Another really mammoth novel, and again this time from America. Underworld deserves comparison to Ulysses, a fact I mentioned here. If not for any real Joycean stylings, then for a similar ambition that DeLillo brings to literature.
As you might expect, critics love this book, because they can make so many lyrical, profoundly aphoristic statements about its goals and intents. It’s the kind of book where the blurb quotes come in paragraphs rather than sentences. The most understated of them merely remarks that “Don DeLillo’s latest novel really is one of the finest of the century”. They tend to play the man not the ball, in near-fawning recognition of DeLillo’s status as a major literary writer – “In Underworld we have a mature and hugely accomplished novelist firing on all cylinders, at the sophisticated height of his multifarious powers”.
Yet as for the novel itself, its significance is in something other than its dimensions of length and weight; it is the experience and the affect of the work to the reader. Hence Underworld “demands our full attention. The reward is its great depth, shimmering prose and the feeling that when we put it down that we’re a little wiser than we were”. “Reading the book is a charged and thrilling aesthetic experience and one remembers gratefully that this is what the novel can do, and indeed does, better than any other art form – it gets the human condition”.
Most pointed of all, is the description of the New York Times – perhaps since the city is the subject of the book - “This bravura master of cerebral pyrotechnics also knows how to seize and rattle our emotions… In this remarkable novel, [DeLillo] has taken the effluvia of modern society, all the detritus of our daily and political lives, and turned it into a dazzling, phosphorescent work of art”.
The final blurb I wish to include is one of the two on the front cover, and simply calls Underworld
“…an aria and a wolf whistle of our half-century
It contains multitudes.”
From one acclaimed author to another; Don DeLillo is the major writer of that ‘half-century’. That is a completely gratuitous statement – at the moment, the papers are full of obituaries for Norman Mailer, who I really should read – but I’ll fight my corner for DeLillo's importance as a really important stylistic American writer.
I say stylistic because, although DeLillo writes beautifully plotted books and tackles some pretty weighty subjects (the two that come to mind are Libra, which I’m just about to mention, about Oswald’s assassination of JFK, and Falling Man, about the Twin Towers disaster) it is the style of his writing which really gets me. The depth and fineness of his characterisation is also an important feature; but this, too, is mostly stylistic. As evidence, here is an extract from the first couple of pages of the very first chapter of Libra:
" ‘In The Bronx’
This was the year he rode the subway to the ends of the city, two hundred miles of track. He liked to stand at the front of the first car, hands flat against the glass. The train smashed through the dark. People stood on local platforms staring nowhere, a look they’d been practicing for years. He kind of wondered, speeding past, who they really were. His body fluttered in the fastest stretches. They went so fast sometimes he thought they were on the edge of no-control. The noise was pitched to a level of pain he absorbed as a personal test. Another crazy-ass curve. There was so much iron in the sound of those curves he could almost taste it, like a toy you put in your mouth when you are little.
Workmen carried lanterns along adjacent tracks. He kept a watch for sewer rats. A tenth of a second was all it took to see a thing complete. Then the express stations, the creaky brakes, people bunched like refugees. They came wagging through the doors, banged against the rubber edges, inched their way in, were quickly pinned, looking out past the nearest heads into that practiced oblivion.
It had nothing to do with him. He was riding just to ride.
One forty-ninth, the Puerto Ricans. One twenty-fifth, the Negroes. At Forty-second Street, after a curve that held a scream right out to the edge, came the heaviest push of all, briefcases, shopping bags, school bags, blind people, pickpockets, drunks. It did not seem odd to him that they subway held more compelling things than the famous city above. There was nothing important out there, in the broad afternoon, that he could not find in purer form in these tunnels beneath the streets."
So what the DeLillo style is all about is getting a feel for a place, a scene, a moment in time. It’s psychological, psychogeographical even; a description of New York through real people who are also historical characters (as befits DeLillo's penchant for fictionalising celebrity, the opening preface has a three-way conversation between Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra and J. Edgar Hoover at a baseball game). In fact, Underworld doesn't have much of a plot; just fifty years of numerous interweaving narratives and enduring symbols of culture and atttitudes; one half baseball, one half atom bomb.
Altogether, Underworld is a succession of episodes, scenes which begin and end without any real dramatic action, only portraiture and compelling, sympathetic description. This extract is one of those scenes, of a subway graffiti artist Munoz/Moonman who actually reappears much later in the novel. In total the scene runs to just over eight pages, juxtaposed with the viewing of a lost Eisenstein film, ‘Unterwelt’, uptown in the Radio City Music Hall:
“The statue in the marbled niche had the thighs and claves of a man, a man’s bundled muscles in the forearms, but the figure in fact was biblical Eve, tight-breasted, with an apple in her hands and the sloping shoulders of a fullback.
And why not. The evening had the slightly scattered air of some cross-referenced event…”
The subplot is that the socialite artist, Klara Sax, is involved in trying to get the backstreet graffitist to do a gallery show. Ironically, elsewhere in the narrative (and about twenty years later) she is in charge of a project to paint, not subway trains, but hundreds of decommissioned, steel-finished war bombers – linking back to the 1950’s atomic era, and so on. Even within the piece here, there is a lot of repetition – a subtle touch of Joycean stream of consciousness and internal dialogue – which is quite noticeable if you read carefully. (Here, the ellipses are mine)
"The train was one of his, Moonman’s, he had a dozen pieces running through the system, top-to-bottom burners, and it just so happens he was aboard tonight, under the water mains and waste pipes, under the gas and steam and electric, between the storm sewers and telephone lines, and he moved from car to car with each stop and checked out the people who stepped inside, wearing their retractable subway faces, and the doors went ding dong before slamming shut.
Ismael Munoz, dark and somber, watching people come aboard. Sparsely stubbled Ismael reading lips and faces, hoping he might catch a bravo comment. Hey this guy is lighting up the line. This was his newest piece so here he was going uptown on the Washington Heights local, every car tagged with his own neon zoom, with highlights and overlapping letters and 3-D effect, the whole wildstyle thing of making your name and street number a kind of alphabet city where the colors lock and bleed and the letters connect and it’s all live jive, it jumps and shouts – even the drips are intentional, painted supersharp to express how the letters sweat, how they live and breathe and eat and sleep, they dance and play the sax.
This is not a window-down piece. This was a whole-train burner with windows painted over and each letter and number bigger than a man.
Ismael was sixteen, not too old and not too young and he was determined to kill the shit of every subway artist in town.
Nobody could take him down.
Once a man stood on the platform and took a picture of one of Moonman’s top-to-bottoms, a foreigner by the look of him, and Ismael sidled to the open door so he could be in the picture too, unknown to the man. The man was photographing the piece and the writer both, completely unknown to himself, from someplace in Sweden he looked.
At Columbus Circle he changed to the Broadway train because he had business at the end of the line. He got on a train that was bombed inside and out by Skaty 8, a thirteen-year-old writer who frantically tagged police cars, hearses, garbage trucks, who took his Krylon satin colors into the tunnels and tagged up the walls and catwalks, he hit platforms, steps, turnstiles and benches, he’d tag your little sister if she was walking by. Not a style king, no way, but a legend among writers for the energy he put forth, getting his tag seen by major millions and then two weeks ago, and a genuine regret went through Ismael as he recalled being told, he slumped and sagged all over again and felt the deepest kind of soldierly sadness – Skaty 8 hit by a train while he’s walking on the tracks under downtown Brooklyn.
People moved along the car, they skated to a seat, they looked at display ads above the heads across the aisle, all without eye motion that you could detect with the most delicate device.
Ismael used to walk the tracks when he felt sorry for himself. Those were foregone times. He’d pop an emergency hatch in the sidewalk and climb down into a tunnel and just, like, go for a walk, be alone down there, keeping the third rail in sight and listening for the train and getting to know the people who lived in the cable rooms and up on the catwalks, and that’s where he saw a spray-painted scrawl, maybe five years ago, down under Eighth Avenue.Bird Lives. It made him wonder about graffiti, about who took the trouble and risk to walk down this tunnel and throw a piece across the wall, and how many years have gone by since then, and who is Bird, and why does he live?
And the guy who reached around saying excuse me please.
He rode up the edge of Manhattan headed for the Bronx. There was no art in bombing platforms and walls. You have to tag the trains. The trains come roaring down the rat alleys all alike and then you hit a train and it is yours, seen everywhere in the system, and you get inside people’s heads and vandalize their eyeballs.
The crew shook the cans and the ball went click.
He stood on the door edge of one train and leaned across to the train parked adjacent and tagged it from the windows up.
And he went down the slate stairway that crumbled to the pressure of his weight, his hand on the rusty pipe that was the banister, and he felt the mood of a tunnel on a given day. It might be a coke mood one day, Ismael did not do drugs, or a mood of speed that’s travelling through the tunnel, someone made a buy and shared it, or a mood of mental illness, which was often the case. And always a brown rat mood because they were there in pack rat numbers, an endless source of stories, the size of the rats, the attitude of unfearing, how they ate the bodies of those who died in the tunnels, how they were eaten in turn by the rat man who lived in level six under Grand Central, he killed and cooked and ate a rat a week - track rabbits, they were called.
In other words to muralize a whole train you need a full night and part of the next night and no shuffling bullshit talk.
And a mood of who you are in your head day by day, which he did not share with anyone at street level, and going to sleep in a cousin’s bed at night or in the supply cellar of some bodega where they knew Ismael Munoz and gave him a place that was adequate and hearing the doors go ding dong and seeing the man from Stockholm, Sweden who took pictures of his piece.
They had dozens of cans out and ready, all by prearrangement, and he called a color and they shook the can and the ball went click.
”Where’s my Perrier?” he said.
But you have to stand on a platform and see it coming or you can’t know the feeling a writer gets, how the number 5 train comes roaring down the rat alleys and slams out of the tunnel, going whop-pop onto the high tracks, and suddenly there it is, Moonman riding the sky in the heart of the Bronx, over the whole burnt and rusted country, and this is the art of the backstreets talking, all the way from Bird, and you can’t not see us anymore, you can’t not know who we are, we got total notoriety now, Momzo Tops and Rimester and me, we’re getting fame, we ain’t ashame, and the train go rattling over the garbagy streets and past the dead-eye windows of all those empty tenements that have people living there even if you don’t see them, but you have to see our tags and cartoon figures and bright and rhyming poems, this is the art that can’t stand still, it climbs across your eyeballs night and day, the flickery jumping art of the slums and dumpsters, flashing those colors in your face – like I’m your movie, motherfucker."
(Part 4, Cocksucker Blues – Summer 1974, Ch. 3)