Paul Groot

A late Great American Novel

A Living Legend

For many people, Don DeLillo's latest novel, Underworld, is a highlight not only in the master's oeuvre, but also, in literature in general. Nothing would have pleased Paul Groot more than to join in the cheering for the long-awaited masterpiece from this celebrated American writer. Alas, although for a moment he really thought he had opened the ultimate Great American Novel, while reading he became aware that DeLillo in no way came up to his expectations. A review filled with confusion and self-pity, with reproach and suppressed shame, but still, with a refreshing conclusion: His dream is called Cyberspace, and it is in fact at this level that Underworld ultimately survives.


Cover Underworld - Don Delillo -

Underworld, Don DeLillo's chef-d'oeuvre, is above all a cinematic novel. Or rather, it is a scenario, in which the director's instructions have been included. An autistic director; in the Hitchcock style or thereabouts. Nothing is left to chance, the closed camera technique is aimed at blocking out any outside influence. Underworld is therefore remarkably modern, but at the same time, extremely conservative in character. With its oppressive direction, it is first and foremost a regressive artistic statement. Rather too self-confidently, it cancels out any thought of the open work of art aspired to by the modernists. The antipode of Finnegans Wake: the completely closed nature of Underworld links up with a highly traditional, in a way even regressive, artistic atmosphere. But DeLillo does everything he can to disguise this by quick camera movements. The pace races from the start. Before long, you find yourself on the field at the Yankee Stadium with the balls flying around your ears, and you float with DeLillo among the excited spectators. This camera technique has all the qualities of the modern camera work from the supershows on commercial TV. Fast, zooming and floating movements, which create the suggestion of freedom and space in an otherwise completely closed world. But although the rules of the game played here suggest openness, ultimately this world is as closed as an iron cage.
DeLillo, too, plays this, in the long run, frustrating game. Because after all, his ultimate Great American Novel bows deeply to a long-faded thought. Underworld is the definitive exposure of a literary dream, which we now know was an illusion. In this work, DeLillo has incorporated all the expectations ever raised by this never-written novel, everything that was fabricated about the novel over the past hundred years. Gradually he must have genuinely come to believe in this dream, as if the frantic expectations that had accompanied Underworld over the last seven years had got the better of him.
Underworld might have succeeded if DeLillo had managed to give shape to the impossibility of writing the Great American novel. But if anything, you get the impression that DeLillo himself has come to believe in the myth, and has accumulated all these ingredients to disguise the equally obsolete idea of it. And moreover, has used every trick in the book to confirm to his readers that if this is not the Great American Novel, it will never be written. Shifts in time and hero worship, anything that is elsewhere productive in the build-up of a thrilling adventure, unfolds here as a stone-dead instrument. Everything relevant to this idea of the Great American Novel has been raked together here. If this book had been written in the 1960s, it would have been a definitive novel. But thirty years later, all the narrative tricks and mood descriptions in Underworld are hackneyed, every soap and film is chock-a-block with the material processed here. Underworld holds the language and dialogues of a novel, but DeLillo has effectively drained all the life out of it. The content drowns in the form, a form which is reminiscent of the heyday of the narrative novel. Today, it mainly oozes inconsolable outmodedness, which is particularly depressing because you have no way of knowing whether DeLillo is aware of this himself.
Whatever the case, completely at sea we witness DeLillo working his way through postwar American history. And what vicarious shame creeps over the reader. You are burdened with what is truly the weakest metaphor you have ever set eyes on from a serious writer. Of course, sport in general is usually an ill-fated metaphor, although there is still plenty of material in the sportsman. But how much life is there in a baseball ball? Who cares about the adventures of the ball from a legendary baseball game in the 1950s?DeLillo has the ability to lend an aura of world-shattering importance to everyday matters. The report of the baseball game is more than a mood description from a boys' book, with all the excitement over the fate of a ball struck into the public during a home run. A street urchin, Cotter Martin, fights for physical possession of the ball. This incident not only signifies victory for a local sports club, but, at the same time, also puts the Cold War into top gear. When, at the end of this chapter, the ball from this match, with which the home run was struck, is left unguarded in his bedroom, you experience more than just the unbearable tension of a boys' book. The ball is a possible prey for burglars and speculators. The innocence of this situation symbolises the innocence of the 1950s. Because when Cotter managed to wrench the ball out of the hands of another boy, metaphorically and unknowingly he gained possession of a true nuclear bomb. For, at that very same moment, J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI, who happened to be among the spectators, heard that the first Russian H-bomb had been exploded.
As a novel, Underworld is definitely riddled with clichés: from the baseball game to the space available of a lonely billboard, from J. Edgar Hoover to the female hippy artist who exhibits redundant aircraft, everything is depicted precisely as you would expect in an American novel. Or did DeLillo perhaps really intend this to be a kind of shadow fight, and with Underworld did he want to take his leave of the pretensions of the American academic literary world with a grand gesture?
In any case, the voluminous novel Underworld has made this literary topos, in which the protagonist participates in important political events, impossible in the near future. The technique of participation from Stendhal's The Red and The Black is being tested here, in Underworld, with Hoover, or with another typical time-related phenomenon, the artist Klara Sax. How do you deal with the 1950s, and add a hint of topicality at the same time? DeLillo fails hopelessly with J. Edgar Hoover and with his legends from the 1950s, Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason, with their implausible, effect-ridden, trite, dialogues. These boring and bored characters bring the novel to a standstill. Sinatra and Gleason are just boring, while Sax, as the hippy mother enthroned in her work of art like a queen bee amidst her workers, is totally beyond belief. Sax is the personification of a feeble arty trick, in a poor excuse for hippy surroundings. Sax's honey is no more than pigment turned into art, and lacks any kind of emotional conviction. Page after page, you are trapped in her world, and you actually begin to believe that the author must be interested in it. Apparently he believes in the work of this tragic woman, who updates obsolete bombers and aircraft into a Christo-like work of art. He takes pleasure in what a group of admirers and friends are preparing for Sax, who, naturally, partly owes her role in the story to, believe it or not, her presence at a party given by Truman Capote at the Plaza Hotel in New York, where J. Edgar was also among the guests. Or perhaps not, we could be confusing these two.
DeLillo violates the rule that, in a good novel, secrets should be enhanced rather than undermined. The unbelievably exciting world of the 1950s, with its indefinable dangers and the ever threatening Bomb, is reduced here to the level of the pampered 1990s. And likewise, the avant-garde of the sixties is stripped of its mystery, and the dullness of the seventies, the boastfulness of the eighties and disastrous complacency of the nineties are crumbled up without comment or irony in an over-indulgent literary atmosphere. You would be tempted to mistrust any kind of literary convention from now on.

All those silly associations

The problem with Underworld is that you are constantly reminded of other, better, examples. It makes you yearn for the days before Doctorov and Francis Ford Coppola, Tom Wolfe and Quentin Tarantino wrote or filmed their masterpieces. Underworld is the reversal of the expectations we had then. The all-encompassing novel may, even then, have been an ill-conceived idea, but every attempt had the lustre of something never realised before.
While reading Underworld, you are constantly making associations, which always turn out to DeLillo's disadvantage. Cinematic associations, for example. The way in which we communicate with the sports heroes, and, in particular, with fans such as Sinatra and Gleason, is highly unsatisfactory. And the truths we discover! Even the great heroes are only human, sometimes treating each other like pigs, but playing the game as it should be played, and with what venom and humour! But it is still an outsider's peep into media stardom, rather than exposure with a topical echo. Compare that with the way in which Francis Ford Coppola deals with Lee Strasberg, the legend from the fifties, in one of his Godfather movies. The swan song - the role of a corrupt casino owner in Havana at the time of Castro's revolution - of this stage mogul, founder of the Actors Studio, the godfather of one generation of spectacular actors after another, from Marilyn Monroe to Robert de Niro, does not leave much to the imagination. The legend exposes himself, and shows himself to be a good but undistinguished actor, no more than that.
And when you cannot believe your eyes and ears that DeLillo is capable of so much meaningless sentimentality, Tom Hanks' far more effective sugar-sweet kitsch in Forrest Gump immediately springs to mind. Thanks to the new digital techniques, dear old Gump ended up in the same picture as no less than three presidents in office, not-quite-for-real-but-still-real-enough-for-those-who-want-to-believe-it. And all that because he, more than his fellows, had developed such a phenomenal sprint. Gump was mentally a little backward, which could not fail to move us. But DeLillo scarcely manages to evoke such sentiments with Cotton Martin and his ball.
The work of the artistic windbag, Klara Sax, with her obsolete aircraft, immediately brings William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives to mind. Wyler used the aircraft, those huge objects gathered like lame elephants in an endless space, as convincing symbols, tokens of an event that, in retrospect, is almost inconceivable. There is not a viewer who can hold back his tears. In a very dignified way, they emphasise the ordeals and experiences that the veterans fresh from World War II must come to terms with. Compared with this, Klara Sax's hippy dreams are unimaginative and trivial.

The discovery of Heaven and the Underworld: a conspiracy

Sounds like a film they've already done even if they haven't (381)

In some respects, here DeLillo resembles the Dutch writer Harry Mulish. Apparently the worlds of Mulish and DeLillo have much in common. They are both universalists who, as it were, place themselves in the centre of the universe. Mulish is patently ego-orientated, DeLillo disguises himself, an accumulation of avatars, but yet, as with Mulish, we witness the world of things that matter. Mulish is God himself, in Underworld DeLillo dons various masks, but you constantly recognise the irritating face of a writer who is so pleased with the fact that, in his own innocent way, he always happens to attract the glance of the people who matter. In a way, Underworld is the perfect foil to Harry Mulish's journey into eternity, in his book De Ontdekking van de Hemel (The Discovery of Heaven). The Discovery of Heaven and Underworld, that is to say, the mystery of the Holy Ark as opposed to the mystery of the baseball ball and the nuclear waste. Mulish provides his Discovery of Heaven with all the excitement of a good Spielberg film; in fact, Mulish's book is more exiting than the original Indiana Jones and his adventure with the Ark. Mulish is the creator of an innocent book for boys, with plenty of metaphors. DeLillo does not really understand metaphoric analogy, and when he makes use of it, he lacks any kind of subtlety. But even more obviously, his story is governed by a constantly recurring conspiracy, which makes it drift off ever further into vagueness.
In Underworld, we witness important global events in an unbearable atmosphere, a sanctimonious atmosphere: without a hint of irony. History portrayed as a conspiracy, with the conspirators constantly recharging their batteries to give their actions a deeper, worldwide, meaning. With that ball and the H-bomb, the reader takes a touristic journey through postwar history. And he knows himself to be a traveller in the underworld, is aware that the paranoid world of spies and FBI agents is an important factor; that the development of the H-bomb and other nuclear weapons will eventually lead to worldwide pollution. For nuclear waste will turn the Great American Dream inside out.
But DeLillo never really succeeds in arousing our true interest in his subject. The echoes of the anxious 1950s never really come alive, this is Tintin in America. Nor are the contemporary nuclear waste dumps ever really able to evoke the frightening feeling that DeLillo is obviously aiming at. What has hampered DeLillo? Mulish cannot avoid a theatrical display as the only way to evoke the suggestion of himself as the centre of the world; with DeLillo, it is precisely the total absence of any centre that is his undoing.

The Real Underworld: A Mystical Denouement in Space Available

Want to go to a Dodger game? No, I said (281)

I would literally have written off this world of DeLillo's were it not for the fact that something remarkable happens at a certain metaphorical level. For a moment you think that eventually DeLillo perhaps intended to close the door on literature, and had the ideal film script in mind. No, it is not Hollywood that is on his hidden agenda, he is perfectly aware of how badly things turned out for Faulkner and Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood. The secret of DeLillo's pathetic avant-garde, where he trivialises his already hackneyed themes into kitsch, lies beyond Hollywood, is much more contemporary. His dream is called Cyberspace, and it is in fact at this level that Underworld ultimately survives.
The representation of the history of technological machinery, which has always featured on DeLillo's agenda, determines the progress of his novel. With White Noise, he built a monument to quantum technology, with a hallucinating atmosphere, technological innovations, secret vibrations, and spheres showing the happenings of mankind in an intriguing fashion. In Underworld, Cyberspace goes beyond the order of literature, or film.
Actually, this need not come as surprise to anyone. DeLillo has always focused on literary modulations from the technological sphere. At face value, the world seems to consist of real people and everyday situations, but in fact, DeLillo lives in the world of waves and particles. His novel White Noise is explicit in this respect, but in Underworld this remains somewhat more illusive. We share in the movements and waves, which make up for many of the shortcomings. Because although this novel is unconvincing as a literary work and a failure as a scenario, it is certainly more viable as a message from Cyberspace. Although DeLillo does not engage in a serious dialogue with his figures from the postwar world, he certainly finds partners for discussion in a less recent past. At any rate, I suddenly recognised that perfect Euclidean world with its melodious terminology and structure that you also encounter in Dante's Divina Commedia, in particular in Il Paradiso. The Aquinean heavenly spheres, there perfectly ordered, are reflected here in the order in the chaos of the Underworld, and the electrifying elements of the spheres are replaced by quantum-mechanical wave particles.
In Underworld, as with all his novels, the driving force is the genealogy of energy forms and structures. This is not the history of America, but rather, the history of released, recognised and regauged energies. The world as a compressed energy whose sheaths we, in our century, are gradually learning to unfold, one by one. And typically, DeLillo had to represent this world as nuclear fission, as the fear of the consequences of nuclear fission.
This world consists of the constant free movement of the technological elements. However, the genealogy of the media and technological inventions do not mean the end of history in a postmodern world. Man cannot do without his own history, he is entangled in it, and does not like to be robbed of it. And thus we approach the novel's central space, where everything seems to be a coincidental combination of light and darkness, but which is, above all, a combination of solace and oblivion. A place where Cyberspace and wave motion, literary mood and physical transparency come together: Space available. There, as reader, we can apply our own metaphors and move freely, loosened from DeLillo's dictates. It is a limited space, a billboard somewhere in the Bronx, around which we witness unwonted scenes. DeLillo touches on it rather than dwelling on it, but eventually, we have come to the core of the novel. Space available is the navel, the place where the world is turned inside out, and where DeLillo also lures us into entering. This is the place where the source - as well as the final destination - of the novel can be found. This is where everything has its starting point, this is the place where all the movements and images come together and again, in time, disperse. Here we can speculate, here the author allows us a few moments of freedom, the Achilles heel of the novel.
The site of the crime in the Bronx, where a terrible deed was committed. A girl has been raped and murdered, the neighbourhood gathers round for a memorial service. And then, for a few moments, the collective energy, that of the mourners and that of the disappointed reader, comes together. So that the miracle happens and the girl finally appears on the billboard.

Because when the train lights hit the dimmest part of the billboard a face appears above the misty lake and it belongs to the murdered girl. A dozen women clutch their heads, they weep and sob, a spirit, a godsbreath passing through the crowd.



The reader knows himself to be comforted by the neighbourhood. For one moment, the force of the unbounded material energy is conquered by mental imagination. For one moment, DeLillo grants us, together with the mourners gathered there, the freedom of an empty billboard. Soon enough, the message from the billboard proprietor will reappear. But we have recognised the space available. This is the moment of freedom granted to the imagination, and then, inevitably, the conclusion: the open work of art, the rhizome and the closed structure of history come together at this place.

translation OLIVIER & WYLIE