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Don DeLillo's "Underworld": The artful reality of simulacra

Diploma Thesis 2002 133 Pages

American Studies - Literature

Excerpt

Content's

1. Introduction
1.1 Some Evidence of Don DeLillo’s soon-to- be Canonical Status within the Academy
1.2 Getting in Touch with Don DeLillo
1.3 Why Underworld?
1.4 Beyond the 20th Century: Don DeLillo and Avant-Pop

2.Turning History into Art: Underworld ’s Politics and Aesthetics Part I
2.0 Some Preliminary Remarks
2.1 Don DeLillo and Postmodern Theories
2.2 Artists, Works of Art, and Media Technology in Underworld
2.2.1 The Modern-Postmodern Binarism
2.2.2 Underworld’s Artist Figures
2.2.2.1 The Art of Filing: J. Edgar Hoover
2.2.2.2 The Art of Killing: Richard Henry Gilkey and the Media
2.2.2.3 The Art of Talking—Part 1: Russ Hodges
2.2.2.4 The Art of Talking—Part 2: Lenny Bruce
2.2.2.5 The Art of Painting the World—Part 1: Ismael Munoz
2.2.2.6 The Art of Painting the World—Part 2: Klara Sax
2.2.3 “Underworlds” en abyme: Films, Paintings and the Web in Underworld
2.2.3.1 The Films: Unterwelt, Cocksucker Blues, and the Zapruder Film
2.2.3.2 The Paintings: Brueghel’s Triumph of Death and Whistler’s Arrangement in Gray and Black
2.2.3.3 The Web: The WWW mirroring DeLillo’s Foregrounding of Interconnectedness in Underworld

3.Turning Waste into Art: Underworld’s Politics and Aesthetics Part II
3.0 Some Preliminary Remarks
3.1 Containment
3.2 Recycling
3.2.1 DeLillo Recycling DeLillo
3.2.2 DeLillo Recycling Other Novelists

4.Conclusion: DeLillo’s Artful Contradictions of Being

5.German Abstract

Works Cited

1. Introduction

1.1 Some Evidence of Don DeLillo’s soon-to- be Canonical Status within the Academy

On 23 June 1999 Don DeLillo was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for his “unrelenting struggle against even the most sophisticated forms of repression of individual and public freedom during the last half century” (19th Jerusalem). He was the first American recipient of the award and joined “[a]n international group of distinguished novelists, playwrights, and philosophers that includes Bertrand Russel, Simone de Beauvoir, Jorge Luis Borges, Eugene Ionesco, V.S. Naipaul, Milan Kundera, and Mario Vargas Lhosa.” (Duvall 563)[1]

Moreover, Modern Fiction Studies, one of the most influential journals on contemporary literature, dedicated an entire special issue, Modern Fiction Studies 45.3 Fall 1999, to criticism on the work of Don DeLillo, an honor and privilege he only shared with Toni Morrison, Gertrude Stein, and Virginia Woolf in the 1990ies.

Finally, Don DeLillo received the 2000 William Dean Howells Medal for Underworld. “[T]he award [...] marks what the (American) Academy (of Arts and Letters) deems to be ‘the most distinguished work of American fiction published in the previous five years’.” (Duvall, 2002 77)

So much about the status quo of Don DeLillo and his works in the process of canonization.

On 11 September 2001 something completely different happened. We all know what I am talking about here. “It”, or the first big event promoting “[t]he radical uncertainty of the terrorism of micro-power”, the challenge “[o]f the always suspended fanaticism of technological holocaust by the fanaticism of religious zealotry.” (Kroker) did not only give terrorism a formerly unconceivable dimension—unconceivable, at least, on the level of flesh-and-blood and off-Hollywood reality—and shook the “New World Order” already right at the beginning of its very creation[2], but also strikes more than a chord if we regard some of the main themes of Don DeLillo’s writing[3]: e.g. the cultural and political state of “late capitalism”(to borrow Fredric Jameson’s much-quoted umbrella term) and the state of mind of individuals living in a late-capitalist society (keywords: postmodern subjectivity, decentered /fragmented self, alienation),the “[l]egitimacy of multinational capitalism and its manipulation of the image through media and advertising” (Duvall 563), terrorism, violence, the crowd, the spectacle (in Guy Debord’s sense), and the fragmentation of the grand narratives of history.

So it is no surprise that the Don DeLillo Society called for papers with the working title “Don DeLillo and Sept. 11th” to be presented at the MLA Annual Convention, New Orleans, LA on December 27-30, 2001.

1.2 Getting in Touch with Don DeLillo

It has been a long way from DeLillo’s early short-stories published in the beginning of the sixties and his first novel Americana (1971) and his current status as one of the great contemporary American writers, in a row with Thomas Pynchon, Toni Morrison, William S. Burroughs, Ursula LeGuin, or Philip Roth, just to name a few.

As a matter of fact, Don DeLillo’s reputation grew rather slowly. Frank Lentriccia states that “[u]ntil the publication of White Noise in 1985 DeLillo was a pretty obscure object of acclaim, both in and out of the academy.” (Introducing 1). Then White Noise won the American Book Award for 1985, and Libra (1988) even hit the best-seller list for several weeks during the summer of that year. Mao II followed in 1992 but it hadn’t been until the publication of his opus magnum Underworld (1997) that Don DeLillo reached a really wide audience both in- and outside the USA.

One important reason why DeLillo’s early novels remained “pretty obscure objects” for such a long time might be his tendency to mix ideas and stories in a way that, though his novels seemed to be written according to well-established genres like the thriller (Running Dog, Players), more often than not frustrated readers with rather traditional genre-oriented expectations. Or is it, as Tom LeClair has pointed out, the fact that “[m]ost of [...] DeLillo’s novels promise like popular films and withdraw like serious novels; they adhere to a double-binding aesthetic, [...] a mixture of ‘good company’ and ‘madness’ ” (LeClair, Loop 57), so that many readers were simply overtaxed. The following passage by Duglore Pizzini in a review of Bluthunde (Running Dog)in the Austrian quality paper Die Presse of 5 April 1999, published in the aftermath of Underworld’s success in its German translation and the book market’s subsequent rush for translations of early DeLillo novels, shall briefly demonstrate how Don DeLillo can be read “alternatively”. Here is the reviews concluding paragraph.

[A]m Ende eines Buches, das sich in seinen geglückten Passagen mit einem schwächeren Grisham vergleichen läßt, hat der gute Geheimdienstler ein Messer im Herzen, und der Film hält auch nicht, was er versprochen hat. Und selbst die attraktive Journalistin des Enthüllungsmagazins “Bluthunde”, die nicht nur herausgefunden hat, daß sowjetische Parapsychologen die Fernermordung ihrer Gegner mittels Telepathie perfektionieren, sondern auch hinter dem Reichskanzleifilm her ist, kann dann die ganze wüste Story nicht mehr durchschauen. Dem Leser geht es wahrscheinlich nicht anders.[4]

Don DeLillo’s novels, from Americana (1971) to The Body Artist (2001) are difficult. Yet, they are not only difficult along the premises of a typical mainstream /off-mainstream binary. Even readers whose aesthetic and theoretical horizon is not limited by the rather tightly knit and stereotyped coordinates of mainstream literature do have their problems.

His novels come up in the guise of spy thrillers (see above), conspiracy thrillers (Libra), campus novels (White Noise), Bildungsroman / Kuenstlerroman (Americana), ‘quest-tale meets expatriate novel’ (The Names), science-fiction novels (Ratner’s Star), and sports novels (End Zone, Amazons) only to subvert the reader expectations linked with the respective genres.

So far, so easy. Disregard of generic conventions or simulation of traditional stories / story elements is a feature that might place DeLillo in the postmodernist camp of literature. Yet, if we compare John Barth, Donald Barthelme, and Ronald Sukenick to Don DeLillo, we may assume that in no way Don DeLillo is a postmodernist writer. At least, that was my first impression when I came across DeLillo almost five years ago. And in a way this assumption seems to be workable because, if we separate the concept of ‘postmodernism’ as a literary and critical practice in its own right, founded on an own aesthetic and philosophical basis from the much wider concept of ‘postmodernism’[5] as a contemporary cultural and social phenomenon that was first observed in the sixties and has, on the one hand, produced a gigantic output of theory, and on the other, together with enormous technological progress, shaped the way we perceive our world and constitute ourselves in it, we might indeed come to the conclusion that Don DeLillo is not really a postmodernist writer.

Perhaps the major reason why DeLillo was so long ignored by the academy was that his work was in a way at odds with the dominant theoretical and critical discourse. Tom LeClair, in his introduction to In the Loop: Don DeLillo and the Systems Novel (1987), which among other things offers some insight into literary criticism in America in the seventies and eighties, even explicitly names the “enemy”.

In the criticism of contemporary fiction, Jerome Klinkowitz's Literary Disruptions, a book published in 1975 that has apparently influenced the selection and methods of many subsequent critics, is representative of academic values and methods. Grouping together writers of the late 1960s and 1970s who were self-consciously disrupting realistic conventions, Klinkowitz dismissed Barth and Pynchon as "regressive parodists," elevated to academic status popular writers (Vonnegut, Brautigan, Barthelme, Kosinski), included writers such as Gass and Coover with some previous academic reputations, and introduced relatively unknown writers such as Gilbert Sorrentino, Ronald Sukenick, Raymond Federman, Steve Katz, and Clarence Major, most of whom would be associated with the Fiction Collective. While directing serious attention to several interesting writers, Literary Disruptions also introduced a number of problems into the criticism of contemporary fiction. Klinkowitz defined his group of postmodernists primarily in negative terms-how they deconstructed the conventions of 1950s realism, how they substituted fragmentation, play, and self-reflexivity for referentiality and a constructive engagement with the world. Because Klinkowitz's most important category was -,the new," he failed to draw the continuities of his writers with modernism and he failed to make aesthetic value judgments among the books of the postmoderns. These shortcomings of description, categorization, and evaluation, along with Klinkowitz's polemical hyperbole. would do much to identify American postmodern fiction as negative and reductive. Klinkowitz's version of postmodern fiction then became open to an equally one-sided backlash of conservative, even premodernist, criticism in books such as John Gardner's On Moral Fiction [...] (Loop 23)

Indeed, DeLillo’s “referentiality and constructive engagement with the world” cancelled him from the list of writers worth closer academic examination for almost 20 years.

Yet DeLillo has always been highly interested in the state of contemporary culture and its theories. I would even suggest that he is obsessed with the symptoms of our postmodern world (see 1.1). Moreover, many aspects of DeLillo’s novels can be, and, of course, have already been dissected along the premises of postmodern theory, most prominently exemplified in the work of French theorists like Jean Baudrillard, Jean FranVois Lyotard, Jacques Derrida, or Roland Barthes. Beside those philosophers satirized by Malcolm Bradbury as the “finest Gallic minds” [who] “probably started the whole Perrier revolution”(Mensonge 1 -2) Walter Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, and—as a rather new turn in the DeLillo–exegesis—Slavoj Zizek[6] come up again and again in criticism dealing with Don DeLillo.

Taking the premises mentioned above into consideration one might come up with a wide variety of assumptions, some of them even mutually exclusive. I am going to formulate at least some of them:

1. Don DeLillo is not a postmodernist writer.
2. Don DeLillo’s novels are postmodern theory put into fictional practice.
3. (As a logical consequence of point 2) DeLillo embraces e.g. Baudrillard’s radically skeptic view of the postmodern world where “[t]here is nothing outside of the play of simulations, no real in which a radical critique of the simulational society might be grounded.” (Leonard Wilcox qtd. in Nel 749)
4. DeLillo (as another consequence of point 2) thinks that the breakdown of Lyotard’s grands récits, i.e. ‘master discourses’ or metanarratives such as Christianity, Marxism, or Science, is a good thing (as Lyotard does).
5. (Just to view it from the reverse angle) Don DeLillo is a rather traditional writer to be seen in a realist and/or modernist framework. Of course, his novels deal extensively with what I am calling ‘the postmodern world’ for brevity’s sake. But isn’t that only too natural? After all, when James Joyce died, Don DeLillo was about five years old. The world has changed since 1941.
6. DeLillo shares Roland Barthes’ ideas formulated in “The Death of the Author”: praising Mallarmé, Barthes writes that “[f]or him [Mallarmé], for us too, it is language which speaks, not the author” (Barthes 168). Moreover, “[T]he reader is the space on which all the quotations that make up a writing are inscribed without any of them being lost: a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.”(171). Finally Barthes argues that “[t]o give writing its future, it is necessary to overthrow the myth: the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.” (172)

As you might have noticed right from the start, my little list of assumptions is—to put it euphemistically—highly problematical. So what is the point I want to make with it? All these assumptions are either entirely wrong (2,3,4,5) or have the one or other serious flaw (1,6). What I have been trying to point out here is that DeLillo’s writing is full of traps. It eludes safe categories and thus makes the task of reading or discussing it even more difficult and problematic for a ‘sophisticated’[7] reader than it already is for someone who is not familiar with contemporary theory. Discussing the difficulty I have already hinted at, Timothy L. Parrish states:

Confronted with a demanding and difficult writer like DeLillo, critics have understandably called upon influential postmodern theorists-Jean Baudrillard, Paul de Man, Gilles Deleuze, Linda Hutcheon, Fredric Jameson, and Hayden White-to provide a vocabulary for addressing the intellectual problems raised by DeLillo's fiction. Precisely because DeLillo's fiction is concerned with imagining how conflicting postmodern practices collide, it resists the coherence that theory demands. (Parrish 697)

Yet, as David Cowart suggests, “[t]heories can offer useful vocabularies to the critic, and to read Don DeLillo without theory would be to reinvent wheel after wheel” (Physics 11); but “[a]t the same time, however, one must read Don DeLillo closely for his own theory of postmodern reality. That is, one admits the practitioner as theorist.” (11)

Indeed, DeLillo problematizes everything and very often packs a multitude of thematic as well as aesthetic input into small units of text. I am going to elaborate on this briefly, discussing a perhaps less known DeLillo short-story.

In the early short-story “The Uniforms” (1970), Don DeLillo focuses more on the inter-relationship of writing and cinema than on literature as an art form in its own right[8]. In addition to this, his protagonists (terrorists in that story) discuss, and equate, history and historical movies, as well as wars and war movies. Finally, the terrorists go window-shopping, after committing atrocious acts of violence where they have carefully filched their victims’ “Gucci wallets” [...] and “Patek-Philippe wristwatches” (qtd. in Osteen, American 14). Thus another of DeLillo’s favorite themes, consumerism, comes into play in a quite unexpected context and “[D]eLillo reverses Godard’s association between terrorism and consumerism: whereas for Godard the bourgeoisie are terrorists, for DeLillo the terrorists are bourgeois consumers.” (Osteen 15) So, just to recapitulate, we have at least four different thematic complexes juxtaposed in one eight-page short-story: history, film, terrorism , and consumerism.

1.3 Why Underworld?

His eleventh novel[9], Underworld, can be seen as a synthesis of all his previous novels—as, for example, Patrick O’Donnell observes when he writes that “[i]n several ways, Underworld is a recapitulation of all DeLillo’s previous novels (Latent, 180),or as John N. Duvall put it “[ U ] nderworld, DeLillo’s post-mortem on Cold War paranoia, serves as a culmination of many of the themes , concerns, and ideas of his earlier fiction written during the Cold War” (Duvall 2002 11) I am going to focus on the main aspects of this novel’s dizzyingly rich reservoir[10] of material for academic discussion in the chapters making up the main part of my paper.

Underworld is indeed Don DeLillo’s most ambitious novelistic project to date. Along its 827 pages, Tom LeClair comments,”[t]he novel piles up undertext so dense and multiple that a first reading is only a test bore. (“Underhistory”) ”Everything is connected” (Underworld 825) is a leitmotif that comes up again and again in the novel. Indeed, everything is connected somehow in this novel, often in perplexing juxtapositions: a legendary baseball game and a Soviet aboveground nuclear test blast, a baseball and the Bomb, orange juice and Agent Orange, condoms and rockets, ... The list could go on for a couple of pages. I will return to this in the main part. Moreover, the stories of an abundance of characters, real life characters like J. Edgar Hoover or Frank Sinatra and entirely fictional ones intersect, more often than not, for seemingly no reason at all. Only with the benefit of hindsight and many pages further down the novel many links begin to make sense. Finally, everything, from the novel’s title and chapter headings to fictional characters’ names, from disturbingly frequent instances of defecation to the again and again repeated screening of an amateur videotape showing just another victim of the Texas Highway Killer in the moment of his dying, is overfraught with meaning and/or ambiguity. The character that qualifies most for being the novel’s protagonist, Nick Shay, killed a man in his teens and is, against all evidence, obsessed by the idea that his father has been “taken off da calendar” by the mob.

Private haunts and paranoias take turns with very public ones: Sputnik and the Cuba Missile Crisis, Aids and homophobia, the political murders of the sixties and the Challenger disaster, serial killings and Watergate, Roswell and stories of downwind areas covering entire federal states, “[A]denocarcinomas. Old Testament outbreaks of great red boils. Great big splotches and rashes. And coughing up handfuls of blood” (Underworld 406)—in short: the entire bandwidth of popular American paranoia. You might ask, “What else should we expect from a writer who has once been called, for good reason or not, “the chief shaman of the paranoid school of fiction?” (qtd. in Knight 811)

Of course, Underworld

[r]evises the anatomy of popular American paranoia that DeLillo has conducted in his previous novels, pushing back the inquiry before the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which had preciously served as the watershed event in his work [...] (Knight 812)

Yet, there is much more to Underworld. For example, what appears to be an intricate fictional account of America during the Cold War era, i.e. a more or less closed chapter of history, at a first reading, turns out to say much more about the present and the future than one might have expected[11].

Moreover, the huge thematic complex of Cold War history/technology/ paranoia /global economy / information society, though it makes up quite a large portion of Underworld, is accompanied by another theme that is equally important in the novel. Nothing less than the status quo of art and the artist seems to be as central to the novel as the (post)Cold War society. On the one hand, the discussion of art comes up in quite obvious ways: after all, the character that is dedicated most space in the novel, next to Nick Shay is an artist, Klara Sax. Yet Klara Sax is only one of a zillion manifestations of the art/artist theme that make up the cross-referential maze of Underworld to a large extent.

Finally, there is something that among other things manifests itself as a theme but is actually much more than that, perhaps the link between the themes mentioned above as well as a great big metaphor for almost everything including the novel Underworld itself: waste.

As a matter of fact, I am not the first to have this insight. Stephen Kavadlo suggests that “[t]he novel’s explicit subject is waste, literal and figurative” (Kavadlo 386), Patrick O’Donnell states that “[t]here is one figure of history that predominates in Underworld: that of history as litter or waste” (Latent 154), and, finally Mark Osteen concentrates on waste and waste containment, also literally and figuratively, in his chapter on Underworld. ”[T]he ideology of containment thus encompasses weapons and waste, whose devastating physical and psychological repercussions constitute DeLillo’s primary theme in Underworld.” (American 215)

As the trope of waste, on the one hand, is omnipresent in the novel and essential for perhaps any closer examination of Underworld, and, on the other, forms some metaphorical bracket between the two other major themes of the novel I am going to deal with more extensively in the main part of my paper, history and art, I think it might be quite useful to devote a separate chapter to it.

So, finally, a provisional structure for my paper seems to emerge: in chapter two, the main part of my paper, I am going to combine what can be subsumed in very general terms as “Underworld and Art”, i.e. the questions of aesthetic production, forms of art, (possible) relevance of art, DeLillo’s basic aesthetical and technical assumptions and strategies as a novelist, problems related to modernism/ postmodernism binaries, with Don DeLillo’s approach to history, (post)modern society, and paranoia in Underworld.

Of course, as I am dealing with a novel where indeed “everything is connected”, I will not be able to do completely without any thematic cross-references between the chapters, but I will try to keep them at a minimum.

Chapter three, the “waste-chapter”, shall, as “waste” in Underworld refers to the same massive extent to art as it does to history and society, bring the lines of the various sub-chapters of chapter two together.

1.4 Beyond the 20th Century: Don DeLillo and Avant-Pop

As a short appendix to my introduction, I would like to have a brief look at the attention Don DeLillo receives from a relatively fresh movement. I would not go as far as to claim that “[D]eLillo makes of the novel a shortcut to the future” (Begley 479), or that his work will be in—say, 2050—as relevant as James Joyce’s novels are for some of us today, but, for example, simply the fact that Don DeLillo is actually seen as one of the godfathers of a rather new movement in the area of literary theory and practice, Avant-Pop, might guarantee that he will also keep some importance for a young audience. And here I mean people who have really grown up with contemporary phenomena like, for example, the Internet. Of course, Avant-Pop, which I understand as a remix of the heritage of the historical avant-garde[12] and pop (in the widest possible sense) is a very vague and amorphous concept. Moreover, it is a highly eclectic one. Apart from a large number of writers belonging to a younger generation than DeLillo, e.g. David Foster Wallace, William Gibson , or Neal Stephenson—the “real avant-popsters”, I would say—considering his own generation, he is in a rather mixed company that includes Pynchon and Coover as well as Sukenick and Federman[13].

But a closer examination of Avant-Pop is not part of my project. Just to give you an idea of the synaesthetic and synthesizing spirit of Avant-Pop critical discourse, I have chosen the following passage:

"The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors," Borges writes at the conclusion of his famous essay on Kafka's retro-influence on Browning and others. "His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future." In retrospect, things shift in such a way as to make perfect sense. Turning up the amp, we can hear the first sonic chord of the Avant-Pop's buzz-clip in Eliot's vogue use and abuse of ragtime rhythms and cinematic montage in his plagiarized and pastiched The Waste Land. Or, one major tweak of the fuzz-knob and we hear Joyce's schizophrenic daydream bliss unwinding at the end of Ulysses. The feedback loop is alive and well and we can see it in dada, surrealism, Sergeant Pepper, Dos Passos's newsreels in The Big Money, Faulkner's lurid genre fiction in Sanctuary, Ginsberg in his quintessentially hip Howl, and the acidic metacommentary of Lenny Bruce. Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Nam June Paik, Gilbert and George, Joseph Beuys, David Bowie. (In Memoriam to Postmodernism)

2.Turning History into Art: Underworld ’s Politics and Aesthetics Part I

2.0 Some Preliminary Remarks

In his recent book-length discussion of Underworld, Don DeLillo’s Underworld: A Reader’s Guide (2002), John N. Duvall presents a pair of strategies that I consider highly useful in a discussion of Underworld’s rendering of the complex and multi-layered interconnectedness of history and art: “[a]esthetizing the political” (42) and “[p]oliticizing the aesthetic.” (48)

For Duvall, the former is a rather negative concept, a “[c]olonization of the aesthetic (62) that he attributes, heavily relying on Fredric Jameson, to the forces of “[m]ultinational capital that has now succeeded in appropriating the image to such an extent that all aesthetic production is nothing more than a form of commodity production” (43) in general, and to the electronic media and advertising in particular.

The latter strategy, “politicizing the aesthetic”, evokes much more positive connotations and is amply discussed by John Duvall and others as an antidote to the totalizing power of the former. This even seems to be heavily endorsed by DeLillo himself, if you consider his train of thought in “The Power of History” (1997).

Against the force of history, so powerful, visible and real, the novelist poses the idiosyncratic self. Here it is, sly, mazed, mercurial, scared half-crazy. It is also free and undivided, the only thing that can match the enormous dimensions of social reality [...] Language can be a form of counterhistory. The writer wants to construct a language that will be the book’s life-giving force. [...] Let language shape the world.

I am not going to over-emphasize the Good-vs.-Bad-binary inherent in this pair of opposing strategies, one exploited by affirmative culture, the other used by any form of counterculture, but content myself with saying that both are amply to be found in Underworld. Both strategies come up in the shape of real-life or fictional characters, e.g. J. Edgar Hoover or ‘adland wiz’ Charles Wainwright clearly representing the “bad” strategy. They come up in the in the film format, real films like Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues (1971) and the notorious Zapruder Film, amateur footage of the Kennedy Assassination, or, completely fictional films like Unterwelt, the novel’s central cinematic reference and a film Eisenstein might have made but never has. They come up in the description of a condom store or 1950s suburbia, the aesthetic values of a serial killer or the slightly paranoid worldview of a lifelong hunter for baseball devotionalia , the discussion of paintings like Pieter Brueghel’s “The Triumph of Death” or the output of a fictional lesbian African American painter, and, finally, though the list is not at all complete, in the one or other character’s prophetic vision of–preferably toxic or radioactive—landfills as museums of the future and major tourist attractions[14].

In short, if you allow for this wide generalization: these two strategies, “aesthetizing the political” and “politicizing the aesthetic” run through the novel on every level, no matter if we look at the level of story, its structure, its themes or the positioning of Underworld as a work of art in the contemporary world. Moreover, you should keep them in mind in the course of my paper, although they will not be always explicitly mentioned in the following sub-chapters.

2.1 Don DeLillo and Postmodern Theories

“All Art is quite useless.”
Oscar Wilde

No matter how Oscar Wilde meant this in his famous Preface of The Picture of Dorian Gray, it has central relevance to Underworld as well as Don DeLillo’s work in general. Perhaps, much more than a novel dealing with the psychological, socio-political and environmental implications of the Cold War and its aftermath, Underworld is a monumental meditation on the possibilities of aesthetic production left to the artist today. Thus the novel’s main concern, more important than the state of the world then, i.e. when the Cold War and its threat of nuclear overkill masked the political economy , and now, i.e. in the barely less frightening time of wildly expanding global economy where nothing veils the rapacity of multinational capital anymore, is art and its capacity to act in the contemporary world, no matter if it is the world of the Cold War or its aftermath.

Considering this, it is time to pause and to take stock of some of the assumptions I have already given space in the introduction to my paper. If we talk about the contemporary world it is, of course, not enough to discuss the historio-political and economical dimension. It is equally important to say something about the cultural dimension, i.e. the state of contemporary culture and, perhaps even more importantly, art’s complicity with the objectives of global economy.

As I have already mentioned in my introduction, the umbrella term for most aspects of cultural theory and practice in the last thirty years has been ‘postmodernism’[15]. I have already, very briefly, outlined some of its basic concepts like ‘the breakdown of the metanarratives’ (Lyotard), Baudrillard’s ‘simulacrum’, or Roland Barthes’ ‘death of the author’.

Right before introducing the concept of ‘simulation’, Baudrillard famously suggests that

[a]ll of Western faith and good faith was [italics mine]engaged in this wager on re-presentation: that a sign could refer to the depth of meaning, that a sign could exchange for meaning and that something could guarantee this exchange—God, of course. (Simulations 10)

Then, asking “[w]hat if God himself can be simulated, that is to say, reduced to the signs which attest his existence?” (10), he remarks that

[t]hen the whole system becomes weightless, is no longer anything than a gigantic simulacrum –not unreal, but a simulacrum, never again exchanging for what is real, but exchanging in itself, in an uninterrupted circuit without reference or circumference. (10-11)

Eventually, opposing his notion of simulation to representation, he states:

Whereas representation tries to absorb simulation by interpreting it as false representation, simulation envelops the whole edifice of representation as itself a simulacrum.

This would be the successive phases of the image:

- it is the reflection of a basic reality
- it masks and perverts a basic reality
- it masks the absence of a basic reality
- it bears no relation to any reality whatever: it is its own pure simulacrum. (11)

Critics have been quick to recognize and exploit the affinity between DeLillo and Baudrillard. As the most recent example, David Cowart writes that “[certainly one recognizes in White Noise a kind of comedy of the simulacrum: the much-photographed barn, the nuns who are not croyan t, the mosque that was once a ‘Moorish’ movie theater, the band playing ‘live muzak’.” (Physics 4) Other scholars hint at various Baudrillard-doubles peopling DeLillo’s novels. Most prominently, there is the White Noise- character Murray Jay Siskind, who, e.g. according to Mark Osteen, “[a]stutely explicates its [the most photographed barn’s] condition as Baudrillardian simulacrum.”(American 169). The most plausible Baudrillard-double in Underworld definitely is the “waste theorist” and former garbage guerillero Jesse Detwiler: When he predicts that toxic and radioactive waste sites will be viewed by busloads of tourists as sacred places, “a remote landscape of nostalgia” for the “brute force of old industries and old conflicts”. (Underworld 286), the following Baudrillard statement resonates in my mind:

When the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning. There is a proliferation of myths of origin and signs of reality; of second-hand truth, objectivity and authenticity. There is an escalation of the true, of the lived experience: a resurrection of the figurative where the object and the subject have disappeared. (Simulations 12)

This statement also comes to your mind elsewhere in Underworld; for example, in the episode where Nick Shay and Brian Glassic visit Condomology, a store entirely devoted to selling condoms.

There were condoms packaged as Roman coins and condoms in matchbox folders.[...] We had condoms that glowed in the dark and foreplay condoms and condoms marked with graffiti that stretched to your erection [...] Behind the products and their uses we glimpsed the industry of vivid description[16]. (Underworld 111)

The two men talk about their first teenage experiences with rubbers in the Fifties—[Brian]”My brother carried a rubber in his wallet all through adolescence. He showed it to me once, I think I was twelve.”(Underworld 110) Furthermore, the store teems with images of the Fifties.

A boy and a girl in one of the murals sat in a booth with ice-cream sundaes and frosty glasses of water and long-handled spoons for the sundaes and the scene was not contrived to be charming but was close to documentary in tone and the whole place was a little museumlike, I thought, with time compressed and objects arrayed of evolutionary interest. Underworld 112)

If you, finally, add the 50ies-crooner songs coming over the sound system, it becomes quite obvious that the store “doesn’t just sell condoms; it sells lifestyles”, and it “represents Baudrillard’s hyperreality writ large” (Duvall 2002 45), a space “[w]here the contradiction between the real and the imaginary is effaced.” (Baudrillard, Simulations 142)

The quote above, especially the line containing “with time compressed” resonates the ideas of another important theorist of postmodernism, the American Marxist critic Fredric Jameson.

Patrick O’ Donnell notes that “[f]or Jameson, the compression of time and space to be observed in the spatial organization of postmodern architecture materializes the repression of the ‘real’ of history in late capitalism.” (Latent 16)

A suitable setting for a brief discussion of Jamesonian postmodernism delivered by Don DeLillo can be found in Underworld’s epilogue with the fitting title “Das Kapital”: We again have Nick and Brian, this time in postcommunist Moscow. They are sitting in a pub called Football Hooligan situated on top of an office tower with “[p]eople eating ethnic fast food and drinking five-star cognac [...] listening to a live band with “fuzz heads and fatigue pants and bomb packs strapped to their bare chests—college boys probably who’ve appropriated a surface of suicide terror”, performing “a thing called cult rock [...] on an icy kind of wavelength.” (Underworld 785-86) Brian finds the place frightening and Nick muses:

I think I know what he means. It’s the sense of displacement and redefinition. Because what kind of random arrangement puts a club such as this up on the forty-second floor of a new office tower filled with brokerage houses, software firms, import companies and foreign banks, where private guards hired by various firms to patrol the corridors sometimes shoot at each other and where the man at the next table, with a bald dome, slit eyes and a jut beard, turning this way at last, is clearly a professional Lenin look-alike.” (Underworld 786)

Isn’t this club an exemplary staging of postmodern pastiche Jameson characterizes as ”[a] neutral practice of [...] mimicry, without any of parody’s ulterior motives, amputated of the satiric impulse, devoid of laughter and of any conviction that [...] some healthy linguistic normality still exists. Pastiche is thus blank parody, a statue with blind eyeballs” (qtd. in O’Donnell, Latent 58)?

Moreover, if we go further along the lines of Fredric Jameson and his “totalizing sense of postmodernism”(cf. Duvall, 2002 43), we arrive at the conclusion that multinational capital/the military-industrial complex assisted by all forms of electronic media and advertising has now succeeded in appropriating the image to such an extent that all aesthetic production is nothing more than a form of commodity production. So for Jameson, “[p]ostmodernism can only be the cultural logic of multinational capitalism” and “[s]uch a position radically diminishes the possibility of an oppositional aesthetic.”(Duvall, 2002 20) A very pessimistic view of postmodernism, indeed. But what would qualify as a way out of this dilemma? Jameson himself gives us the following answer:

The profound vocation of the work of art in a commodity society [is] not to be a commodity, not to be consumed , to be unpleasurable in the commodity sense. (qtd. In Osteen, American 264)

Given that DeLillo, at least to a certain extent, shares Jameson’s position[17] [18] I am going to return to one of the main questions of this chapter, i.e. whether according to DeLillo the artist still has some capacity to act in this world. But before that let us have a brief look at a perhaps more optimistic conceptualization of postmodernist aesthetics, Linda Hutcheon’s “historiographic metafiction”[19].

The idea of “historiographic metafiction”, i.e. “[w]ork that merges fiction and history in order to offer pluralistic interpretations of real events or advance the idea that history is a fictive construct” (O’Donnell, Latent 118) transforms Jameson’s rather negative notion of pastiche into something positive: pastiche is not only “ amputated blank parody”. For Hutcheon , a critical purchase is still available because of contemporary art’s parodic relation to the aesthetic past and history.

Though, admittedly, in a way quite complicit with the objectives of global economy (“Writers write, publishers sell” is to be taken for what it is: a lame excuse), Don DeLillo manages in Underworld to elaborate at least some residual strategies against the “[t]wo-dimensionality [which] is the signature of our age.” (Cowart, Physics 3)

2.2 Artists, Works of Art, and Media Technology in Underworld

In order to dissect what I would call the ‘status quo of art in the bi-millennial moment’, DeLillo explores the critical potential of postmodernity, i.e. art under the aegis of a cultural dominant called postmodernity / postmodernism (cf. Jameson’s definition quoted above), in a highly complex but also ambivalent way. DeLillo operates on several closely interconnected levels: there is his choice and rendering of characters, the juxtaposition of Underworld and several subtexts embedded in the novel, most prominently the fictional Eisenstein film Unterwelt, intertextual and paratextual congruences to works of art both inside and outside of literature as well as —within the realm of literature—inside and outside of his own oeuvre, his foregrounding of language and his modeling of the textual surface of the novel just to name a few possible lines of analysis.

Yet, before I have a closer look on Don DeLillo’s aesthetics as to be seen in Underworld itself, I think it is necessary to devote a little bit of space to discuss Underworld’s connections to both “modern” and “postmodern”, at least in very general terms.

2.2.1 The Modern-Postmodern Binarism

Since I have been dealing with criticism on Don DeLillo only very few issues have come up in my reading as frequently as the question if DeLillo is to be regarded as a postmodern novelist, or rather a modernist, or even a realist novelist. Discussing whether or not Underworld is postmodern, Don DeLillo himself said, matter-of-fact as usual,”[I]n architecture and art it [postmodernism] means one or two different things. In fiction it seems to mean another. When people say White Noise is post-modern, I don’t really complain. I don’t say it myself. But I don’t see Underworld as post-modern. Maybe it’s the last modernist gasp, I don’t know.” (qtd. in Nel,1999 737)

I have not chosen this statement because it is very helpful for my issue here. In fact, it is as helpful as his “Writers write, publishers sell” mentioned above. It is a pose, yes, even a provocative one, and perhaps just another “sneak attack on the dominant culture [i.e. postmodernity]”(Underworld 444), this time delivered by the extra-textual side of the corporate package Don DeLillo.

Of course, Underworld offers an abundance of features that might place the novel in a “modernist” camp, e.g. the chronological disruption of modernist narration, the novel’s more or less explicit sympathies for and affinities to modernist icons like Joyce, T.S. Eliot or Sergei Eisenstein, its excessive use of symbolism and myth and, finally, though this list is far from being complete, something I would call “DeLillo’s mysticism of ordinary things.”[20]

Yet it would be an oversimplification to see Underworld as something like “postmodern culture seen through modernist eyes.” Moreover, even the term “modernist” itself, at least if you have a closer look on how it can be defined, poses some problems that further complicate the traditional modern-postmodern binary.

In this context Andreas Huyssen writes:

The revolt of the 1960s was never a rejection of modernism per se, but rather a revolt against that version of modernism that had been domesticated in the 1950s [...] The modernism against which artists rebelled was [...] modernism perverted into affirmative culture. [...] the postmodernism of the 1960s was characterized by [...] an imagination reminiscent of earlier avantgarde movements such as Dada and surrealism rather than [...] high modernism. (qtd. in Nel, 1999 737)

Elaborating on this line of argument Philip Nel suggests that because DeLillo’s

“[a]rtistic development has its roots in both ‘avantgarde movements’ and ‘high modernism’, we can see in a work like Underworld a bridge between modern and postmodern. [He] would go as far as to say that, by relying on a modernist avant-garde (such as Surrealism and Dada) to engage the politics of postmodernity, DeLillo’s recent fiction in general and Underworld in particular challenges the validity of the modern-postmodern binarism.”[21] (Nel, 1999, 737)

So, finally, one might argue that DeLillo is a postmodernist writer in the sense of the “postmodernism of the 1960s” quoted above, who strives to rebel against postmodernism as we perceive it today ,i.e. a fully “domesticated” and incorporated close of a movement that once set out to challenge affirmative culture. Why he turns to forms originating in the early twentieth century seems odd, or even reactionary at first sight, but maybe it has something to do with what George Orwell calls “emotional attitude”. In “Why I Write” (1946) Orwell claims that a writer’s

[s]ubject matter will be determined by the age he lives in—at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own—but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape.” (qtd. in Nel, 1999 764)

2.2.2 Underworld’s Artist Figures

In his dealing with the politics and aesthetics of postmodernity, DeLillo expresses his aesthetic sensibility through several artists “[w]ho create competing and often complex renderings of experience in different formats.” (Parrish 700) Indeed, Underworld is peopled with a large number of artists, literal and acknowledged artists like the painter Klara Sax and other artist figures, or underground artists like the graffiti writer Ismael Munoz, or the satirical comic Lenny Bruce. There are even artist figures—or characters that stand in for the artist—we would not conceive of as artists at all at first sight, like J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s Director, or the radio announcer Russ Hodges, who does the radio broadcast of the famous 1951 ballgame that provides the novel’s chronological starting point, or even Richard Henry Gilkey, the Texas Highway Killer.

The elevation of Hoover and a serial killer into the realm of art seems strange if not cynical, at least at first sight, yet especially Don DeLillo’s rendering of J. Edgar Hoover has already been discussed at length in criticism on Underworld. (cf. Parrish, Nel 1999, Duvall 2002)

2.2.2.1 The Art of Filing: J. Edgar Hoover

The comparison of what I would call “complex and monumental piles of worldly data” to works of art is nothing new in the world of Don DeLillo. Just think of Libra where he calls The Warren Commission Report: Report of the President’s Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1964) “[t]he megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.”(Libra 181)

Moreover, the Warren Report mirrors DeLillo’s own novelistic practice in Libra and Underworld, especially in “[i]ts massive accumulation of detail, the sense of multiple contradictory narratives existing simultaneously as valid explanations of a historical event, [and] the location of millions of facts that seem to reproduce themselves exponentially [...]” (Parrish 706)

Hoover’s notorious files can be seen in a similar light.

Photographs, surveillance reports, detailed allegations, linked names, transcribed tapes—wire-taps, bugs, break-ins. The dossier was a deeper form of truth, transcending facts and actuality. The second you placed an item in the file, a fuzzy photograph, an unfounded rumor, it became promiscuously true. It was a truth without authority and therefore incontestable. Factoids seeped out of the file and crept across the horizon, consuming bodies and minds. The file was everything, the life nothing. (Underworld 559)

But there is more to them—and to their “author”, J. Edgar Hoover. Timothy Parrish suggests that “[H]oover’s dossier becomes a novel-in-progress—a counterpart to the Warren Report [...] more powerful than the Warren Report [...] because it does not attempt to formulate a cohesive narrative or reveal an organizing authorial agency.” (Parrish 708) The files are just there, “transcending facts and actuality”.

Furthermore, J. Edgar Hoover is not only present through his dossier in Underworld; he also shows up as a character through whose mind the novel’s point of view is focalized on more than one occasion. Most notable, perhaps, is his presence in the novel’s prologue, “The Triumph of Death”. Here, making Hoover a visionary of the Cold War to come, DeLillo drives the Director’s creative potential to the extreme. Attending the legendary 1951 baseball game at the Polo Ground, he gets news of the Soviets’ successful nuclear aboveground test in Kazakhstan. Soon after that, fairly at the climactic stage of the game when Bobby Thomson hits the homer, he has to pluck a torn-out page of Life Magazine off his shoulders.”[I]t is a color reproduction of a painting crowded with medieval figures who are dying or dead—a visionary landscape of havoc and ruin.” (Underworld 41) It is, of course, “[a] sixteenth-century work done by a Flemish master, Pieter Bruegel, and it is called The Triumph of Death.” (50) Hoover is fascinated by the image “[a]nd will take these pages home to study further.” (54). Moreover, the news of the blast is still working into him. Next, juxtaposing these two pieces of ominous informational input in his mind, Hoover comes up with the following vision of the Cold-War years to come.

The meatblood colors and massed bodies, this is a census-taking of awful ways to die. He looks at the flaring sky in the deep distance out beyond the headlands on the left-hand page -- Death elsewhere, Conflagration in many places, Terror universal [...] and he thinks of a lonely tower standing on the Kazakh Test Site, the tower armed with the bomb, and he can almost hear the wind blowing across the Central Asian steppes, out where the enemy lives in long coats and fur caps, speaking that old weighted language of theirs, liturgical and grave. What secret history are they writing? There is the secret of the bomb and there are the secrets that the bomb inspires, things even the Director cannot guess [...] because these plots [italics mine]are only now evolving. This is what he knows, that the genius of the bomb is printed not only in its physics of particles and rays but in the occasion it creates for new secrets. For every atmospheric blast, every glimpse we get of the bared force of nature, that weird peeled eyeball exploding over the desert— for every one of these he reckons a hundred plots go underground, to spawn and skein. (50-51)

Finally, one might even say that “[D]eLillo imagines Hoover inventing the kind of postmodern novel DeLillo writes” (Parrish 708), or that “[i]mplicit in DeLillo’s presentation of Hoover is the uncomfortable recognition that Hoover’s ability to combine politics, aesthetics, and capitalism made him an exemplary postmodern theorist, reader, and even artist.” (Parrish 700)

Yet, it is important to emphasize that DeLillo imagines[22] Hoover being an author capable of such far-reaching perspective, who exploits the same techniques of cultural creation used by himself. This is because “[D]eLillo’s practice as an oppositional, postmodern novelist feeds on and reconstructs the same technologies of information control for which Hoover became ‘Director’ of the FBI.” (Parrish 700) So Hoover might be understood, like some other, more sympathetic figures in the novel, e.g. Klara Sax, Ismael Munoz, or Lenny Bruce, as an authorial double, a surface upon which DeLillo can negotiate his own aesthetic strategies and his standing as a contemporary novelist, as well as the strategies of the “enemy”, i.e. the totalizing and inhumane tendencies of a postmodernism “[t]hat replaces humanity with aesthetic technique.” (Parrish 713)

The character in Underworld that perhaps most radically exemplifies DeLillo’s pessimistic view of the contemporary cultural dominant is Richard Henry Gilkey, the Texas Highway Killer.

2.2.2.2 The Art of Killing: Richard Henry Gilkey and the Media

Serial killers[23] are a relatively new phenomenon. Apart from some cases avant la lettre like legendary Jack, the Ripper or Peter Kuerten, “The Vampire of Dusseldorf” whose disturbing deeds as well as the panic and hysteria they caused in Germany in the late 1920s were the primary inspiration for Fritz Lang’s famous film M- Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder (1931), their massive emergence rather falls into the chronological frame of Underworld, the second half of the 20th century. Moreover, popular culture is highly fascinated by them and most of them enjoy some sort of veneration similar to the cult status of rock stars. In addition to this, the serial killer has become one of the most successful stock-figures of Hollywood cinema, just think of blockbusters like The Silence of the Lambs[24] (1990), its sequel Hanniba l (2000), or Seven (1996). Thanks to Norman Mailer and his novel The Executioner’s Song (1979), the real-life serial killer Gary Gilmore has even made it into the realm of ‘serious’ literature and literary criticism.[25]

In short: serial killers are both media stars and objects of theory and media-criticism, and so is Underworld’s Texas Highway Killer. But what qualifies him as an “artist” in DeLillo’s view?

To begin with, there is Gilkey’s emphasis on his skills, his technique. For example, calling in live at a network news show he asks,

“How does an individual with this kind of proven accuracy where he hits targets in moving vehicles where he’s driving with one hand and firing a handweapon with the other and he’s not supposed to be aware of his personal skills?” (Underworld 216)

Then he adds,

“Which the correct term for this is not sniper by the way. This is not an individual with a rifle working more or less long-range. You’re mobile here, you’re moving, you want to get as close to the situation as humanly possible without bringing the two vehicles into contact, whereby a paint mark may result.” (217)

And, despite the fact that he is a right-hander, he makes a point of using the left hand[26] although,

[a]s he eventually figured out [...] if you shoot with the right hand [...] your projectile travels the same distance across the same spaces, pretty much, as the self-taught method of the left hand. He figured this out after victim five or six, he forgets which, but decided to stick with the left hand as the shooting hand even though it made more sense to steer with the left and shoot with the right.(268)

Technique is of utmost importance for Gilkey, no matter if he kills a man or prepares a sandwich. So, for example, “[h]e spread the mayonnaise. He spread the mayonnaise on the bread. Then he slapped the lunch meat down. He never spread the mayonnaise on the meat. He spread it on the bread. Then he slapped down the meat and watched the mayo seep around the edges.” (262)

Yet, as he even knows himself, his “art” is absolutely pointless because “[h]is murders—his narratives if you will—have [...] no context beyond their random technique.” (Parrish 712)

[...]


[1] Don DeLillo has also won the National Book Award (for White Noise), the Irish Times-Aer Lingus International Fiction Prize (for Libr a) and the PEN/Faulkner Award (for Mao II).

[2] Of course, the “New World Order” was already a bit prematurely proclaimed by George Bush, the Elder in the early nineties. To quote Don DeLillo here:

”We’re in between two historical periods, the Cold War and whatever it is that follows it. I’m not sure that this is what follows it. This may just be the interim.” (qtd. in Knight 823)

[3] You needn’t even read Underworld to see the connection. Just have a brief look on the novel’s front cover and you see what I mean. It is a stark and slightly blurred black-and-white photograph of—in the front—something looking like a church tower topped by a massive cross and in the center of the background the all-too-familiar twin construction circled by a black bird. Of course, I do not want to insinuate here that Don DeLillo actually is a writer in possession of supernatural faculties, but in the morning of 11 September 2001 a book cover that had already been highly loaded symbolically accumulated extra-meaning Don DeLillo, his publishing house, Scribner’s, and the rest of the civilized world would have been glad to do without. For more background information and comment on this spooky interrelationship see Duvall 2002, 51-52.

[4] I am not going to elaborate too much on this quote, because, firstly, the early novels of Don DeLillo are not subject of my paper and, secondly, a book review is after all just a book review and need not necessarily be an intellectual enterprise undertaken by a scholar being acquainted with the state of the art of high-brow literary theory, yet the mentioning of John Grisham should ring a bell. Grisham is employed for evaluative purposes here, for aesthetic judgment. How is this possible? Isn’t perhaps, the “wide audience” DeLillo has reached with Underworld rather a marginal one compared to the audience of mega-selling mainstream authors like Grisham or Michael Crichton whose output, though more or less ridiculized or neglected by serious critics, forms popular consciousness to an extent even canonized authors like Pynchon, Morrison, or DeLillo can only dream of. This insight is, of course, no flash of genius, but should nonetheless be included in a discussion of Don DeLillo , at least in a footnote.

[5] I would have preferred to use the term ‘postmodernity’ here for the sake of clarity but the term ‘postmodernism’ is also used by most scholars to cover this aspect. For example, a recent discussion of White Noise starts like this: “[P]ostmodernism is not only the catch-all term that covers most of the events taking place in Don DeLillo’ s novel, White Noise [...]” (Eid) Yet , the term ’postmodernity’ can also be found, e.g. in John Duvall’s criticism: [...]”Baudrillard’s sense of postmodernity [...]” (Duvall, 2002 20)

[6] especially to be seen in the critical approaches of Patrick O’Donnell and Skip Willman

[7] i.e. acquainted with at least the basics of literary theory in general and postmodern/postmodernist concepts in particular

[8] He once commented on “The Uniforms” that “[i]t is an attempt to hammer and nail my own frame around somebody else’s movie. The movie in question is ‘Weekend’, made of course by the mock-illustrious Jean-Luc Godard” (qtd. in Osteen, American 14).

[9] Or his twelfth, if you count Amazons (1980) published under the pseudonym Cleo Birdwell and probably co-authored. For a brief discussion of DeLillo’s authorship of Amazons see Nel 2001, 432.

[10] “landfill” would be an equally suitably metaphor as to be shown in chapter three.

[11] This is no allusion to 9-11-2001.As Peter Knight writes in “Everything is Connected: Underworld’s Secret History of Paranoia” (1999) “[I]t is also noteworthy that, if the beginnings of the Cold War nuclear terror are present in the novel through the dramatic simultaneity of the two ‘shots heard around the world’, then the fall of the Berlin Wall, the equally symbolic end of the Cold War, is almost entirely absent from Underworld. (Knight 825) I am going to discuss “history” and “paranoia” in more detail in chapter two.

[12] This is what brings DeLillo closest to the Avant-Pop camp beside his extensive multimedia interest. More about DeLillo’s possible affinities to the historical avant-garde in chapter two.

[13] The logic behind this opposition is that Pynchon and Coover, are more “referential” and “productive” in e.g. LeClair’s sense (Loop 23), i.e. systems novelist – concept, hence much nearer to Don DeLillo’s position than Sukenick and Federman, who are predominantly self-reflexive and deconstructive. Their literary output “[w]ill be deliberately illogical, irrational, unrealistic, non sequitur, and incoherent.” (Federman 149)
Yet both, Federman and Sukenick seem to have turned into main proponents of Avant-Pop (see “In Memoriam to Postmodernism”). Here is Raymond Federman again: “[I]f this kind of writing wants to call itself Avant-Pop, or Future Fiction, or Post-Pomo, or Popomo, or Critifiction, or, better yet, I-Don’t-Know-What-To-Call-Myself, or New-New-Pot, or New-Age, or The-Revolution-of-Writing-Number-70, or simply Writing, or What-The-Fuck-Do-I-Know, personally I don’t give a shit. It don’t bother me. It’s fine with me. But enough fucking around. [Stop playing Federman. This is serious]”(In Memoriam to Postmodernism)

[14] In a way comparable to Manhattan’s Ground Zero in our post-9-11-days.

[15] Fredric Jameson suggests that postmodernism should not be considered “[a]s a style but rather as a cultural dominant: a conception which allows for the presence and coexistence of a range of very different, yet subordinate, features. Similarly, in his “Postscript” to The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco argues that “[p]ostmodernism is not a trend to be chronologically defined but, rather, an ideal category—or, better still, a Kunstwollen, a way of operating. We could say that every period would have its own postmodernism [...]” (Fredric Jameson and Umberto Eco qtd. in Barrett 809)

[16] Is this a euphemism for advertising and the media?

[17] Mark Osteen and Tom LeClair a.o. would agree to this: see American 264

[18] This position, i.e. DeLillo’s approval of some of Fredric Jameson’s main points, is as such not entirely free of irony. Just think of the 1,3 million dollars Scribner’s paid for the English-language rights to Underworld in October 1996. Two weeks later Paramount bought the screen rights for an additional million dollars. Don DeLillo is fully aware of this, but as he remarks,”[W]riters write, publishers sell. That’s probably a very old-fashioned conviction but I do maintain it.” (qtd. in Duvall, 2002 76-77)

[19] I contend myself with only a brief presentation of the concept in this chapter, but I am going to return to it in chapter 2.

[20] In his discussion of modernism and romanticism, Gabriel Josipovici notes that “[a]rt, they [the modernists] argued, was not a means of piercing the sensible veil of the universe, of getting at the ‘unknown’, as Rimbaud and others had claimed, for there was nothing beyond the world we see all around us. The whole mystery is there, in front of our eyes—only most of us are too blind or lazy to see it. (World 190)

[21] Taking, on the one hand, the strong influence of Godard and the nouvelle vague, and on the other, DeLillo’s admiration of Joyce and Faulkner, Nel’s line of argument makes perfectly sense. Moreover, as to be demonstrated in later parts of chapter 2, Underworld deals with plenty of aesthetic production in the spirit of the historical avant-garde.

[22] As DeLillo notes in “The Power of History” (1997), “[J].Edgar Hoover makes several appearances in Underworld. He is not one of the central characters. These people are all inventions, whole or partial, issuing from the author’s memory and imagination, from the small gathered fragments of overheard voices and random faces glimpsed in the street.”

[23] In my research I first assumed that Gilkey might be a real life character like so many others in the novel. I contacted Christian Fuchs, the author of Bad Blood: An Illustrated Guide to Psycho Cinema Inspired by the 20th Century Serial Killers and Murderers, and asked him for evidence. He had not heard of him. Fuchs forwarded my request to several other True Crime-experts, but none came up with a Richard Henry Gilkey. Finally convinced that Gilkey is a fictional character, I came up with a different assumption: Richard Henry Gilkey might be an amalgam of elements of the names of “famous” real-life serial killers: Henry Lee Lucas, Gary Gil more, Richard Speck, Ted Bund y or John Wayne Gac y.

[24] Of course, Hannibal Lecter is a fictional character, as is the film’s second killer Buffalo Bill. Yet, Buffalo Bill is a very close rendering of real-life Ed Gein.

[25] For a lucid though rather difficult analysis of Mailer’s version of Gary Gilmore see Patrick O’Donnell, Latent Destinies: Cultural Paranoia and Contemporary U.S. Narrative. 2000, chapter 4.

[26] Interestingly, part 2 of Underworld, which is the section where Gilkey is most prominent—we even get a brief glimpse on his private life on its last 10 pages—is titled “Elegy for Left Hand Alone”. So what, one might argue, this is only fitting. Yet there is a catch to this title, as there is to all titles in the novel, but the others are more obvious: listening to a record of Saint Saëns piano works Bronzini, another minor character on a completely different story line, though also quite prominent in part 2, notes that “[i]n one of the pieces [...] something dark seemed to enter, the soloist’s left hand urging the tempo [...]” (229) So high art lurks behind a killer’s technique, or, as Duvall puts it, “[a]n aesthetic experience is juxtaposed with the media celebrity of the Texas Highway Killer [...]” (Duvall 2002 44)

Details

Pages
133
Year
2002
ISBN (eBook)
9783638307215
ISBN (Book)
9783638702928
File size
1.1 MB
Language
English
Catalog Number
v29113
Institution / College
University of Graz – Institute for American Studies
Grade
ÿ (1)
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DeLillo Underworld

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Title: Don DeLillo's "Underworld": The artful reality of simulacra