BY MATTHEW HERBERT
I have written here before about my inadequacy to review Don Delillo’s masterpiece, Underworld. I think it is the greatest American novel there is, but then again, how many American novels have I read–a few hundred?
Plus, every reader is different. No one has the last word on what a great American novel is. Our experience is so fractured. Everyone has their own life.
Maybe Underworld is a farewell to the very idea of the American novel. That could be where its sweet sadness comes from. It is certainly a farewell to the confidence we felt at the end of the so-called American Century, the feeling that we had won the Cold War because we were right, the feeling that everyone else wanted to be like us because why else would they be buying all our products and watching our movies and setting up stock exchanges like ours?
Isn’t that what it was like to be on top of the world at the End of History? Look how neatly the Gulf War went.
Delillo published Underworld in 1998. I haven’t looked into it, but I presume he spent most of the 1990s writing it. Although it opens with a scene from 1951, it is very much a novel of the 1990s. It was written from the perspective of having won the whole 20th century as if it were a decathlon and then some sports writer asks Delillo what it all meant.
Underneath our very public history of the Bomb and Elvis and IBM and MLK and so forth, there was a subterranean history worming through America, which, as it turns out, did not predestine us for limitless prosperity and a more perfect union. At the End of History, Delillo had some kind of intimation that the “human veer” as he called it would pull us back into the vortex of chaos and indeterminacy.
Speaking of predestination, Delillo gives the World Trade Center three cameo appearances in Underworld. He did this for his own, very 1990s reasons, of course. He meant those images as a comment on greed and brutalism and, yes, a kind of national strength. But, uncannily, he also gave the Twin Towers an air of indefinable menace. They stood there in mere outline, the incidental subjects of three brief passages in an 800-page book, just waiting for something to happen.
So this is what I am not saying: I am not saying that Delillo foresaw 9/11. But I am saying this: A good prophet is like a quarterback who reads defenses at a glance and seems to know what they will do in detail–gives the appearance of knowing the intention and trajectory of each of the 11 opposing players even though he doesn’t. His ingenious play calling becomes a kind of prophesy.
Delillo writes about American at the end of Its Century with the same unforced mastery as Joe Montana quarterbacking his team down the field with two minutes to play. He executes with such fluidity that he seems to know the exact details of what will happen in advance. I think this is the kind of thing Delillo does in Underworld.
The Twin Towers are just the starkest, most haunting example of Delillo’s preternatural vision. He also sees the meanings of other things at the close of the century–how latent political urges would once again be summoned by the irrational force of crowds: “Longing on a large scale is what makes history,” he wrote. Delillo saw how even the broad, clearly delineated avenues of liberal democracy would trail off into Escher mazes of unthinking and unknowing.
One thing Delillo clearly foresaw was the particular way in which American capitalism would prove Marx right about the immiseration of the masses. Consider the following passage. It takes place in a blasted urban wasteland. A local junk artist, sensing the opportunity to sell anything, anywhere that is swelling in the rise of the dot-com wave, is about to “go global,” at least so he thinks in his fantasies. He has his crew of junkies and burnouts connect an old TV to a dilapidated generator powered by a boy on a bike. It is his link to a globalizing world. Entrepreneur and CEO, he takes the news in:
On the screen an image flicks and jumps. It is a man’s discoid head, a fellow in a white shirt with a blue collar, or blue shirt with white collar–there is a fairly frequent color shift. He is talking about the big board composite while numbers and letters flow in two bands across the bottom of the screen, a blue band and a white band, and the crew sits watching, and the kid on the bike is bent and pedaling, a furious pumping boy, and the names and prices flow in two different directions with active issues blinking.
My note in the margin says this is an image of pointless human misery propelling the capitalist system forward. In Dickens, the hustling boy would have been exploited for a reason, made to work for an industrialist’s profit, maybe blacking bottles, as Dickens himself did as a child. In Delillo, the boy is just pedaling away, and the “industrialist” is positioning himself to make mad money off nothing. He wants to be like the rich people he sees on TV:
He loves the language of buying and selling and the sight of those clustered sets of letters that represent enormous corporate entities with their jets and stretches and tanker fleets. . . . The boy cranks and strains, bouncing on the seat, but the numbers keep flowing across the screen.
This desire for celebrity riches amplifies what we have mastered in the “services” economy of the developed world–the creation of value from nearly nonexistent inputs (data, wealth management, life coaching) that insists nonetheless on the real suffering of underlaborers far down the supply chain. Delillo’s boy on the bike is fictional; the millions of wage slaves producing our toys, t-shirts and doodads not even worth defining are all too real. Pop into a dollar store and admire their wares.
Say what you will of Marx, but he got the Iron Law of Wages exactly right. The working poor can see lives of dignity just beyond reach, but we make damn sure they cannot have them. We remind them ruefully that there are large, impersonal forces to which we are all beholden, rich and poor alike, that say not everyone can win. Keep trying, though!
Delillo was also right about something huge that we didn’t even have a name for in 1998 but we have a very clever name for today–the datafication of everything. He saw that everything that could be encoded as digital information was fated to be so encoded. Our lives would be enmeshed with ubiquitous, undifferentiated information from now on. And, what’s more, he saw that once the data was all arrayed in a system, it would all be maximally interconnectable.
Derrida may have been exaggerating when he wrote that nothing existed outside the text (i.e. there is no real, unmediated world); he was probably trying to be outrageous. Delillo, on the other hand, invites us (if that is the right word) to see ourselves falling into just such a world.
Underworld closes with what feels like a benediction. But is it a benediction? It is basically Delillo’s admission that, with the datafication of everything, it will be increasingly hard in the future to distinguish between the online and offline worlds. The secret history that Delillo traces through Underworld is the one that lay hidden underground between 1951 and 1998–the nuclear test sites, the missile silos, the secret command bunkers, the basements of ordinary suburban houses. Our new secret history will have no location, no place where a writer can trace it and suss out its revelations. Will this future be human?
A nun dies at the end of Underworld. Instead of being in heaven, Delillo has her in cyberspace, probably because her obituary appears online. This is her situation, and, in a way, the situation of everything:
She is not naked exactly but she is open–exposed to every connection you can make on the world wide web.
There is no space or time out here, or in here, or wherever she is. There are only connections. Everything is connected. All human knowledge gathered and linked, this site leading to that, this fact referenced to that, a keystroke, a mouse-click, a password–world without end, amen.
That was about as close to right as you could be in 1998. One thing Delillo missed or didn’t bother foreseeing was the innocent zeal with which we would datafy ourselves and project our lives into this world without end. Well, Facebook wouldn’t come along until 2004. But Delillo, of course, knew the kinds of things crowds do, how they “bring things to single consciousness,” so I suppose no big deal that he did not forecast the rise of social media. He was right about the underground longings that brought us here. He was right about almost everything.