One nation, undercover

"Underworld," Don DeLillo's ambitious attempt at the Great American Novel, prompts one to quote Henry James: "I liked all of it, except the whole thing."

Published September 26, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

certainly this is a brilliant and impressive book, "Underworld," Don
DeLillo's 11th novel and the story of over 50 years of American life,
bracketed by a legendary baseball game in 1951 and a peculiar cyberspace
epiphany in the present. Its subjects -- the bomb, popular culture,
paranoia, crime, art, race, adultery, violence, consumerism and the
staggering wastefulness of modern life -- are meaty and urgent. It has
dazzling writing on every page and acute observations like "I noticed how
people played at being executives while actually holding executive
positions ... pretending to be exactly who you are." It's a mesh of
crisscrossing metaphors and reflected themes, as dense, shimmering and
rich as any masterpiece.

And yet there's something vital missing from "Underworld"; like Henry
James, complaining of another writer's effort, I'm prompted to say, "I
liked all of it, except the whole thing." Because the book is so excellent
(in the same way an individual used to be described as an "excellent man"
or an "excellent woman") and so admirable, because it has so many strengths
lacking in most other books published today, it feels a bit dastardly to
point out its flaws. But those flaws (like everything else about
"Underworld") seem so important that it wouldn't be proper, really, to let
them pass unremarked.

"It's the 'Moby Dick' of our time," a smitten acquaintance said to me about
"Underworld," and you get the impression that this is exactly what DeLillo
intended from the moment he typed the first word. The book feels like it
was conceived and gestated inside the very idea of Greatness (to use a
DeLillo-esque turn of phrase). Perhaps when Melville sat down to thrash out
his magnum opus, or Dostoevski to write "The Brothers Karamazov," each of
those writers thought to himself, "I'm really on to something here," or
even, "You know, this is really, really good." But "Underworld" has a
self-reverent quality to it, as if DeLillo began it under the orders of a
sonorous, Sir John Gielgudian voice that trumpeted from the heavens,
proclaiming, "Thou shalt write the Great American Novel."

An exciting writer needs ambition, and most contemporary novelists don't
reach far enough, but DeLillo's high seriousness tends to run amok. No
wonder he was drawn to Lee Harvey Oswald, depicted in DeLillo's 1988 novel
"Libra" as an oddball brooder intent on making history -- an ideal
conjunction of writer and character.

Still, DeLillo's gravitas lets him write about pop culture's
infiltration into our most intimate thoughts without sounding glib or
trendy. Nick Shay, the alienated hero of "Underworld," contemplates the
handsome lines of his wife's face, which reminds him of the woman's profile
carved on bars of Camay soap, and the comparison doesn't feel vulgar
because DeLillo's fundamentally incapable of vulgarity. When Nick examines
the label on his sunblock and thinks, "I knew with total certainty that a
protection factor of fifteen was the highest level of sunblock
scientifically possible. Now they were selling me thirty," the moment
elides gracefully into an anecdote about Edward Teller applying suntan
lotion before witnessing the first atomic explosion -- rather than sounding
like a Seinfeld routine.

as the only character in "Underworld" who rates first-person narration,
Nick is the novel's center, but there are over a dozen other people
crowding this book, all them connected to him in some way. The most
appealing are Klara Sax, an older sculptor with whom Nick had a brief
affair; her ex-husband, Albert Bronzini, who coached Nick's brother through
a boyhood phase of chess wizardry; and Marvin Lundy, a widower who collects
baseball memorabilia and has some interesting theories about Greenland and
the shape of Mikhail Gorbachev's birthmark. J. Edgar Hoover -- celibate and
ever vigilant against germs and other forms of infiltration -- makes a few
appearances, paralleled by an equally disinfectant-crazed nun doing charity
work in Nick's now-devastated old neighborhood in the Bronx. So does Lenny
Bruce, shrieking, "We're all gonna die" throughout the Cuban Missile
Crisis. There's a highway sniper and several people who briefly own the
baseball that Bobby Thomson hit into the left-field stands on Oct. 3,
1951, a homer that won the pennant for the New York Giants, an event that
one character describes as "the last time people spontaneously went out of
their houses for something. Some wonder, some amazement."

DeLillo cherishes the moment because it happened just before mass media
gained the power, by endless reproduction and repetition, to drain such
experiences of their immediacy. He has that wildly sentimental romanticism
about baseball common in intellectuals, but beyond that, "Underworld" isn't
really nostalgic. It's the story of America's (and Nick's) awakening from
the dream of the Cold War, which like most dreams seemed so convincing and
compelling in the moment, only to strike us as utterly pointless later.
"Does anyone remember why we were doing this?" Nick asks a Russian giving
him a tour of a heartbreaking radiation clinic on the outskirts of
Semiplatinsk in Kazakhstan. "For contest," the Russian replies. "You won,
we lost. You have to tell me how it feels. Big winner."

Picking up a theme that runs through "Libra," DeLillo suggests that the
contest was little more than an excuse to lay plots and keep secrets, that
the Cold War supported covert activities, not the other way around. Secrets
are DeLillo's great passion, and the reason why his (male) characters love
the Mafia, nuclear weapons research, intelligence work, conspiracy
theories, dossiers and even baseball trivia so much. They fantasize about
locating the Underworld where secrets are hidden and they study varieties
of what Nick calls "Dietrologia ... the science of what is behind
something." Nick thinks of "God as a force that withholds himself from us
because that is the root of his power ... This is what I respected about
God. He keeps his secret." A few pages later, fresh from an adulterous
tryst during which he confesses his own Big Secret (he shot a man in his
youth and has never told his wife), he muses, "You withhold the deepest
things from those who are closest and then talk to a stranger in a numbered
room. What's the point of asking why?" Indeed -- if you paused even
momentarily to ask, you might collide with your own unappetizing propensity
to play God.

It's a fine theme, a wise and true one, but it rules over "Underworld" in a
way that no idea, however burning, ought to rule over any novel; it comes
first. The book has many smaller delights -- its sweating, feverish
images of New York City, elderly characters who inhabit the density of
their long lives in a way that old people in fiction seldom do, and always
DeLillo's gimlet eye, which notes how among the children gathered around a
summertime ice cream vendor there's always "the kid with ink on his
tongue," and how "when people tell rat stories, the rat is always
tremendous" -- but even these are like vibrant organisms kept isolated under
glass. Even at its
best, there's a museum-quality hush to DeLillo's prose in this book.

Perhaps the source of the problem is Nick himself. "Underworld" includes
long, tiresome accounts of his "Mean Streets" youth -- shooting pool,
picking fights, slinging the beefy slang of his native Bronx -- none of
which succeeds in making him interesting. "I've always been a country of
one," he explains solemnly. "There's a certain distance in my makeup, a
measured separation." He calls it "lontananza" after an Italian word
for masculine remoteness. He pretends to curse it, but really it wraps him
in the same glamorous mystery that cloaks his brother Matty's top secret
weapons research. Matty speculates that "when Nick dies a team of
metaphysicians will examine the black box, the personal flight recorder
that's designed to tell them how his mind worked and why he did what he did
and what he thought about it all, but there's no guarantee they'll find the
slightest clue."

Or they might just find that there's nothing particularly significant in
there. Nick's secret, the one that supposedly provides the book's suspense,
proves anticlimactic. It's only the hiding, after all, that makes it
intriguing, that makes Nick's wife curious, and makes Nick himself feel
like a dark, brooding, complicated, serious guy, a lone drifter, a hit man,
a spy. Like the precious enigmas of the Cold War, "all the banned words,
the secrets kept in white-washed vaults, the half-forgotten plots," Nick's
sequestered soul turns out to be something outdated, pretentious and
ultimately banal.

And even that's a brilliant idea: centering a teeming novel like
this, an era, around a vacuum, a man whose heart is as sterile as J. Edgar
Hoover's specially designed toilet ... but it's still an idea. When I think
of the novels that strike me as great, the ones that seize me up and carry
me along like a river, I think of characters -- Jane Eyre, Hester Prynne,
Huckleberry Finn, Raskolnikov. People who kidnapped their authors and set
them on uncharted paths, people who, when they enter a scene, make me
think, "Ah, it's you." "Underworld" bleeds as a result of never settling on
such a character, for brushing past a few more promising candidates and
centering on boring old Nick (who shares more than a few biographical
details with his creator).

I found myself pining for the rambunctious, bewildered, commodity-bedeviled
Gladney family from my favorite of DeLillo's books, 1985's "White Noise."
It was just a little, comic novel -- 326 pages to the 827 of "Underworld"
-- about some ordinary people who worried about sugarless gum, television,
crying babies and death. It didn't try so hard, and it felt more alive than
all these pages of glorious prose about epochal home runs and the Zapruder
footage and the bomb. I can't help but admire "Underworld" for its scope,
for the task DeLillo dared to set for himself and the monumental perfection
of the results, but I can't love it. There's a secret to engineering that
sort of greatness that even J. Edgar Hoover couldn't capture for his files.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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