Friday, August 28, 2009

Underworld by Don Delillo

How to capture the essence of this 827 page "towering" work of literature ? It is like the 2004 Paul Haggis film Crash on steroids. So many lives (over 100 characters) intersecting on so many levels. But the careful reader is rewarded time and again with brilliant moments in a novel that juxtaposes a forward and backward presentation of time. More than anything else, Delillo is focused on the role of image in high and mass culture. Throughout this novel, Delillo, a native New Yorker, portrays his town as a postmodern dystopian wasteland.

The narrative, as first revealed in the beautifully crafted Prologue, that was published separately before the book came out in 1997 (and that it predates 9/11 is important), relates to the trajectory through various random owners of the home-run baseball that Bobby Thomson hit out of the Polo Grounds in the bottom of the 9th inning on October 3, 1951, to give the home-team New York Giants the winning pennant. Known fondly as the "Shot Heard 'Round the World," it is arguably the most famous home run in history. Cotter Martin, a young black adolescent who snuck into the stadium snags the winning ball only to have his father sell it a few days later at Yankee stadium to a world series fan on line to see the Yankees play the Giants. And so the ownership trajectory begins with the first two "ball handlers." That same date in 1951, the Russians tested an atomic bomb over modern day Kazakhstan. A New York Times front page that shared both stories with equal weight was the inspiration for Delillo's masterpiece.

The book's dust jacket immediately captures the reader's attention. Most bizarre, it is a photograph, taken by Hungarian fotog Andre Kertesz, of the World Trade Center. What is verily odd is the random capture of a large bird flying towards one of the towers, eerily prescient of the 9/11 plane that would hit the North Tower a few years later (see online literary web site Ironically, the WTC site would become one of history's largest waste management projects, a theme throughout the book. Delillo obsesses with waste generation - the nuclear apocalypse may have receded, but the environmental apocalypse looms.

The book has been termed "historiographic metafiction" (fiction that self-consciously reflects upon itself) blurring the lines between history and fiction. As metafiction, the author uses the novel's artists to think about his own position as a novelist. The author devotes the full text to a proof of his belief that the commodification of culture is quintessentially postmodern. And he beautifully deploys this premise through a series of film viewings by the novel's principal characters. The films include Zapruder's 8mm "home movie" of the Kennedy assassination, the Rolling Stones never released 1972 documentary Cocksucker Blues (Robert Frank), and Sergei Eisenstein's Unterwelt, a faux film (it doesn't really exist, although Delillo's description of the film images is faithful to the film makers style), and, analogous to Zapruder, a brief home video shot by an adolescent girl who inadvertently captures a murder by the Texas Highway Killer.

These films about films or behind-the-scenes documentaries are postmodern while Eisenstein's film is modernist. In the Zapruder film, we witness a private screening of a bootleg copy of an 8mm home movie projected on many TV screens, running in continuous loops at varying speeds. Once the shock of the assassination wears off, the "images become available for aesthetic contemplation" (see Duvall's Don Delillo's Underworld). There is a magical moment during the Intermission of the Radio City Music Hall screening of the Eisenstein film Unterwelt. Klara Sax feels a rumbling of the subway train under the theater, yet another underworld that will figure into the life of Ismael Munoz, grafitist extraordinaire, an underground version of the dadaist artist Klara herself. These sublime little forms of nexus run rampant through the novel.

Just as Klara has painted retired B-52 bombers in the Arizona desert in a work of art that few will ever see, Delillo has written a gargantuan novel of 827 pages that few will ever read from cover to cover. Can we establish a linkage between artist (author) and work more postmodern than that ?