maimed by nuclear fallout, playing in the fields downwind from Chernobyl. He understands that being “a danger to others” is inconsistent with life in a free, civilized, society. Violence is instead a kind of catalyst towards self-knowledge, “pain is just another form of information”. The only way the dead-end, youthful Nick can aspire to some semblance of normal adulthood (the only way he can survive), is through a kind of baptism by fire. Violence will shatter him, and the resulting self-knowledge will remake him into responsible citizen: reformed, civilized, tamed.
After his crime, Nick learns to “see” the world literally at the feet of the Jesuits:
“You have a history,” she said, “that you are responsible to.”
“What do you mean by responsible to?”
“You’re responsible to it. You’re answerable. You’re required to try to make sense of it. You owe it your complete attention.”
She kept talking about history in her tight blouse. But all I saw was the crazy-armed man, his body spinning one way, the chair going another. And all I saw was the rough slur of those narrow streets, the streets going narrower all the time, collapsing in on themselves, and the dumb sad sameness of the days.
Then they came and told me I’d be getting an early release, unexpectedly, one summer day. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. They told me they were sending me to the Jesuits, at the wintry end of the world, somewhere near a lake in Minnesota.
Nick “sees” the “rough slur”. Language shapes his impressions of the world. And later, as he begins to expand his vocabulary, he starts seeing a bigger picture:
He leaned across the desk and gazed, is the word, at my wet boots.
“Those are ugly things, aren’t they?”
“Yes they are.”
“Name the parts. Go ahead. We’re not so chi chi here, we’re not so intellectually chic that we can’t test a student face-to-face.”
“Name the parts,” I said. “All right. Laces.”
“Laces. One to each shoe. Proceed.”
I lifted one foot and turned it awkwardly.
“Sole and heel.”
“Yes, go on.”
I set my foot back down and stared at the boot, which seemed about as blank as a closed brown box.
“There’s not much to name, is there? A front and a top.”
“A front and a top. You make me want to weep.”
“The rounded part at the front.”
“You’re so eloquent I may have to pause to regain my composure. You’ve named the lace. What’s the flap under the lace?”
“I knew the name. I just didn’t see the thing.”
He made a show of draping himself across the desk, writhing slightly as if in the midst of some dire distress.
“You didn’t see the thing because you don’t know how to look. And you don’t know how to look because you don’t know the names … Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren’t important, we wouldn’t use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Say it,” he said.
“An extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace.”
I walked back and forth across the parade in the blowing snow. Then I went to my room and threw off my jacket. I wanted to look up words. I took off my boots and wrung out my cap over the washbasin. I wanted to look up words. I wanted to look up velleity and quotidian and memorize the fuckers for all time, spell them, learn them, pronounce them syllable by syllable – vocalize, phonate, utter the sounds, say the words for all they’re worth.
This is the only way in the world you can escape the things that made you.
I’ve only touched on a few of the themes DeLillo explores in this amazing, important (and massive, at 800+ pages) Great American Novel, DeLillo’s level best effort at trying “to make sense” of our cultural hangover from the Cold War. The intensity of the prose, the incisiveness of the insights into American history, and the depth of characterization here are unparalleled in literature (at least in my opinion). The fractured relationships between fathers and sons; the mythological home run baseball, pursued by Nick and others through the decades, serving as some symbol of a time that never really was; the symbiotic relationship between the creative and the warlike impulses; the redemptive power of art, of language … it’s all here.
And the final word of the novel? The one that allows us to rise above our dark, secret, checkered past and imagine a future free from secrets, free from conflict, free from the omnipresent dread of the Cold War?
This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.
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