Don DeLillo's Home Page: Miraculum.com
Since his first novel, Americana (1971), Don DeLillo's subject has been the superfluity, the self-absorption, and the paranoia of American culture. Readers of DeLillo are familiar with his often satiric assessment of the pre-processed, disposable, filtered, and homogenized material of the American environment. A special target has been the dulling uniformity of media culture, the talking heads that pronounce on the day's events in unaccented newsspeak in thousands of identical motel rooms across the country. His brilliant novel, White Noise (1986), serves as a catalogue of the information age's malaise. As a visiting lecturer in popular culture at the College-on-the-Hill, Murray Siskind tries to persuade his colleague Jack Gladney that the "medium" of television "is a primal force in the American home. Sealed-off, timeless, self-contained, self-referring. It's like a myth being born right there in our living room." The hypnotic blue fire emanating from the television set becomes iconic, not the mere channel through which information flows but an object of reverence and compulsion. The immanent presence of the media (suffused throughout and saturating the environment) encases the viewer's sensorium in data like an artificial myelin sheath.
Underworld (1997) is DeLillo's most monumental work of fiction, demanding comparison with recent blockbusters of literary fiction such as Pynchon's Mason & Dixon (also published in 1997), David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest (1996), William H. Gass's The Tunnel (1995), and Joseph McElroy's Women and Men (1986). Tom LeClair, one of DeLillo's most devoted critics, has called these works "Prodigious Fictions" in part for their daunting length (ranging from 650 to over a thousand pages in the case of the novels by Wallace and McElroy) and in part because they are conceived as "information systems, as long-running programs of data with a collaborative genesis." One might expect that in a media economy of "sound bite" politics, frantic pitchmen, and the jump-cut editing made fashionable by MTV videos, such maximal-sized publications would meet the fate of other leviathan. In fact the publication of an anthology called Sudden Fiction (short stories of remarkable brevity, with a preface by Robert Coover), would seem to fit the mood of the age much better.
When the attention span of audiences dwindles to no more than a few seconds, what is one to make of this cluster of excessively long novels? Is this the work of novelists writing in spite of distracted or nonexistent readers? DeLillo has written a "novel that tries to be equal to the complexities and excesses of the culture," which he described in an interview with Adam Begley while Underworld was in process. The superabundance of information, in Jean Baudrillard's phrase "diffused, and diffracted in the real," would overwhelm a merely anecdotal representation or cross-section of the culture of excess. Underworld takes as its initial condition the headlines from the front page of The New York Times for October 4, 1951 that appear in symmetrical juxtaposition: to the left, "the Giants capture the pennant, beating the Dodgers on a dramatic home run in the ninth inning. And to the right, symmetrically mated, same typeface, same-size type, same number of lines, the USSR explodes an atomic bomb." America's entrance into the Cold War, with its pervasive fear of nuclear annihilation, haunts the entire novel. The confetti that falls on the field of the Polo Grounds (described in the first section of the novel, "The Triumph of Death") is doubled by the human ashes that drifted down onto Hiroshima. In a character doubling that is appallingly apt for the nuclear age, the novel presents J. Edgar Hoover (who shared a celebrity box at the playoff game with Frank Sinatra, Toots Shor, and Jackie Gleason) and the Catholic nun Sister Edgar as celibate hypochondriacs. They take it as their special mission to instill the morbid fear of imminent nuclear vaporization. Sister Edgar checks to see that each student wears their identification tags during schoolroom duck-and-cover drills. Reviewer James Wood complains that the novel's "big, broken structure moves back and forward through all the decades since 1951, traveling from Arizona to the Bronx to Kazakhstan and back again, and the book intends ds to be a collection of lavish fragments, set down in a maze." Underworld, however, aspires to an historically capacious form by moving in nonlinear fashion from one rather precise, critical moment in the postwar American experience through the unreliable and unpredictable texture of history without attempting to impose a singular "story" on events (or the fictional and historical characters implicated in those events). DeLillo's paranoid investigations into American history in Underworld take the form of a "strange attractor" that plots a path unpredictably folded over and through itself without ever exactly repeating its path. Such a nonlinear divagation through history requires a maximal length in which to express the system to its fullest.
As a teenager in the Bronx, Nick Shay "takes his radio up to the roof of his building so he can listen alone, a Dodger fan slouched in the gloaming," to the legendary playoff game on October 3, 1951 between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants at the now demolished Polo Grounds. As a counterpoint to the present era of media saturation, the narrator points out that, on the day that defines for DeLillo the beginning of the postwar era, there's "a man on 12th Street in Brooklyn who has attached a tape machine to his radio so he can record the voice of Russ Hodges broadcasting the game. The man doesn't know why he's doing this. It is just an impulse, a fancy, it is like hearing the game twice, it is like being young and being old, and this will turn out to be the only known recording of Russ' famous account of the final moments of the game." Baseball fans recall that Bobby Thomson's ninth-inning home run off Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca, called "The Shot Heard Round the World," capped an improbable stretch run by the Giants to overtake the Dodgers and win the pennant.
Underworld follows the path of that baseball, which becomes another strange attractor within the novel, as it leaves Branca's hand, sails over the forlorn head of Dodger outfielder Andy Pafko at the wall, into the stands and into history. First held by a turnstile-jumper from Harlem, Cotter Martin, sold to advertising executive Charles Wainwright for $32 and change, passed to his ne'er-do-well son Chuckie, a navigator on a B-52 making bombing runs over Vietnam, tracked down by a collector of baseball memorabilia, Marvin Lundy, the scuffed baseball is finally acquired by Nick Shay as an expiation for various losses in his life. Lundy explains that the problem with the Thomson home-run ball is its provenance, to use the art world's term for an object's record of possession. He admits, "'I traced it all the way back to October fourth, the day after the game, nineteen hundred and fifty-one �. I don't have the last link that I can connect backwards from the Wainwright ball to the ball making contact with Bobby Thomson's bat.' He looked sourly at the scoreboard clock. 'I have a certain number of missing hours I still have to find.'" Lundy's inability to establish the exact "lineage" of the scuffed baseball holds more significance than setting its commercial value in the "nostalgia trade." The baseball represents the problem of provenance in American culture at large. It's impossible to trace American culture to some authoritative source. All along the way one encounters fakes, pretenders, and simulations. As Baudrillard remarks in Simulacra, "Disneyland exists in order to hide that it is the 'real' country, all of 'real' American that is Disneyland." DeLillo suggests that America is a thing made of plywood, like the replica of the Polo Grounds' scoreboard in Lundy's basement, painted over to resemble a civilization. The counterexample in the novel is Simon Rodia's Watts Towers in Los Angeles, a sculpture "rucked in the vernacular" that still achieves an "epic quality," constructed by an Italian immigrant over many years using "whatever objects he could forage and scrounge." DeLillo's Underworld creates a mosaic from the found materials of American history from the 1950s through the early 1990s with such invention that these details finally achieve an epic proportion.
DeLillo's protagonist, Nick Shay, is an expert in waste management. He confronts the basic crisis of our disposable consumer economy: what to do with the inexhaustible mountains of toxic garbage generated every day. Nick believes that "waste is a religious thing. We entomb contaminated waste with a sense of reverence and dread. It is necessary to respect what we discard." Although his job forces him to consider the collective refuse of American culture, the great impasto that binds us all together as a nation, Nick's upbringing still shapes his approach to the problem. "The Jesuits taught me to examine things for second meanings and deeper connections. Were they thinking about waste? We were waste managers, waste giants, we processed universal waste." Again speaking of the Disneyland that is America, Baudrillard discovers "a space of the regeneration of the imaginary as waste-treatment plants are elsewhere, and even here. Everywhere today one must recycle waste, and the dreams, the phantasms, the historical, fairylike, legendary imaginary of children and adults is a waste product, the first great toxic excrement of a hyperreal civilization." Whereas Jack Gladney in White Noise sought through the superabundance of noise for hidden messages, scraps of meaning, Nick Shay sifts through the mountainous remains of American culture for a few slips of sublime dream-life that might give his existence meaning.
The stunning epilogue to the novel, "Das Kapital," catapults the reader from the nostalgia of newspaper headlines, the nascence of television, and the ethnic neighborhoods of the Bronx in the 1950s into a postindustrial society dominated by "the flow of information, through transnational media, the attenuating influence of money that's electronic and sex that cyberspaced � the convergence of consumer desire." As peripatetic as Nick Shay is, flying to Kazakhstan, Zurich, and Lisbon in the 1990s to confront "the intractability of waste" as a disposal expert in the service of multinational capitalism, he still experiences a profound uneasiness with the virtuality of postmodern hyperspace that Fredric Jameson suggests in Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism has "finally succeeded in transcending the capacities of the individual human body to locate itself, to organize its immediate surroundings perceptually, and cognitively to map its position in a mappable external world." A lthough Nick finds some "sense of order and command reinforced by the office" and its "contact points" of telecommunications, he longs for "the days of disorder � when I was alive on the earth, rippling in the quick of my skin, heedless and real. I was dumb-muscled and angry and real." As a product of the 1950s, Nick touts visceral contact over disembodied connections, real streets over hyperlinked systems, and grappling hotly with disorder over the cool regard of cybernetic order.
His slacker son, Jeff, however, is a pure product of the information age, "a lurker �. He gathers the waves and rays. He adds components and functions and sits before a spreading mass of compatible hardware. The real miracle is the web, the net, where everybody is everywhere at once, and he is there among them, unseen." Jeff discovers the web page devoted to miracles and containing an account of the South Bronx wild-child Esmeralda. DeLillo provides a patently useless URL for the Miraculum web site, http://blk.www/dd.com/miraculum . Does he intend a skeptic's irony in the use of a commercial "top-level" domain name (.com) for this site? What might be offered for sale on such a site? A web site that chronicles miracles, ironic as the preservation of blueprints for the atomic bomb by post-apocalyptic monks in Walter Miller's A Chronicle for Leibowitz (1972), supplants the power of faith in the supernatural with "the power of false faith, the faith of paranoia" in the unseen connections of the web.
The web offers no antidote to the grim but real underworld of the South Bronx. But in cyberspace "Everything is connected. All human knowledge gathered and linked, hyperlinked, this site leading to that, this fact referenced to that, a keystroke, a mouse-click, a password — world without end, amen."
A case in point, you can visit Curt Gardner's well-maintained home page, "Don DeLillo's America," at http://haas.berkeley.edu/~gardner/delillo.html. As in so many other epic fictions there is the lure of a false paradise that offers repose to the weary, food to the hungry, and pleasure to those who have experienced privation. All of which precede loss of purpose, loss of direction, and loss of identity. For DeLillo cyberspace is another mirage, a lotusland: "Is cyberspace a thing within the world or is it the other way around? Which contains the other, and how can you tell for sure?"
-- Joseph Conte
Released: May 6, 1998