Sunday, November 20, 2011

Underworld: DeLillo Hits One Out of the Park

It's the birthday of Don DeLillo, our modern Melville.  He was born in 1936 in the Bronx and published his first novel, Americana, in 1971 after working on it for five years.  "It's no accident that my first novel was called Americana," he said in a 1993 interview. "This was a private declaration of independence, a statement of my intention to use the whole picture, the whole culture.  America was and is the immigrant's dream, and as the son of two immigrants I was attracted by the sense of possibility that had drawn my grandparents and parents."

DeLillo is a writer's writer and he burrows deep into the mechanics of art, even putting words like these in the mouths of his characters (Bill Gray from Mao II): "Do you know why I believe in the novel?  It's a democratic shout.  Anybody can write a great novel, one great novel, almost any amateur off the street.  I believe this, George.  Some nameless drudge, some desperado with barely a nurtured dream can sit down and find his voice and luck out and do it.  Something so angelic it makes your jaw hang open.  The spray of talent, the spray of ideas.   One thing unlike another, one voice unlike the next.  Ambiguities, contradictions, whispers, hints."

In that 1993 interview with The Paris Review, DeLillo talked about method and process, saying: "I work in the morning at a manual typewriter.  I do about four hours and then go running.  This helps me shake off one world and enter another.  Trees, birds, drizzle--it's a nice kind of interlude.  Then I work again, later afternoon, for two or three hours."  And later in that same conversation, he said something which I as a novelist in the final throes of editing a 170,000-word manuscript down to 100,000 words can fully appreciate: "I find I'm more ready to discard pages than I used to be.  I used to look for things to keep.  I used to find ways to save a paragraph or sentence, maybe by relocating it.  Now I look for ways to discard things.  If I discard a sentence I like, it's almost as satisfying as keeping a sentence I like.  I don't think I've become ruthless or perverse--just a bit more willing to believe that nature will restore itself.  The instinct to discard is finally a kind of faith.  It tells me there's a better way to do this page even though the evidence is not accessible at the present time."

Today also marks the anniversary of the attack on the Essex by a sperm whale in 1820.  After hitting some bad luck on their voyage, the crew of the whaling ship had come across a pod of sperms on the morning of the 20th and had harpooned a couple.  But then, they found themselves facing an enormous whale which was acting strangely.  The whale rammed the ship repeatedly for apparently no reason.  First mate Owen Chase later wrote, "I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods (550 yards) directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed (around 24 knots or 44 kph), and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect.  The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail.  His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship."

Chase survived the voyage (which also included starvation and cannibalism) and later told of his exploits in The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.  Twenty years later, Chase's son William met another seaman, Herman Melville, who had heard about the sinking of the Essex and asked him about it.  William Chase gave Melville a copy of his father's book.  That, of course, inspired Melville to write his masterpiece, Moby-Dick.

DeLillo and Moby-Dick.  Surely, there's a straight line we can draw between 1820 and 1936.  Just as Melville burrowed into the belly of a whale, DeLillo goes to the belly of our nation.

In celebration of Mr. DeLillo's birthday, I offer this review of what I'd call his Moby-Dick: Underworld.  I wrote the review in 1999 and in reading back over it today, I see how it's loose and unrestrained; but, in the interest of literary archeology, I have preserved it untouched.  It's all I have to offer by way of a birthday gift.  I hate showing up at parties empty-handed.

*     *     *

Underworld by Don DeLillo is huge—huge in the way that the United States is huge.  This book, like our nation, is crowded with people, places, events and inexhaustible energy.  It’s got jazz, atomic testing, J. Edgar Hoover, flavored condoms, baseball, graffiti artists, inner city nuns, Jayne Mansfield, websites, Lenny Bruce, 50’s doo-wop, chess and Mikhail Gorbachev’s birthmark.  And that’s just for starters.

The novel, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1997, is a gargantuan undertaking by DeLillo (who also wrote Libra and The Names) and it is one of the most breathtaking volumes of literature you’ll read in this or any century.

Underworld covers a lot of territory and envelopes a cast of characters so diverse that DeLillo puts filmmaker Robert Altman to shame.  But, just like Altman’s classics Nashville and Short Cuts, everything gels just perfectly by the final page.

The story opens at a baseball game.  But not just any baseball game.  It is Oct. 3, 1951 and the Dodgers are battling the Giants for the World Series pennant in the final game of the contest.  J. Edgar is there, so are Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra, cheering and kvetching and downing ball park franks.  Did it really happen this way?  Were they really there at the game?  Probably not.  But I will say this as an aside: DeLillo’s writing was so convincing that when J. Edgar Hoover picked up a discarded Life magazine and was attracted to a photo inside, I wrote to the editors at Life to see if I could get my hands on that back issue just to see what Hoover saw.  That’s how compelling DeLillo’s writing is.

Also attending the game is a young boy named Cotter who catches the game-winning home run smacked up into the stands.  That one baseball, with its raised seams and tiny smudge of bat tar, resonates throughout the whole book as it passes from hand to hand over the next forty years.

By starting Underworld in New York’s Polo Ground with a crowd of 35,000, DeLillo describes a dizzying array of characters.  His sentences—nay, the very words—tumble one after the other, panning from person to person like a restless camera.  It’s an incredible feat and it works so well for those first 60 pages that the rest of the novel almost feels a little drained.  It’s like putting the high-wire act before the rest of the circus.  In fact, this opening prologue is so good, you could tear out the pages, put them behind glass in a museum and call it True Art.  Here’s the next-to-last line, coming after fifty-nine pages of atomic literary energy: "Shouts, bat-cracks, full bladders and stray yawns, the sand-grain manyness of things that can’t be counted."

DeLillo’s prose is full of such "sand-grain manyness," moving effortlessly through place and time as it charts its cast of thousands.  Central to the story are Nick Shay and Klara Sax who were briefly lovers back in the 1950s and who meet again in the 90s.  Events ricochet off these two people, setting off a string of circumstances that, yes, eventually connect to the home-run baseball.

If you like the writings of E.L. Doctorow, you’ll love Underworld which mixes historic figures with fictional characters much like Doctorow’s Ragtime.  But DeLillo goes Doctorow one better by infusing these pages with a jazzy rhythm that’s unique and invigorating.  His words practically put bubbles in your blood.

Open Underworld at random and you’ll come across some great passages that will stand the test of time.  Idly flipping through the pages, I found these two outstanding paragraphs in different locations:

"A photograph is a universe of dots.  The grain, the halide, the little silver things clumped in the emulsion.  Once you get inside a dot, you gain access to hidden information, you slide inside the smallest event."

"It was the time of Nixon’s fall from office but she didn’t enjoy it the way her friends did.  Nixon made her think of her father, another man of frazzled mind, rehearsed in his very step, his physical address, bitter and distant at times, with a loser’s bent frame, all head and hands."

DeLillo’s scope is big and breathy and almost, but not quite, stretches itself to the limit.  You can practically hear the plausibility twanging like an overstretched rubber band.  Even if you can’t quite grasp it all, you know for certain that you’re in the hands of a master.

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