DeLillo and the Triumph of Solitude
By Woody LewisJuly 23, 2014
Underworld by Don DeLillo
Cosmopolis by Don DeLillo
THE OCTOBER 20, 2003 ISSUE of The New Yorker features essays and articles about Hollywood. Its cover depicts a film crew shooting an actress behind the wheel of a stationary convertible, her hair tousled by a large fan standing just off-camera. On a backdrop, we see a painted image of the Hollywood sign, over which billowy clouds fill an azure sky. Behind the backdrop, beyond the studio, lies the real Hollywood sign, shrouded in a mawkish haze.
This jab at Hollywood’s lazy mythmaking aside, most of the articles inside are benign. With the exception, perhaps, of Don DeLillo’s short piece, “That Day in Rome.”
DeLillo struggles to remember the name of an actress he and his wife saw on the Via Condotti, 25 years earlier. He sees the street clearly, “the squat iron stanchions to keep out auto traffic […] the Spanish Steps in the near distance, banked with azaleas,” but the woman’s name escapes him. This troubles him to the point of lament. “Every memory we have is, finally, of ourselves. If the memory of an experience is flawed, there is a rift in the continuity of self. […] There is less of us with each depleted memory.” He cuts to a scene in Walker Percy’s novel The Moviegoer, in which the protagonist sees William Holden on a street in New Orleans, and quotes Percy’s description of Holden: “An aura of heightened reality moves with him and all who fall within it feel it.” But DeLillo still can’t remember. “How did I betray such a reality?” he asks. “I feel a little ripple of guilt. The actress I saw may not have been as enduring a figure as Holden […] but she matters.”
Although in the denouement DeLillo remembers the actress’s name (after consulting a reference book, he realizes that it was Ursula Andress),she is not, in fact, important. As he does in all his work, he links in this essay images from literature and film and memory to create a strong sense of place — in this case the Via Condotti. The Names conjures the stone alleys of a Greek island, Cosmopolis the canyons of midtown Manhattan. Sometimes the place itself becomes a character, as in his novel White Noise, a place overrun with malls, where the toxic cloud hanging over a Midwestern town symbolizes the consumerism of its Midwestern citizens. DeLillo represents those places with a mélange of physical features and media images. The Via Condotti looks the way it does because of its buildings, but also because Ursula Andress was there.
His masterpiece Underworld performs a relentless evocation of this sort. Layers of images from film serve as backdrop for characters navigating places from DeLillo’s past, and a dystopian present. The novel as a whole resembles a full-length feature, with the protagonist, Nick Shay, standing in for DeLillo, like Charles Foster Kane stood in for Orson Welles. Both protagonists grow up with dim memories of a father, and both stories end with a single word, spoken in a dream state. Like DeLillo, Shay grows up in the Italian-American precincts of the Bronx, but he escapes to an adult life in the Southwest. Kane starts out in rural Colorado, perhaps a fictive rendition of Welles’s native Kenosha, Wisconsin, but he travels in the opposite direction, leaving the great expanse for the big city.
Welles presents a linear sequence, a long flashback bracketed by the dying Kane’s confessional interview. DeLillo jumps back and forth through time, and he also turns the camera on itself, with confessional shots of movie theaters and dialectical analysis of real or imaginary films. But both DeLillo and Welles compile images into dramatic acts filled with places that characters must navigate in order to resolve their conflicts, and where they can be, at times, completely alone.
DeLillo begins Nick Shay’s story with a declaration: “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” Unlike Saul Bellow’s “I am an American, Chicago born,” or Ralph Ellison’s “I am an invisible man,” however, this is not our protagonist’s declamation. DeLillo gives the line to a secondary character, a young African American named Cotter Martin, who we come to recognize as another stand-in.
Cotter has played hooky to see the Giants battle the Dodgers for the pennant, the game in which Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard ’Round the World. DeLillo’s love of baseball informs his lavish close-ups of the Polo Grounds: the cigarette and cigar smoke hanging from the underside of the second deck; the turnstiles beyond the ticket booths, over which Cotter and a gang of others hurdle for free admission; the people tossing torn-up scorecards and waxy hot dog napkins onto the field.
DeLillo has written about other sports. His earlier novel End Zone paints football players in harsh tones — West Texas sunlight, parched grass, dried blood — with the clarity of Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, that apotheosis of football novels. Baseball, however, is DeLillo’s passion, its parks like churches in which fans worship real and imagined memories. As he does later with movie theaters, DeLillo imbues the Polo Grounds with symbolic glory.
Cotter Martin sits next to a man whose description foreshadows DeLillo’s thoughts of William Holden: “He’s about forty, close-shaved and Brylcreemed, but with a casual quality, a free-and-easy manner that Cotter links to small-town life in the movies.” The man buys Cotter a bag of peanuts, and Cotter warily accepts the friendship. His reaction betrays his longing for a Hollywood version of his life, a longing for both cultural assimilation and parental love, the white man a personification of a white America Cotter has only seen on film, a well-lighted substitute for Cotter’s father, an itinerant handyman who figures prominently in later action.
In his essay “Saul Bellow: The Great Assimilator,” Christopher Hitchens addresses this kind of yearning:
Against pointlessness and futility, Bellow strove to counterpose what [his character] Augie [March] calls “the universal eligibility to be noble” — the battle to overcome not just ghetto conditions but also ghetto psychoses. Such yearning ambition, as Bellow knew, can be a torment to those who are not innately noble to begin with.
Back at the Polo Grounds, where J. Edgar Hoover sits in a box seat with Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and Toots Shor, Gleason predicts the game’s winner:
“I told you chumps, it’s all Dodgers today. I feel it in my Brooklyn bones.”
“What bones?” says Frank. “They’re rotted out by booze.”
A page from Life magazine drifts down from the stands and sticks to Hoover’s shoulder. It is a color reproduction of Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death: “Across the red-brown earth, skeleton armies on the march,” DeLillo writes. “Men impaled on lances, hung from gibbets, drawn on spoked wheels fixed to the tops of bare trees, bodies open to the crows.” As if channeling Gleason’s reference to bones, Hoover thinks about death and destruction, the Russian bomb test, and the weight of his responsibilities. An image of an image of a surreal place, bringing a taste of reality to the unreal ballpark.
DeLillo cuts from one of three intertwining scenes to another in this set piece: the spoken and inner dialogues of Cotter Martin, Russ Hodges, and J. Edgar Hoover, moving in and out of the emotional frame, giving fact, memory, and fantasy equal clarity. Cotter eventually catches the climactic home run, wrestling the ball from a scrum of fans, including his Brylcreemed benefactor, who follows him out of the ballpark to claim the ball as his own. His sudden transformation from friendly big brother to bitter rival is not lost on Cotter, who taunts the white man as he chases Cotter through the streets of Harlem. Eventually the man realizes the danger and retreats.
Underworld speaks of sweep and contrast, the juxtaposition of space and lack of space, of desert vistas and cramped barrios. At prologue’s end, DeLillo opens his lens, killing the Harlem darkness with the glare of high desert: “Heat shimmer rising on the empty flats. A bled-white sky with ticky breezes raking dust across the windshield.”
Nick Shay, driving to his present-day Arizona home, reaches into the dashboard for sunblock, “a thing I keep nearby even though I’m olive-skinned, dark as my father was.” This is the first reference to his appearance, and lack of assimilation. A later description of his brother, Matt, reinforces the family’s otherness: “Matt looked slightly Jewish, a little Hispanic maybe.” Driving, he looks “into the windy distance. It was all distance. It was hardpan and sky and a wafer trace of mountain, low and crouched out there, mountain or cloud, cat-shaped, catamount.” Like John Ford’s The Searchers, this is about a quest, and DeLillo uses the same desert backdrop, calling on our memories of Hollywood Western landscapes.
And others: quoting the opening scene from Lawrence of Arabia, he sends Nick a guide:
Then a scatter of dust, a hazy mass rising from the sundown line. And an approaching object that made me think of a hundred movies in which something comes across the wavy plain, a horseman with scabbarded rifle or a lone cameleer hunched in muslin on his dumb-headed beast.
But this is not Omar Sharif astride a camel. The object turns out to be a New York taxi: “Windows open, music ripping out […] jammed with people.” Totally implausible, reminiscent of Antonioni’s Blow-Up, with its car full of white-faced mime artists rolling into view.
These are not potted references in search of some auteur theory of fiction. DeLillo’s enthusiasm for quoting movies and other forms of media is a matter of record. In an interview with Maria Moss, he said:
I am not one of those novelists who feels he is competing with visual media. I don’t feel that at all. I love movies. I love looking at photographs. In our culture and everywhere around us we are shaped — to some fairly important degree — by visual imagery: advertising, billboards, television. […]
In Underworld there are so many documents, television shows, photographs, movies. I describe entire movies. Why? I felt the need to create a texture of life as we experience it, and I don’t think you can do that — particularly not in a novel of this size — without a serious consideration of what we look at. I love movies, and I felt that this novel (Underworld) provided a wide enough medium for me to indulge in this feeling.
The mention of advertising is hardly casual. After graduating from Fordham University in 1958, DeLillo worked as a copywriter for Ogilvy & Mather. His first novel, Americana, tells the story of a young advertising executive’s quest for intellectual freedom.
Advertising creates an association with an inanimate object. Visual references to the object, embedded in print or television, prompt the viewer to associate a pleasurable experience with its consumption. That experience links the object to a brand, a trope that personifies its corporate creator.
DeLillo creates literary objects that encapsulate references to film, photography, painting, sculpture — nearly every available art form. Like the collagist Romare Bearden, or the composer Edgard Varèse, DeLillo fashions these objects from disparate elements, the raw materials assembled into coherent works. Taken separately, these elements have little velocity; together, they target precise portions of our brain, the unwitting associations that we all carry around. This is the essence of advertising, the triggering of subliminal responses to targeted messaging. Describing the Polo Grounds, DeLillo evokes such a response:
You say the names Giants and Dodgers, and you calculate the way the players hate each other openly, and you recall the kind of year this has turned out to be, the pennant race that has brought the city to a strangulated rapture, an end-shudder requiring a German loanword to put across the mingling of pleasure and dread and suspense.
Nadia Boulanger, whose students included Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, and Quincy Jones, taught the concept of la grande ligne, the foundation of a composition that provides forward motion and unity. She emphasized the importance of tonal vocabulary as the basis for abstract expression: a painter should catalog his colors before mixing them. As a piece progresses through varying orchestral textures, dense tutti passages offset by spare ensemble and solo presentations, so does Underworld, and it, too, followsits own grande ligne.
The literary ligne has greater temporal complexity than its musical counterpart. Unlike theme and variation, the musical phrase asserted and then reprised in still-recognizable form as the piece progresses, a literary theme may develop in nonlinear fashion. The Polo Grounds scene is a climax, the resolution of thematic elements — love, acceptance, and mass destruction — but they are elements that he sets in motion only after the climactic scene. As he told Moss:
I needed something more radical, I needed a radical leap. That’s when I thought I would push — in a flash — forty years into the future and then work back to the ballgame. Once I did this it became absolutely crucial because it provided the structure of the novel. And it was far more interesting to me than simply using a strict, forward chronology. What it allowed me to do was to create a counter chronology.
DeLillo changes the orchestration from scene to scene, juxtaposing the solo image of Nick’s wife, Marian, growing up in a Big Ten town with the tutti of a patriotic Rockettes number at Radio City, or playing off the tight ensemble of Sinatra, Gleason, Shor, and Hoover against the crowd at the Polo Grounds. These elements live in different tempi, the accelerando and ritardando achieved through word density, and pace of cut. The camera languishes over a single image, or it stutters through interstitial shots of Nick’s repressed memory, the accelerating length of those snippets conveying the tension and release of murder.
This style combines aspects of musique concrète and cinéma vérité. Like Varèse, DeLillo’s primary materials come from the real world — historical events and personages, the more personal experiences of his Italian-American upbringing, and the media images that structure and help compose that reality: clips of film, video and audio, paintings and magazine articles. Cinematic objects such as Cocksucker Blues or the Zapruder footage of JFK’s assassination are embedded in the ligne. These clips are both reality and commentary on it, and DeLillo crafts both narrative and meta-narrative with the same materials.
In a nod to Raymond Chandler, DeLillo gives Nick Shay a pulp-fiction voice-over to describe the motel he shares with a swingers’ convention:
I was in my early forties, hired away from a thin-blooded job as a corporate speechwriter and public relations aide, and I was ready for something new, for a faith to embrace.
It evokes both the pulp novels and their film noir avatars through imitation and direct reference, often in the same sentence:
A man and woman walked across the lobby and I watched her carefully. Maybe it was the hip-sprung way she moved, high-assed and shiny, alert to surfaces, like a character in a B movie soaked in alimony and gin.
The dime-store plot oozes with decadence, but no mystery. Having set us up with this chalk outline, DeLillo then fills in his noir character, Donna the swinger:
She sat on the shady side of the table, hands flashing when she reached for her coffee, and when the umbrella edge lifted in the breeze her face caught contour and warmth.
“You’re beginning to feel restricted?”
A slight twisty smile.
“You think the program’s too confining?”
She was dark-haired and had a way of pursing her lips demurely to plant a curse on a remark she didn’t like.
“Where’s your husband?”
“Sitting around somewhere with a bloody mary.”
“How do you know he’s not fucking one of the wives?”
“Or he’s fucking one of the wives.”
“This is what you’re here for after all.”
“Exactly,” she said.
Robert Towne never wrote better lines for Chinatown. Donna’s voyeuristic description of her husband establishes the sexual tension without being obvious:
“Barry saw you watching me yesterday. I didn’t see you but he did. And last night at dinner he pointed you out.”
“Does he think that you and I?”
“We decided we know who you are. You’re the ice-blue Aqua Velva man.”
The misdirection and the unfinished sentence are DeLillo’s stock-in-trade. He embeds these lines in recursive shots, standing off to one side, narrating context:
These were movie scenes, slightly elliptical in tone, with the shots maybe a little offhand, slurred by incidental action. […] The long lens insinuates a certain compression, a half-lurking anxiety that serves not only the moment but the day and week and age.
And now the scene in the room, my room, where she took off her jeans, mainly because they were too tight, and sat on the bed in her shirt and briefs, legs stretched toward the footboard. I pulled up a chair and sat alongside, in a posture of consultation, my hand around her ankle.
She was not so pretty in direct light, with a sad wash under the eyes and a spatter bruise on her upper thigh, like an eggplant dropped from a roof. But I liked the way she looked at me, curious, with a tinge of challenge.
The combination of dialogue and voice-over adds verisimilitude to genre. DeLillo embeds other references, intellectual and metaphysical. Nick suddenly thinks of a book he read, The Cloud of Unknowing, “Written by an anonymous mystic, I’m not sure, fourteenth century maybe, whenever the Black Death was […].”
Again, the Bruegel reference. Nick says that a priest gave him this book, and that he only remembers one sentence: “Pause for a moment, you wretched weakling, and take stock of yourself.” The conversation wanders from sex to sin, Nick’s backstory about the priest leading to the revelation that he was in a juvenile correction center at the time, as punishment for killing a man. This climactic plot point precedes his physical climax with Donna, after which DeLillo pulls back the camera for one final shot:
I raised up and saw how small she looked, naked and abed, how completely different from the woman of the movietone aura in the hotel lobby. She was near to real earth now, the sex-grubbed dug-up self, and I felt close to her and thought I knew her finally even as she shut her eyes to hide herself.
DeLillo pulls us through frame after lurid frame with thinly disguised cynicism, but the lurid is also lucid, the levels of quotation giving us emotional purchase on a character who might otherwise remain two-dimensional.
Religious iconography, the stage dressing for DeLillo’s Italian Catholic upbringing, lends texture and torment to the Shay brothers. We see six-year-old Matt going to the sanctuary of Loew’s Paradise theater in the Bronx, a week after his father went out for cigarettes and did not return:
He walked into the lobby. He felt an enveloping sort of warmth rise from the thick carpet like the happy repose of a stroked dog. There were goldfish swimming in marble basins. He looked at the etched glass chandeliers. There were a number of jutting balconies where paintings hung in gilded frames. He thought this was a thousand times more holy than church.
He sees himself sitting in the balcony at the Paradise. The light from the movie glowed or faded depending on the nature of the scene. He looked at the wall nearest him and then at the other wall and when the light flared and leaped there it all was, the whole tremendous thing, arches, porticos, statues, the urns and marble busts, the vines trained through balusters, the pedestaled heroes with long swords, the columns in the shape of draped figures, both walls crowded with stacked anatomies and structures, too much to take in, and angels that stood halo’d atop the pediments, and he sat there and waited for his father, for the ghost or soul of his father to make a visitation.
When Nick visits his mother in the Bronx apartment of his childhood, she provides backstory about their father, Jimmy Costanza, who started out as a runner for local bookies and became an independent. The adult Matt continues the narrative, describing the long shot that ruined Jimmy because he hadn’t laid off a large bet in time. The gravity of the abandonment, expressed in neighborhood syntax: “He did the unthinkable Italian crime. He walked out on his family. They don’t even have a name for this.”
Fade to Matt as a child, studying chess with the schoolteacher Bronzini, the memory intertwined with his later experience as a nuclear strategist working for the military. Then fade to Bronzini himself, now retired, listening to Saint-Saëns, the Étude pour la main gauche seule that gives this section of the novel its title. The bass notes of this piece startle Bronzini’s sister, Laura, a half-feeble adult who can’t manage on her own, and reminds him of his wife, Klara, who left him long ago, after his mother died:
He married a Jew and loved her but Klara’s future did not include him. He took care of his mother, a Catholic of the old eloquence, wearing a scapular, blessing herself and touching her thumb-knuckle to her lips, and he loved her and watched her die.
This sets the stage for the central religious character, Sister Alma Edgar. On his way to the library, Bronzini sees “a nun who’d been notorious for the terror she spread among the children.” Again, DeLillo references Bruegel:
She wore the traditional habit with long black veil and white wimple and the starched clothpiece over the neck and shoulders, an iron crucifix swinging from her waist — she might have been a detail lifted from a painting by some sixteenth-century master.
Sister Edgar, a thinly disguised doppelgängerof the FBI director, is the lone holdout in her convent, eschewing the modern attire of plain blouses and skirts, enforcing the old-school corporal punishment until “the neighborhood changed and the faces of her students became darker.” The paradoxical rationale — “How could she strike a child who was not like her?” — highlights her moral dilemma. She despises and loves her urban flock. Seated next to her sidekick, Sister Grace Fahey, she watches the young nun drive a van through “a landscape of vacant lots filled with years of stratified deposits […] the age of moldering mobster parts.” At the far end of this lunar expanse, a building whose exposed wall has been spray-painted with an angel every time a child has died in the neighborhood. There are many angels.
The artist in question, Ismael Muñoz, tags subway cars around the city when he is not busy leading his crew on expeditions to salvage stolen or abandoned cars. His work later attracts the attention of Bronzini’s ex-wife, Klara, and her gallery cronies. The two nuns visit Ismael’s headquarters on the third floor of an abandoned tenement, sidestepping hypodermic needles on their way through the passageways of a Blade Runner labyrinth, door after door opening to reveal “a woman in a wheelchair who wore a Fuck New York T-shirt,” or “five small children being minded by a ten-year-old,” sustaining the chiaroscuro established by the bleached Arizona sand. We have descended from Purgatory to the Inferno, an image as damning as the tunnel rats in Platoon, the GIs lowered underground by their colleagues to ferret out the Viet Cong.
DeLillo’s camera is ruthless, still with the Bruegel filter (“Three-pound newborns with crack habits who resembled something out of peasant folklore”), and yet he offers a glimpse of Paradiso, in the form of a feral girl moving through the rubble. Sister Edgar learns that the girl is Esmeralda, that she lives on the street, and that no one can catch her because she moves too fast.
The composer Elliott Carter used to visit the desert to observe its colors, and Steve Reich composed a piece, The Desert Music, in which a female chorus mimics flowers growing in the sun. In Underworld, too, DeLillo’s color is an element of place as he lights the desert landscape in terse detail: “Later, the wind died and a cloudreef rimmed in pale rose hung low and still.” Or here, a long shot of Nick Shay leaving the desert:
I went down to my car and uncapped the tube of sunblock I’d spotted on a rack near the front desk in the mom-and-pop motel, next to the postcards and Indian dolls — the kachina dolls and snack packs of tortilla chips that are part of some curious neuron web of lonely-chrome America.
The lonely chrome recalls the coffee urns and blank-faced customers in Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, another indelible image of the far west.
Obsessed with color, too, Klara Sax, who Nick knew as a young housewife in the Bronx of his adolescence, presides over a camp of apprentices as they transform a fleet of mothballed B-52 bombers into a giant installation. Though he has seen photographs of her since the last time they were together, he frets that he could “never quite isolate the woman” he’d known. Now 72, she remains an enigma, nearly inanimate: “Her hair was white, a mineral glisten, cropped close about her oblong face with a decorative fringe across the forehead.” Like a gemstone. Klara Sax, her last name one letter away from the lust that attracted Nick, her married name Bronzini extending the metaphor of hard beauty, sits in the middle of her encampment answering questions posed by a French documentarian. She cajoled the Air Force into permitting her to turn the warplanes into works of art, completing her transformation from ordinary painter to innovative collagist: “It was the end of marriage number two and I painted my bed in effect,” she tells him. “And I am drunk on color. I am sex-crazed. I see it in my sleep. I eat it and drink it. I’m a woman going mad with color.”
DeLillo’s brush strokes on each frame of this scene lend a different sort of texture than those of John Updike, whose Seek My Face presents a fictive treatment of Lee Krasner, long-suffering wife of Jackson Pollock. That novel provides a close view of the Manhattan art world, as seen through the lens of bohemian politics and class conflict. Here, we see Klara as an accomplished woman, and gradually get her backstory, showing her casual membership in that same gallery culture, filling in details at rooftop cocktail parties and film viewings, one of which provides the novel’s title. Eventually we see the young Klara having sex with 17-year-old Nick in a spare bedroom of her Bronx apartment while her husband is away. By then, we have admired her from different angles, this last reductive shot providing closure for reader as well as character.
In Klara’s life as an artist, Manhattan is a character of equal importance, its physical details recorded in Hopper-like brush strokes:
Angels with butterfly wings tucked under a cornice on Bleeker Street. Or the mystery of a white clapboard cottage on the roof of an office building. Or the odd deco heads, sort of Easter Islandish, attached to the corners of a midtown tower.
She lives and works in a loft, her bohemian circle available for sociable moments. Her husband has been consigned to the Bronx like a castoff painting. She has walled off her past, much like Nick Shay, though unlike his torment, her solitude is a triumph:
She wasn’t lonely or unloved. Well, she was unloved in the deeper senses of the word but that was fine, she’d had enough love of the deeper types, painful and ever echoing, the rancorous marriages that make it hard for you to earn a dependable solitude.
Klara’s boyfriend of the moment, the aptly named Miles Lightman, hovers at the fringe of the filmmaker community, working for a movie distributor, and perhaps producing documentaries, “a process that carried just enough slanting light to make it renewably futile.”
We meet the art dealer Esther Winship, a graffiti artist named Moonman, Acey Greene, a black female artist who may or may not be a lesbian. All is ambiguous.
DeLillo’s shots of the city form a sensuous backdrop: “It was the summer of sheet lightning and red wine, those deep Bordeaux that resemble lion’s blood.” We wander through a miasma of backstory and media references — a sentence devoted to Klara’s second husband, Jason, flashbacks to her high school girlfriend Rochelle, whose early sexual antics inspired Klara, an impromptu showing of Cocksucker Blues, the Rolling Stones documentary. Once again, through Klara’s eyes, we see conflated images of film and art:
She loved the washed blue light of the film, a kind of crepuscular light, a tunnel light that suggested an unreliable reality — not unreliable at all in fact because you have no trouble believing what you see but a subversive reality maybe, corruptive and ruinous, a beautiful tunnel blue.
Mick strobed and flashed in concert like some multimouth de Kooning female, sucking on the hand mike.
Once again, the novel as collage. DeLillo mixes elements at a furious pace, using an Acey Greene painting of Chicago gang members to evoke his Italian roots:
Saturated undercoats and beautiful flesh browns, skin strokes in every sort of unnameable shade and many grays as well […] they could be brothers to the olive-skinned men in the frescoed gloom of some Umbrian church — Acey had the calm and somber eye of a cinquecentist.
The rhyming adjectives, “calm” and “somber,” lend weight to the brush strokes that mix the urban with the Umbrian, the profane with the sacred.
Between the gallery and desert, the subway, Moonman’s canvas:
The train came bopping into the old drab station like some blazoned jungle of wonders. The letters and numbers fairly exploded in your face and they had a relationship, they were plaited and knotted, pop-eyed cartoon humanoids, winding in and out of each other and sweaty hot and passion dancing — metallic silver and blue and cherry-bomb red and a number of neon greens.
The explosion of color is florid and palpable. At the other end of the spectrum, DeLillo the minimalist captures the essence of Manx Martin, Cotter’s father:
He is a man with high cheekbones sort of poxed in the hollows, rough-graded, and a thin mustache that he keeps well above his lip, tended and particular. He looks around the room. He studies things. He is average size, a little developed in the chest, a little bowlegged, and Cotter would not have thought he had the brawn to move heavy pieces up and down long flights of stairs. But he has seen his father lift and hoist with much bigger men.
Like Van Gogh using a reed pen, DeLillo captures Manx with a few strokes: the poxed face of a tough childhood; the mustache “tended and particular.” In the same way, Van Gogh’s walking stick figure, done in half a dozen strokes, captures the French peasant walking through a meadow.
Klara has come to Radio City Music Hall, another ecclesiastical theater, with Miles Lightman and Esther Winship to view “a showing of the legendary lost film of Sergei Eisenstein, called Unterwelt.” In a scene reminiscent of Woody Allen pulling Marshall McLuhan into Annie Hall, Miles prattles on about Eisenstein’s shot sequence in Battleship Potemkin until Esther blurts out that she has never seen an Eisenstein film, but met him once. Miles interrogates her, only to find himself the straight man:
“We have to talk about this,” Miles said.
“That’s all there is, I’m afraid. He asked me to call him Sergei.”
“He drank a lot of milk. He said it was breakfast.”
“What else?” Miles said.
“Actually he showed up with the milk, in a bottle. I got him a glass and he thanked me.”
Using yet another media object, a series of fictive performances by the comedian Lenny Bruce, DeLillo sets a narrative in counterpoint to the increasingly cohesive recollections of Nick Shay. Bruce, at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, presents a stream-of-consciousness send-up of the Cuban missile crisis, and the general state of American society, hectoring a Felliniesque audience:
Out-of-work actors and musicians, screenwriters doing draft number ninety-two […] agents with eczema, wholesome blond beach-body hookers with their vicious slithering pimps. And Lenny’s wearing a little smirk, eyeing this group like he sees right to the tacky nougat center of their collective soul.
And who better to excoriate Mammon than the Antichrist himself? Bruce, the brash Jewish refugee from the Catskills, spews invective at them: “You can talk all you want about living on the edge. Yeah I know, you smoke some grass on Saturday night. Making the scene.” Lampooning the tension between Kennedy and Khrushchev, Bruce reduces American patriotism to another comedic bit: “They’re pizzle to pizzle, and this is a guy Jack doesn’t know how to deal with. What’s he supposed to say? I shtupped more debutantes than you? This is a coal miner, he’s a guy who herded farm animals barefoot for a couple of kopeks.” The nuclear nightmare as backdrop, the human comedy with a doomsday clock.
Nick Shay’s halting revelation, the murder emerging from layers of suppressed memory, begins with an interstitial flashback: a cop smoking on duty as he puts Nick in the back of a squad car. On a business trip to Los Angeles, he sees the city as “the vanguard of estranged feeling. […] When I shot George Manza I began to understand the nature of this kind of feeling.” Nick confesses the murder to a swinger wife rather than a priest, part of DeLillo’s manipulation of religious objects and practices. Where do the past and present converge? Why did he kill a man? What are the facts?
In the flashback, George offers to show Nick something he found at his job parking cars at the racetrack:
George reached behind him and came up with an object from the bottom shelf, down behind paint cans and rolled linoleum. It was a shotgun, sawed-off, the barrel extending only a couple of inches from the forearm part and the stock cut down to a pistol grip arrangement.
DeLillo paces the scene quickly, moving Nick through to the inevitable:
He posed with it, Nick did, a pirate’s pistol or an old Kentucky flintlock if that’s the word. […] He hefted it and pointed it. He saw an interested smile fall across George’s face. He had the weapon pointed at George. […] A little brightness entered George’s eye. […] And an interested look moved across his mouth. […]
“Is it loaded?”
“No,” George said.
This made him smile a little wider. They were having a good time. […]
Nick pulled the trigger.
In the extended interval of the trigger pull, the long quarter second, with the action of the trigger sluggish and rough, Nick saw into the smile on the other man’s face.
The last paragraph of this section consists of one long sentence, an unbroken shot of Nick being taken out to the cop car, the neighborhood stoops and windows full of people watching, his friends on the street, “thinking this was a kind of history taking place, here in their own remote and common streets.”
Klara bathes her daughter Rosemary back when she was still with Bronzini. Bronzini, recalling the boys he saw playing salugi in the streets and bouncing a “pink spaldeen” off the roof, asks Klara if she knows another Bruegel painting, one of children playing in a town square. Her reply foreshadows her remarks on war and destruction during her desert interview:
I don’t know what art history says about this painting. But I say it’s not that different from the other famous Bruegel, armies of death marching across the landscape. The children are fat, backward, a little sinister to me. It’s some kind of menace, some folly. Kinderspielen. They look like dwarves doing something awful.
This ringing endorsement of motherhood dissolves to a close-up of Bronzini’s mother, whose debilitating illness confines her to a hospital bed in the front room, where Klara attends to her every need. It is a servitude of bodily functions that causes Klara to eventually tend to her own needs as well. DeLillo casts the mother in grace, throwing church light across her features:
She stopped for some things at the grocer’s and then went up the front steps and there was Albert’s mother in the window, cranked-up, wearing a white hospital gown and facing straight out, with a religious medal dangling, and she looked a little like a vision or someone waiting for a vision.
Klara did not want to give this striking scene a title out of some Renaissance gallery because that would be unkind […] the drama of a failing body, the way impending death made her seem saintly, with an icon’s fixedness, a stern and staring and enameled beauty.
In proclaiming Underworld a masterpiece, Harold Bloom asserts that DeLillo is not a postmodern author, but “a High Romantic, owing more to Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman.” DeLillo is of a different mind: “I was too much of a Bronx kid to read Emerson or Hawthorne.” DeLillo qua Bronzini loves that Bronx, and offers a tribute to the morality and work ethic of his immigrant parents, the close-up of their facial expressions in a seemingly minor scene revealing, too, the solitude that pervades this novel:
He came home one day, the thirteen-year-old son, and saw his parents huddled on the sofa in one of those dolorous southern states of theirs, his mother’s eyes dark-pocketed, drained by betrayal, and his father helpless and bent, a forty-year-old man who could double his age, in an eyeblink, through membership in some cooperative of sorrow.
Bronzini sees that his report card has come in the mail. From his parents’ expressions, he thinks he’s failed everything, “D’s at best and funereal F’s,” but it was the opposite of that, straight A’s all across. He eventually realizes that they were distraught over the prospect of losing him “to the large bright world that began at some floating point only blocks away.”
The triumph of solitude belongs to every first-generation American. It is the halfway point between isolation and assimilation. When you cross ocean or river or bridge into the New World, and look back at your parents on the other side, the sense of being free supplants the sense of being alone. DeLillo sustains his triumph with the continuity of memory, the better to illuminate the receding shore.
Using a pastiche of place and media image, Underworld links narrative and memory, and as Fredric Jameson says, “Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique, idiosyncratic style, the wearing of a linguistic mask, speech in a dead language.” DeLillo’s pastiche, though, also lightens a narrative style that might have bogged down under the weight of confessional guilt. Pastiche manages, as Klara says of the Eisenstein film, “to engage a rhythm, long shot and close-up, landscape and face, waves of hypnotic repetition” to land on the contested ground that is American culture. As DeLillo has her say, “In Eisenstein, you note that the camera angle is a kind of dialectic. Arguments are raised and made, theories drift across the screen and instantly shatter — there’s a lot of opposition and conflict.”
In “That Day in Rome,” DeLillo again references Eisenstein, along with Claire Denis and Stanley Kubrick: “We have no way of knowing with whom we share the memory of such scattered images,” he writes. He imagines “an immense global brain sprouting organically in the Arizona desert,” but he says, “that’s a movie in itself, from the science-fiction fifties.” DeLillo’s sense of this intertwining of individual memory and our media mind is not entirely benign; he calls it “our pandemic of replication” — also, notably, an SF image — “which copies and passes on whatever’s in the cultural air — noise, images, factoids, and disintegrating syntax.” But it is the basis of our collective life. Using pulp novels and film noir and early modern painting and music and religious imagery — whatever’s in the cultural air — along with our own personal memories, DeLillo suggests, we build our sense of place, and our sense of how to move through it. The problem is that memory is fallible, and “if the memory of an experience is flawed,” he writes, “there is a rift in the continuity of self.” We sit, in such moments, uneasy, the noise of culture reduced to static, trying to remember. And the triumph of such solitude is that it can lead us, when we finally remember, or when we are immersed in a novel or a film, “into a shared past, sometimes false, dreamlike, childlike, but a past we’ve all agreed to inhabit.”
Woody Lewis is a Social Media Strategist and Web Architect. He holds a B.A. in music and an M.B.A. in finance from Columbia University, and an M.F.A. in writing and literature from Bennington College. His blog, woodylewis.com, covers social media strategy for newspapers.
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