Lessons in Latent History

Lessons in Latent History

1998-07-01
Underworld,
Don DeLillo
Scribner's, 1997.

Steffen Hantke presents an archeology of Don DeLillo’s Underworld.

Reading DeLillo’s recent novel Underworld is a reminder of the critical adage that certain books are never read for the first time. Context is everything, particularly for experiencing a book whose publication, after the writer’s long hiatus and surprising commercial success, have earned it the status of a cultural event. Like Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, Underworld made it onto the bestseller lists (no small accomplishment for anything upward of seven hundred pages), got itself reviewed extensively, and secured itself a place among what Susan Sontag has dismissively called “postmodern potboilers,” that is, novels that are, in some way, difficult, yet provide enough entertainment to a large readership that their difficulty remains largely unnoticed.

What makes Underworld an enjoyable read, despite its formal and stylistic challenges, is its overall structure, a loosely assembled series of scenes and moments summarized best by DeLillo’s title for Chapter 5, “Selected Fragments Public and Private in the 1950s and 1960s.” At first glance haphazard and fragmentary, the narrative progresses in leaps and bounds, stitched together with the help of a number of objects and characters, whose transformations the reader witnesses from the 1950s to the closing years of the millennium. The individual segments seem thrown together. They accrete around a concrete object or person in a slow build-up. Or rather, they pile up, an image that captures best the central metaphor around which the entire novel is constructed - that of garbage.

In a world where the old paranoid suspicions about everything being connected to everything else have become part of dinner table conversation and commercial culture, it is no longer the spread out grid of references that organizes narratives but the tightly packed central metaphor that crops up in each and every situation. Garbage is everywhere in Underworld. We encounter it in the form of decommissioned military aircraft parked in the Arizona desert, where they spend the post-Cold War years in prolonged decay. Garbage appears in the communal rituals of recycling that entire families engage in. One of the main characters, Nick Shay, will grow up to become a waste management professional, a man surrounded by the lingo, the corporate culture, and the private obsessions of garbage. Large sections of the novel take place during the garbage strike in New York. The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger instantly transforms a nation’s dreams of grandeur into garbage, as the wreckage rains down in a superb moment of apotheosis. Garbage raises the question of the value of things. What happened when what was precious, valuable, or important once is no longer of use or value? The memorable historical moment falls irretrievably into the past, and all that remains is the wreckage: the discarded objects which remind us of what happened. The concrete evidence of history, the body of history, so to speak.

It is exactly in this trope of the body of history, the abstract idea incarnating itself in the garbage heap left behind by past events, that itself retrieves the past of DeLillo’s own career. With the garbage metaphor, DeLillo has discovered the missing link between history and the body, between the abstract text and the concrete reality of living in the physical body. Underworld features a number of scenes reminiscent of Bill Gray, the protagonist of DeLillo’s preceding novel Mao II, and his obsessive chronicle of bodily decay and infirmity. Working on his “great novel,” the book to transcend all the inadequacies and miseries of his personal life, Gray becomes morosely preoccupied with the failing of his own body. He picks dandruff and hair out of his typewriter’s keyboard, discusses the symptoms of internal bleeding after a car accident with a group of strangers, revels in his own slow physical decay. Meanwhile, there is the transcendent purity of the text he is trying to transform himself into - the book that will never get finished, a portrait photograph that will preserve him. Problem is, though, nobody escapes alive from the gospel of posterity, the shrine of the public persona. It’s just Bill Gray who prefers to live on in his work rather than in his apartment.

While Mao II remains trapped in the dualism of body and history, exploring brilliantly its implications for the problem of privacy and public political action, Underworld offers us the missing link between objects and bodies. That link is garbage - the world of discarded objects with which we surround ourselves individually and collectively. One of the characters, Nick Shay’s fellow waste manager Brian Glassic, admires a large landfill, a minor epiphany that tells him “for the first time what his job was all about…He dealt in human behavior, people’s habits and impulses, their uncontrollable needs and innocent wishes, maybe their passions, certainly their excesses and indulgences but their kindness too, their generosity” (184). The fact that this landfill is growing to “be the highest mountain on the Atlantic Coast between Boston and Miami” is an indication that nature has long ceased to compete with this material manifestation of human history. The novel itself, shot through with an anxiously eager sense of the approaching millennium and with the aftershocks of the Cold War, becomes a repository for used up and potentially recyclable images and themes, a treasure trough of garbage. The millennial overtones add up to a sense that garbage will eventually reach a kind of critical mass: “We make our way through the world and come upon a scene that is medieval-modern, a city of high-rise garbage, the hell reek of every perishable object ever thrown together” (104). Waste, another character muses, “is the secret history, the underhistory, the way archaeologists dig out the history of early cultures, every sort of bone heap and broken tool, literally from under the ground” (791).

The metaphor of “the garbage heap of history” is not exactly new and fresh either. Among the more recent novels elaborating upon this theme is William Gass’s The Tunnel, a monumental postmodern experiment in which, according to Gass’s own explanations, the text serves as the analog of the material that is being removed when building a tunnel. In order to create an opening or passage, dirt needs to be removed, extracted, and piled up. The words on the page constitute this heap of garbage, of discarded matter, which surrounds the actual, though invisible or silent, text; an experiment in language Gass himself might have been contemplating when, in an earlier essay on Henry Miller, he refers to Miller’s heaping up of words upon words as an “excremental style.”

In contrast to Gass’s postmodern experiment of transforming the text itself into garbage, and in contrast to Gass’s disdainful acceptance of the negative connotations of the term itself, DeLillo puts a decidedly more positive, and more overtly political, spin on the same metaphor. While Gass’s exploration of history as garbage focuses on the doomed struggle of the individual digging itself deeper into history while trying to get out of it, DeLillo takes us straight to the point where history and garbage invite savvy business ventures. In a capitalist economy, DeLillo suggests, nothing is ever lost. Garbage, the epitome of the useless or used-up, remains a valuable commodity once you know (how) to recycle. It’s the cultural fossil record as unabashed entrepreneurial wish fulfillment.

A garbage industry, complete with its own subcultural idiosyncrasies, ensures the endless flow of dead matter, from consumption back to production via the venues of services and their purveyors. Garbage allows for a metaphor of process, a constant flow of change and transformation, rather than for a static dualistic structure within which two diametric opposites are deadlocked, allowing us a way out only at great expense. In a way, its recyclability is its crucial characteristic; what makes garbage is its ability to be retrieved, recuperated, and recycled into the flow of history, invigorated with new energies of passion and anxiety. What’s discarded is being picked up and reused, channeled once again into the cycle of production and consumption. The decommissioned aircraft in the Arizona desert become the canvas for artist Klara Sax, who has a team of volunteers paint the abandoned machinery, elevating it to a grand spectacle of the Cold War’s “bone heap and broken tool.”

This principle of recycling triggers the uncanny experience of not being able to read Underworld for the first time; there is a sense here of encountering the familiar in an unfamiliar context. DeLillo’s faithful readers will recognize intertextual links between Underworld and his earlier work, especially in the passages of the novel that take place in the Bronx during the 1950s and 60s. Toward the end of Underworld, for example, we find a brief scene in which an old Italian who has been evicted from his apartment in the Bronx is sitting on the sidewalk, surrounded by his meager belongings. The scene is taken straight from a story, “Spaghetti and Meatballs,” which DeLillo published in Epoch in 1965. Like other stories from that period, which predates the publication of Americana, his first novel, by several years, it’s a piece DeLillo has subsequently dismissed as a warming up exercise of a writer who hasn’t found his voice quite yet. It is this dismissal that distinguishes the return to certain crucial themes, like Bill Gray’s preoccupation with his own bodily decay in Mao II, from DeLillo’s recycling of early material which he himself considers to be of inferior quality, that is, trash.

Critics who think of DeLillo as coming into his own with his later novels will probably see the recycling of ideas from his earlier work as a self-conscious elaboration of the double theme of garbage and recycling. The whole of Underworld is prefigured by DeLillo’s 1973 novel UGreat Jones Street, which features a scene in which we get to overhear parts of a party conversation. One of the nameless speakers identifies himself as The Morehouse Professor of Latent History at the Osmond Institute (“But I don’t occupy the Morehouse Chair. I occupy the Houseman Chair.”). Latent History, as DeLillo calls it, “deals with events that almost took place, events that definitely took place but remained unseen and unremarked on, like the action of bacteria or the rising and falling of mountain ranges, and events that probably took place but were definitely not chronicled.” Underworld, more than twenty years later, writes latent history, filling in the theory with concrete examples: a newly discovered film by Sergej Eisenstein called Unterwelt, the subculture of graffiti artists, the intimate or secret lives of historical figures, the unacknowledged rituals of private life during the Cold War years.

As a novel that aims at describing history by way of history’s latent, subterranean, secret other, Underworld falls short, at least at first glance, of the expectations that its author must have something new and unheard-of to say. Underworld mixes historical figures, like Lenny Bruce or J. Edgar Hoover, with imaginary characters, something that, at least since Doctorow’s Ragtime, readers of contemporary American (meta-)fiction are perfectly familiar with. Underworld mixes the official events of world history with the small mundane events in individual characters’ lives, something that academic historiography and historical fiction have been practicing under the label “history from below” for quite some time. Underworld revels in a disjointed narrative, subjecting its readers to a pile of narrative, and often dramatic, fragments, connected by leitmotifs - a baseball, an obsession with the number thirteen, the painting of “Long Tall Sally” on the nose of military aircraft, etc., something that, let’s say, Dos Passos’ USA trilogy perfected decades ago. All in all, as a historical novel, Underworld appears initially as a recapitulation of styles and themes most readers have seen before, albeit masterful, lucid, and stylistically as accomplished and beautiful as anything written in the last ten years - that is, since the publication of DeLillo’s own Libra.

Underworld ends up being true to the objectives of latent history. Latent history, the mysterious stranger of Great Jones Street states, “never tells us where we stand in the sweep of events but rather how we can get out of the way.” Getting out of the way of history does not mean avoiding, ignoring, or declaring oneself powerless in the face of history’s vast sweep. Getting out of the way of history is possible by way of imagining its alternatives. Underworld imagines a more complete history, history, so to speak, with an unconscious. Underneath the smooth surfaces of history, polished by one-track minded historiography and slick commercialism, there is a space for desire, individual and collective, and for bodies and objects. Recognizing this space means confronting and mastering history in order to steer one’s own course through it. It means recycling the past without falling into the trap of cheap, commercial nostalgia. It means accepting the finality of our own involvement in something that extends beyond ourselves. It means accepting mortality without despair.

The novel ends on this, given DeLillo’s perhaps mistaken reputation as a cold and analytical writer, surprisingly humanist note. Teetering on top of the enormous heap of narrative fragments is a single word, a word that DeLillo tells us we must “try to imagine… on the screen becoming a thing in the world” (827). It is a word that, at the end of the millennium, has already gone through the channels of cultural recycling a number of times. It is a word that resonates deeply throughout a culture which, after the end of the Cold War, is perpetually preparing for war. It is, when all is said and done, a good word to end on: “Peace.”