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.

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The Spooking Orb #5: White Noise by Don DeLillo

white noiseWhite Noise? Not a Halloween read, you say? Reagan-era family life not scary enough for you?

Listen up, pal; the theme of this novel is fear. Not fear of serial killers or tentacle monsters or lab experiments, but the granddaddy of them all: Fear of death. Specifically, fear of death in the technology and marketing focused final quarter of the 20th century, where you can’t even entertain the fantasy that death is noble or holy anymore.

I only know I’m just going through the motions of living. I’m technically dead. My body is a growing nebulous mass. They track these things like satellites. All this is a result of a byproduct of insecticide. There’s something artificial about my death. It’s shallow, unfulfilling. I don’t belong to the earth or sky. They ought to carve an aerosol can on my tombstone.

These are the thoughts of Jack Gladney, professor of Hitler studies at a quaint midwestern university and our first-person protagonist. The novel follows Jack and his family: his fifth wife and their assorted children from various marriages. Much of the book is simply Jack’s musings and his back-and-forth chats with his family and friends. It’s the type of book, like A Naked Singularity (a book that draws much influence from White Noise), where people have these long philosophical conversations about life, death, media, family that rarely ever happen in the real world. It’s a warm take on family, though. I grew very fond of this clan of fatalists.

While the novel is mostly dialogue, both external and internal, the major plot happening is a catastrophic gas leak that shuts down Jack’s town and forces everyone to spend a night huddled on cots in a communal warehouse. The Airborne Toxic Event. The family car runs out of gas while stuck in traffic en route to the sanctuary and Jack gets out for a few minutes to fill it up. The two minutes he spends outside brings him into contact with ‘Nyodene D’, the toxic contaminant that kicked off the leak, with its potentially harmful side effects. Including vomiting, nausea, deja vu, and death. Potentially.

This launches an obsession for Jack. Death. Even though the effects of Nyodene D are mostly unknown and probably won’t affect him for 30+ years (he’s in his 50s), it’s all he can think about. He repeatedly visits doctors. Then stops altogether. He discovers that he’s always been terrified of death — it’s why he created the field of Hitler studies, so he could siphon some of Hitler’s aura/endurability and stave off death. Jack steals his wife’s experimental medication. He digs through trash, chases down neurochemists. Stalks people with guns. Considers killing to increase his own longevity.

This book feels old. It was written in 1985, the year I was born. Does that mean I’m old? It’s not like the text is dated. It’s more like Don DeLillo influenced writers two generations over. Bands named themselves after his chapter headings. I’ve seen these themes rehashed so many times, seen writers attempt to mimic his wit and reflection, I felt a (topical) sense of deja vu* while reading White Noise. Even though I’ve never read it before. Not only that, but DeLillo’s influence lies heavily in Kafka, and he was writing in a time much closer to him than we are now. Take this passage for instance, which could almost be ripped right out of The Trial, if it were about medicine instead of law.

I didn’t say it. The computer did. The whole system says it. It’s what we call a massive data-base tally. Gladney, J. A. K. I punch in the name, the substance, the exposure time and then I tape your computer history. Your genetics, your personals, your medicals, your psychologicals, your police-and-hospitals. It comes back pulsing stars. This doesn’t mean anything is going to happen to you as such, at least not today or tomorrow. It just means you are the sum total of your data. No man escapes that.

Maddening bureaucracy. Death became banal and ignoble and worst of all, unfulfilling, as digital technology arose.

 

*A potential side effect of The Airborne Toxic Event!