Category Archives: don delillo

Underworld etc

Thanks to Dan Wickett for this extremely helpful link to a site called Don DeLillo’s America. It has lists of virtually every critical DeLillo document a DeLillo fan could ask for, including lots of links to reviews and articles on the web (unfortunately, some of the links have expired, but a resourceful DeLillo fan should have little problem ferreting out a copy of the document in question). There’s a quirky FAQ, an interesting bio composed of quotes by and about DeLillo, and lists of his works (broken into novels, stories, plays, and other).

There’s also a "Detractors" section featuring the always vehemently antagonistic Dale Peck. But even better is a little snoot of a gem from George Will where he gets beside himself over Libra, DeLillo’s book about the Kennedy assassination.

There’s an "Odds and Ends" section which tells us, among other things, that current Booker favorite David Mitchell used a line from Americana as the epigraph for his second novel Number9Dream ("It is so much simpler to bury reality than it is to dispose of dreams.")

Lastly, the site helped me locate this NYTimes page whic has a wide variety of DeLillo resources, including two reviews of Underworld, one by Martin Amis and one by Michiko Kakutani. The Amis review is interesting in that he picks up on DeLillo’s excellent ability to write good dialog (”She’s got a great body for how many kids?” ”They put son of a bitches like you behind bars is where you belong.” ”I’m a person if you ask me questions. You want to know who I am? I’m a person if you’re too inquisitive I tune you out completely.” ”Which is the whole juxt of my argument.” — DeLillo has an especially ability for a certain street-smark variant of the New York accent).

Amis also correctly notes that a large part of Underworld is showing how America came to terms with the idea of perpetually living under the threat of nuclear annihilation. It also deals with the nuclear check coming due after the Cold War ends — we have lots of rotting bombs, but no way to safely dispose of them or keep them out of the wrong hands.

Underworld Complete

It’s been a long, pleasant journey with Underworld. This is one of those books that I read the final pages of slowly, scrutinizing every word, because everything in the text up to this point has been so rich and insightful that I want there to be something in the end to tie it all together, something that lays it all out for me, that puts that gleam of understanding in my eye.

I want this, but of course I also don’t want this. On a certain level I’ve been looking for that key to tie it all together for the last 826 pages (or maybe the last 726), but on another level I know that the key isn’t going to be in that last page any more than it was in any of the 826 preceding pages, and I wouldn’t want it to be because how could you tie up such a sprawling work into a simple moral anyway?

It’s interesting to read this book right now because some of it has been rendered obsolete. The fact that the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center are right there on the cover (and figure as a prominent symbol in the book) pretty much tell you right away that the events of the last few years are going to infringe substantially on what DeLillo wrote about.

Although there are many, many levels to Underworld, one of them consists of the idea that with the end of the Cold War, the possibility that a government could mean what the Church once meant centuries ago was more or less dead. Put another way, if people of an earlier era looked to the Church for salvation, many people of a later era looked to government in the same way (think of the hard-core Communist adherents dating back to 1848 and beyond, or even zealous Labour Party members in Britain). Well, the fall of the Berlin Wall pretty much put an end to that, if it hadn’t been dead for years already.

In a way, then, one of the things DeLillo is exploring is the question of in a post-Communism, "end of history" world, what is left for us to believe in? Which brings us back to the Towers on the front of the book. The answer DeLillo suggests is transnational capitalism (and it’s certainly a surrogate that DeLillo expresses plenty of misgivings in as a belief system), but if he was writing it today there would be at least one, if not two, contenders for transnational capitalism to face off against.

Of course 9/11 does not render Underworld’s insights obsolete. Transnational capitalism is still with us strong as ever, and the points and critiques that DeLillo makes are still valid. Also, DeLillo’s rendering of the five postwar decades that led to our present system are just as interesting and worthwhile as they were on 9/10/2001. The sweeping changes in American society and culture, really the very fabric and mode of our relations to one another, are truly fascinating to explore through DeLillo’s somber prose.

I guess what I’m saying is that if DeLillo wrote it today, there would probably be another 200 pages tacked on, which, incidentally, would be bad news for my biceps which already had enough to contend with supporting Underworld’s 3 pounds (yeah, I got the hardcover edition). I’ll have to see what DeLillo has come up with since Underworld, as I’m certain he’s had plenty of thoughts on our post-9/11 world.

This is a pretty long post and I haven’t even gotten into DeLillo’s fascination with condoms, all the ICBM/phallic imagery, his depiction of a Sergei Eisenstein screening in New York in the ’70s, his strange alpha-and-omega-type equation of nuclear bombs to nuclear trash, the several chapters centered around J. Edgar Hoover, Bruegel’s paintings, chess, the hundred-or-so pages from 1951 that read like a DeLillo-flavored excerpt from The Godfather, painting B-52s in the desert.

Yeah, there’s a lot of fascinating stuff in Underworld. I recommend it.

Underworld Progress

I’m at the halfway point of this large book, and it seems that after its fast start this title has settled down some. DeLillo is taking time out to explore his characters’ backgrounds, and there’s also the matter of a couple seemingly extraneous characters that we’ve seen glimpses of (maybe 20 pages or so), but that only seem to fit into Underworld as friends of friends. We started out in 1951, jumped to 1992, and now we’ve traveled back, first to the 1980s, then 1978, and now 1974. The book has grown far more complex and I’m beginning to gaze glassy-eyed at the mounting heaps of symbols.

In this cacophony, one motif that has taken prominence is trash, with one particular subset — shit — outpacing all rivals. But let me back up here. The one character that we might call the narrator, Nick, (he’s the only character that is ever presented in the first-person) works for some huge waste management conglomerate. It’s not exactly clear what Nick does, but its along the lines of public relations, speechwriting for the execs.

In Nick’s segments he’s almost always talking about garbage in one way or another — philosophizing about how we buy products at the supermarket while thinking about what kind of trash they will make, talking with his work buddy about a mysterious trash boat that’s been sent from harbor to harbor, but can’t dock anywhere because its load, discussing a huge miles-wide landfill-in-the-making with a waste management industry maverick who reads world history in terms of civilization’s interaction with its trash.

In all this talk of trash, the topic of shit comes up several times. At one point Nick discusses with his colleague how the stuff is carefully, even lovingly, treated for contaminants and then unceremoniously dumped in the ocean 106 miles (less would be illegal) off the New Jersey coast as though the ocean was just one immense toilet bowl. Shit begins cropping up in the segments with other characters, either incidentally or at rather significant moments in their lives.

You could say that Underworld is full of you know what, but I’m not going to go there because even though the book’s pace has slackened just a bit, it’s still excellent. I’ll write again in a couple hundred pages or so. Hopefully by then I’ll have a little more of a thread to hang this book on.


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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