Underworld by Don DeLillo

It starts with a baseball game and spans a half century.

Here’s an interesting book in that it’s 850 pages and almost entirely plotless. Not so much a narrative as a collection of vignettes, usually following a collection of interrelated characters but not always. Indeed, these self contained stories about say, the Texas Highway Killer or the neurosis of lonely Sister Edgar are typically more interesting than the story of protagonist Nick Shay himself.

Early in the book, we learn that Nick, now in his fifties, had an affair when he was seventeen with a woman who is now seventy. At this point, I wondered what happened. This teenager and late twenties woman. 750 pages later, when this part of the backstory is actually revealed, I was nonplussed. I wanted to ask DeLillo why he suddenly thought this was a book that necessitated reveals, or backstory.  

It’s not. It’s little pieces of history, orphaned but inextricably linked, beautifully written. This is key. You can’t write this many words lacking the traditional hooks of a long novel without being a pretty amazing writer. DeLillo is surely that. His dialog is snappy and entertaining. His grasp on location and specific eras of time allow him to skip across the country and 20th century, immersing the reader in specific periods without bogging them down in detail. Even when he’s exploring an honestly lazy metaphor, he does so with such skill, you admire it anyway.

Consider the opening chapter, which is the most lovingly crafted description of a baseball game I’ve ever read. In 1951, the Giants shocked the Dodgers to win the pennant with Bobby Thompson’s walk-off homerun. DeLillo records this in keen, nostalgic detail: the player’s emotions, the crowd, the flu-stricken voice of the announcer, the kid sneaking into the stadium to catch a glance of history. I’m not much of a baseball fan anymore, but I cannot forget the communal and familial excitement of the game evokes. Red Sox games humming through the static of my grandfather’s radio is the background noise of my childhood. DeLillo channels that kind of nostalgia throughout his 60+ page description of the game, executing it perfectly. 

It’s very interesting to me what parts of literature persist is some timeless space, eternally relevant, and what ages and feels old. The baseball game, The Shot Heard Round the World, is the former. So long as baseball exists, it will resonate. But a major portion of the novel is dedicated to Cold War paranoia and The Bomb. It’s a pre-9/11 world, the cover eerily picturing a smoky black-and-white World Trade Center. Our paranoias are different now. Sneakier, less bombastic. I found it hard to truly dive into the constant paranoia and nuclear waste metaphors. Felt a bit like a relic. Academic somehow. Not that Cold War media can’t remain relevant — it’s hard to think that Dr. Strangelove, stylistic and shocking as it is, won’t ever not be striking — but DeLillo’s version surely lost something with time.

Underworld is a book wherein the individual parts are less than their sum. Or maybe they just outshine their sum. The sum or whole is irrelevant! Not the ideal situation for a massive novel, but still, I greatly enjoyed my time with it.

The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald

rings-of-saturnW. G. Sebald takes a walk around southeast England and ponders the inescapable decay of the world. Whether caused by humans, like Belgium ravaging the Congo, or through force of nature, as shown by a medieval town gradually eroding and falling into the sea, or weird fixtures of economics, like yet another defunct English town going down the drain after the fishing industry collapsed. Sebald draws a melancholy line through them all.

I love a good book of essays, and while that is not what I expected to find here, that’s what it is. Essays in the true Montaigne-made sense: examining singular topics to give greater insight into humanity as a whole. Rembrandt’s paintings. Portions of Chinese history I never knew of. A biography of Joseph Konrad or a continued adoration of Thomas Browne. Sebald finds trivial reasons to link these and many other topics to his wandering, and dives in it detail, then flutters to a separate topic, going through a nested set of essays several deep, before we return back to England.

In The Happiness Myth, Jennifer Michael Hecht notes that an awe and respect for death is one of the lesser known aspects of achieving happiness. While I wouldn’t be thrilled watching my home or local three hundred year old cathedral plummet into the sea, reading about those unfortunate souls who did, immersing myself in the knowledge that all things must decay, perish, crumble, yes, just like the planetary wreckage that became the real rings of Saturn, eventually leads me to a place of calm serenity. 

The same can’t be said for man-made catastrophe. The sheer amount of people slain by greed and madness in the Congo is incomprehensible. Literally worked to death. Lost to history. That just leads me to despair.

The Rifles by William Vollmann (Seven Dreams #6)

the riflesThis is the sixth of the Seven Dreams of William the Blind, but both the third in publication order and the third I’ve read. After the Vikings crashed through Greenland into the New World, amidst saga and song, to encounter The People in The Ice-Shirt, and later the French Jesuits too meet The People in Fathers and Crows, we now journey to Canada and follow three distinct but interwoven threads.

  1. Doomed John Franklin and his quest for the Northwest Passage.

Why did Franklin go north again? We who are interested in him mainly for his gruesome death believe that he did it to die, that he possessed a morbid lemming’s heart whose ventricles were rimmed most dismally.

2. William Vollman’s obsession with the Arctic and the self-actualization it supplies for him. Captain Subzero, Vollman’s alter-ego, is the main character, the “grave-twin” of John Franklin himself. Just how much is fact and how much fiction in this portion is murky; I hope the times Subzero is being a creep to teenage girls is fiction.

3. The plight of the Inuit in the face of white colonialism. In a ploy to ‘claim the Arctic’, among less malevolent but equally destructive notions, the Canadian government force relocated dozens of Inuit living in northern Quebec into Resolute Bay, in the far north. Look at this goddamn map. They lived in tents in the first years. Up there.

They would nearly starve. They would be sexually abused. They weren’t allowed to leave. Some would kill themselves rather than relocate. It took until 2010, twenty years after this novel was written and about seventy five since the relocations began, for the Canadian government to apologize. Forget reparations.

Above all these story threads, the Arctic looms. Dangerous and beautiful and cold. Very, very cold. The Seven Dreams are a tale of North American landscapes and none are as well realized as the impossibly vast North. My favorite part of the novel is Vollmann’s account of the twelve days he spent alone in an abandoned weather station on Isachsen island, some sort of necessary test of masculinity and self-endurance, wherein the weather plunged to -40C and he seemed to almost die each night. It’s almost astounding how many times the point of “It’s really fucking cold there” can be made and shock me all the same.

The arctic is merely Vollmann’s obsession; surely it had to have some kind of special appeal to John Franklin — he came to his death on his fourth arctic voyage afterall. The novel fills in the blanks of what happened to him and his men, though I’d say I found this the least compelling plot thread. Of major interest to me was that it was not poor planning or the cold itself that doomed them, but the new tinned provisions they brought with them, which spoiled well before they should have and also gave the entire crew severe lead poisoning. Franklin himself fell long before the crew attempted their last ditch effort of land-based escape. 

Not simply the title, The Rifles is the chief metaphor of the novel as well. The introduction of rifles by Europeans pretty much annihilated the traditional Inuit way of life. Plus they became dependent on the whites for ammo. The old ways of hunting, which required actual skill and patience, fell to the wayside in favor of quick and effortless rifle kills. Worse, it meant that they could kill many more musk-oxen and carribou and Canada became just about devoid of them in a dramatically short time. Many starved. Franklin’s expedition among them. Vollman lists a dozen quotes by whites on the subject, wherein people seem to be somewhat aware of what’s happening. It’s all very ominous, he notes, but also we can only say this in retrospect. The whites delivered plenty abuses unto the Inuit (and still do), but like any situation where modern mechanization disturbs peoples not privy to their development, what should they have done? Jealously kept the rifles to themselves?

I’m avoiding the last topic I’ll address here because it makes me somewhat uncomfortable and I’m not really sure how to address it: Reepah

Far better realized than either Franklin or Subzero is Reepah, listed in the glossary as “a woman with a beautiful heart”. The mistress of Subzero or maybe Franklin or maybe the Fulmar of Inuit myth, she spins through the narrative as various characters, typically being both loved and exploited by the former characters. Possibly impregnated by them. Maybe William Vollmann/Subzero brought her to visit him in New York. Maybe she killed herself. It’s here the fact/fiction divide is most maddening. Is Reepah real? If so, how bad was she exploited by Vollmann? Is she a metaphor for Inuit exploitation? If so, that kind of sucks too. Whatever or whoever she is, she’s magnetic and I’m sad she’s dead, real or not.

Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko

almanacThere was not, and there never had been, a legal government by Europeans anywhere in the Americas. Not by any definition, not even by the Europeans’ own definitions and laws. Because no legal government could be established on stolen land. Because stolen land never had clear title.

Leslie Marmon Silko is pissed. Five hundred years of outrage. The colonization of the Americas goes beyond mere colonialism into the whites’ insatiable thirst for more and more resources, clawing the earth apart in search of more riches to deplete. The spirits are pissed too. At the destructive whites and at the native people who do not honor them*. Ten thousands years of Native American ancestors ready to unleash their sorrow and anguish in terms of droughts, tsunamis, hurricanes, you name it.

Which brings me to the plot. There’s a war coming. The details are hazy, and its many tellings are varied and contradictory, but the thrust of all prophecies is clear: at some undetermined point in the future, all the white people in the Americas will be swept away and its native peoples will reclaim the land.

Note: The book is like 800 pages and the war never happens.

This is a story of vignettes, of interlocking stories and characters. A coked out young mother searching for her child, twin Indian sisters (one a talk show personality who can find missing people, but only if they are dead; the other subtly declaring war on the US government in part by stockpiling an enormous amount of guns), an old, contemplative border smuggler gone soft, a mobster with a cadre of assassins and his real estate tycoon wife building water-strewn Venice in Arizona, a Native man refusing his past and obsessed with bulletproof vests, another man kicked out of his tribal lands after inadvertently allowing a Hollywood crew to film his peoples’ sacred stone snake…

The story of a character will unfold, we’ll get in their head and see their story, and then after a few sub-chapters, the story will swap to a different character the first one knew, then afterwards, another character that that character knew, and so on, deeper and deeper until the chain starts again. All lives are entwined, mostly in Tucson, Arizona and south of the border, but the story crisscrosses all over the US. They are marginalized peoples. Mexican and Native Americans. Black power vets looking to South African independence as guidance. The white people have some outsider qualities — brain damaged as a youth or a Vietnam war vet or a woman…

The characters are largely reprehensible, but some are much worse than others and the book slides into dangerous group-identity territory with its cadre of women-hating, gay sadists. (The only vaguely emphatic gay character kills himself.) There’s detailed descriptions of snuff films, of bestiality, of child abuse. With the length of the novel, this can get a little tiring; you’ll probably feel a little worn out. The extreme weight of all these terrible people gets heavy, maybe backbreaking for some.

I eat these kind of books up, when the characters are written well and engaging; everything from Game of Thrones to Catch 22. I love a fat, complex, multifaceted story. At times, Almanac reminds me of narratives like Pulp Fiction or Infinite Jest, but being written in 1991, it predates both. The style reminds me of Joan Didion. Not just because one of the main characters is a Californian white woman, with abortion in her past and lost child drama in her present, spinning out of control. Sentences are typically short and complete. There is repetition. Angles will change mid paragraph. It’s smooth and palatable and difficult content aside, it’s easy to get lost in.

 

*”The spirits allow you no rest. The spirits say die fighting the invaders or die drunk.”