Have we held Don DeLillo’s Underworld against him? Masterpieces of an epic scale are a tricky business, not least for the distorting effect they can have on the rest of a writer’s works. Tolstoy wrote two, but most mortals — Melville, George Eliot, Joyce — only get one. And while War and Peace and Anna Karenina cycle through screen adaptations, how many readers reach for a major minor work — a work of beauty but of limited scope — like The Kreutzer Sonata? The same question already applies to Zero K, DeLillo’s new novel. “In recent years,” James Wolcott wrote in his memoir Lucking Out, “DeLillo must ask himself the cosmic question, ‘Why go on?,’ his later novels greeted with a fish-face without a trace of affection for everything he’s done before, beating him up with his own achievements (Libra, Underworld) instead.”
“Have we held Don DeLillo’s Underworld against him? Masterpieces of an epic scale are a tricky business, not least for the distorting effect they can have on the rest of a writer’s works”
Underworld was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer and the National Book Award (which DeLillo had collected for White Noise in 1985; his acceptance speech then: “I’m sorry I couldn’t be here tonight, but I thank you all for coming”). Underworld lost both — the NBA to Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain; the Pulitzer to Philip Roth’s American Pastoral — but since his 1999 Jerusalem Prize he’s picked up most of the lifetime achievement awards not bestowed in Stockholm or London, and in 2006 Underworld placed second to Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a New York Times Book Review poll on the best American fiction of the past quarter century. If the poll were held today, Beloved, published in 1987, would have aged out of the running, and Underworld’s stiffest competition would be from novels written under DeLillo’s spell: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. My vote is for the master.
Yet Underworld is a curious ambassador from the land of DeLillo — it has more in common with Cold Mountain and American Pastoral than anything else he’s written besides his conjuring of Lee Harvey Oswald, Libra. Like that book, Underworld adheres to many of the crowd-pleasing conventions of the historical novel, entering the minds of real-life figures and dramatizing famous events — look, there are the Twin Towers being built! — even if it does so in its own fractured way. By now, its bravura opening set piece — at the Polo Grounds with J. Edgar Hoover and Jackie Gleason in the stands for the Shot Heard Round the World — may be his most widely read work, and the novel that contains it his last blockbuster bestseller. But it’s far from representative: only in Underworld and Libra could DeLillo, whose career has been spent mostly in purely fictional terrain, be said to resemble E.L. Doctorow. Underworld is also long, really long—almost twice as long as DeLillo’s next longest. One of the NBA judges let slip to the critic John Leonard that their consensus was that Underworld could have been cut by a couple hundred pages (the sad lot of the literaryprize judge — too much reading). The notion of pernicious excess was echoed in more sophisticated form by James Wood, first in a dissenting review of Underworld, and again in his 2000 manifesto against “hysterical realism”: “Underworld, the darkest of these books, carries within itself, in its calm profusion of characters and plots, its flawless carpet of fine prose on page after page, a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added. There are many enemies, seen and unseen, in Underworld, but silence is not one of them.”
Silence is a strange thing to ask of a novelist: It’s any writer’s worst enemy, the departure of the animating gift. But not so strange to ask of DeLillo, whose art is the opposite of a painkiller. “I don’t offer comforts except those that lurk in comedy and in structure and in language, and the comedy is probably not all that soothing,” DeLillo told The Paris Review in 1993. It’s an acute self-evaluation. It gets at the way DeLillo has always gone against the grain of a culture that looks to novels for the balms of moral reassurance, that has a taste for bromides about the extraordinariness of ordinary lives. “Lurk” is exactly the right word for the pleasures that inhabit his novels. “Cool” is a word often stuck to his characters; some of them have little existence beyond their aphoristic utterances, and his narrators are often stunted men, puzzled by their own impulses. DeLillo is more interested in probing the limits of consciousness and perception than in sketching inner lives. His books face outward into the cultural mist. You could say this makes them anti-novels, or you could say he’s expanded the novel’s range by shutting off a few of its familiar frequencies. His books’ pleasures have a shadow quality and can elude a reader’s notice if the proper attention isn’t being paid. I’ve always found that if I come away from DeLillo’s prose without some sort of laughter, I’ll find on rereading that I was doing something wrong. The bleak comedy of his nihilistic banker’s Bloomsday Cosmopolis was lost on me when it appeared in 2003: it seemed out of sync with the recessional post-9/11 moment. Michiko Kakutani called it “a major dud,” and Walter Kirn dismissed it as an “intellectual turkey shoot, sending up a succession of fat targets just in time for its author to aim and fire the rounds he loaded before he started writing.” But the way the attacks rendered his treatments of terrorism in Players (1977) and Mao II oracular, the crisis of 2008 rendered Cosmopolis prescient in retrospect. Far from loading his rounds in advance, he was making discoveries in the act of writing. We wouldn’t be ready for its systemic humor until the credit default swap confirmed that the joke was on us.
The term for this comedy is “deadpan.” A modern word, not even a century old, its first great exemplar was Buster Keaton, and his spirit governs the opening set piece of Players, in which characters on a plane sit aloft in a piano bar watching a Godard-style film of terrorists killing golfers. “We’re steeped in gruesomely humorous ambiguity, a spectacle of ridiculous people doing awful things to total fools,” DeLillo write. A woman in buckskin pants stabs a man in the back with a machete: “Buster Keaton, says the piano.” Here’s the paradox of DeLillo’s genius: He’s the great comedian of violence in our hyper-mediated age. There’s always violence happening on screens in DeLillo’s novels — the Zapruder film; the Texas highway killer caught on camcorder in Underworld; the stabbing frames of 24-Hour Psycho in Point Omega. Buster Keaton and Jean-Luc Godard, James Joyce and the charnel house of the evening news, Hitler and Elvis, Lenny Bruce and J. Edgar Hoover, the H-bomb and the day-glo supermarket aisle — these are a few of the colors of the DeLillo swirl. [Read More]