The Triumph of Death, Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
“People look at their garbage differently now, seeing every bottle and crushed carton in a planetary context”
Don DeLillo’s 1997 novel Underworld, in the words of Salman Rushdie, “contains multitudes”. It begins at a New York baseball game in 1951, where a black teenager called Cotter is bunking off from school. He’s skipped the turnstiles at the Polo Grounds to witness the “shot heard around the world” – Bobby Thomson’s winning homer - which sparks wild scenes of elation and misery. The ball is lost in the crowd never to be found, sunk into the ripples of history. DeLillo’s fiction picks up where facts remain blurry, and Cotter emerges from the game with history’s lost baseball in hand, cockily spinning it on his finger.
The first of many multitudes comes from a moment of historical parallax, from a simultaneous shot half a world away. At the same time as the game, the first atomic detonation is successfully completed in the Soviet Union, triggering a Cold War narrative which engulfs the underworld of American consciousness for the next half-century.
The simultaneous image of American baseball and Russian nuclear testing creates a kind of antinomy – two contradictory forces which paradoxically allow for the other’s existence. After the baseball match, Underworld works backwards through a swansong of Cold War paranoia, spanning glasnost, Watergate, Civil Rights, Vietnam, JFK’s assassination, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. The conflicting politics and images of these eras are suspended in a form which presents them as unresolved, in spite of all efforts to narrate their endings or draw a line under them. The tensions of an un/ending history are played out, with the threaded passage of the lost, stolen and sold baseball traced along the way.
Underworld often delves into an everyday scene of one social epoch and holds it up for scrutiny, highlighting the hypocrisies it contains. In one scene, a group of New York artists obtain unseen footage of JFK’s assassination. They decide to install it on multiple screens throughout a building on a continuous loop, imbibing the exact moment over and over again when the metal hits forehead, when the president gets “wasted”. The tape contrasts with another scene in which news footage of a Texas highway killer is looped on TV screens in living rooms across America. Underworld dwells on the popular media fascination with murder details, those overplayed clips and gruesome headlines, raising questions about the complicity of our gaze in giving an act authenticity:
And you keep on looking. You look because this is the nature of the footage, to make a channelled path through time, to give things a shape and a destiny.
These episodes tie into a broader cinematic aesthetic, a vital component of DeLillo’s writing, which swerves between perspectives, conjuring up clashing worldviews. The novel’s quotidian chat and heap of broken images at times resembles the eclectic energy of a beat poem. Yet these disparate fragments and images manage to collectively build up with orchestral majesty into a historical chronicle – it is at once impressionistic yet concrete. Underworld contains the details of “History” in its unwavering certainty – the bullet puncturing Kennedy’s skull – alongside its shifting, protean narratives and half-remembered memories. We find that the present, like the form of the novel is “all falling indelibly into the past”.
The first cover of Underworld was adorned with the dark spectres of the World Trade Center, with those twin towers, now fallen to the past, fading up into a shadowy sky. They stand both solid and ethereal, caught between histories, as a monument to capital and destruction. After the towers fell the 9/11 commemoration was created with ideas of history, memory, and absence in mind. The memorial is called “Reflecting Absence”, displaying a self-conscious empty space – two pits in the ground, resembling a subverted gravestone plunging downwards, an imprint denoting where something was. The Holocaust Mahnmal in Berlin assumes a similar aesthetic, its grave-like stelae resembling both the ruins of buildings, as well as a structure which has never properly been formed. As a monument it is a type of anti-matter, a negation, which still demands a presence.
These monuments to monolithic lost histories encompass what Peter Boxall has astutely traced as a central part of Underworld – the relationship between waste and abundance. Drawing from the ideas of Beckettian antimony, Boxall puts forward the paradoxical proposition that “waste offers itself as a limit to abundance only to the extent that waste itself becomes abundant”:
Waste cannot sustain itself in any simple sense as the opposite of abundance, as the wasting or dwindling in which abundance finds itself negated or extinguished. Super-abundance is limited and challenged by the waste that abundance itself produces. […] Underworld is a novel about waste, and about the ways in which the oppositions between waste and abundance, between what one keeps and what one discards, between what one values and what one excoriates, evade our attempts to separate them, to keep them compartmentalized. Waste spreads virally through the novel, reaching tentacularly into all the forms of plenty – economic, cultural, aesthetic and political – that the novel charts and performs.
Boxall links this “tentacular reach” of waste to the underhistory (or underworld) of our most unreachable places – our subconscious, our memories, our past and forgotten histories. Significantly, the capacity of waste may give these half-formed things a semblance of expression or at least something which strives towards it. We can trace Beckett’s influence in this instance, in which a poetics of exhaustion, of failure, paradoxically becomes something coercively creative and relentless. There are multiple images of this frictional yet productive relationship in Underworld. One in particular concerns a waste development worker watching the garbage pile up high on the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island:
He found the sight inspiring. All this ingenuity and labor, this delicate effort to fit maximum waste into diminishing space. The towers of the World Trade Center were visible in the distance and he sensed a poetic balance between that idea and this one.
In DeLillo’s writing we can witness a panoramic expanse which captures the two shrines of capital: its lofty accumulation of wealth and its multiplying by-product of waste, in one cinematic shot. Instead of viewing these two monuments as contrasting they somehow manage to merge, to become co-dependents, animated by the ‘same idea’. Both structures anticipate the other – the towers reveal the destructive path that abundance leads to and the landfill underlines the creative forces which waste provokes: “In our age, what we excrete comes back to consume us”. Boxall expertly captures the poetry in this relationship:
The central drama of Underworld, its task as well as its beauty, is to choreograph this movement between cultural value and cultural waste, to provide a poetic form in which the continuity between the World Trade Center and the Fresh Kills Landfill can emerge alongside the opposition between them. Nick Shay reflects, at the close of the novel, that “waste is the secret history, the underhistory”.
Underworlds spread throughout the nervous system of the 20th century, panning over the contemporary concerns of late capitalism and the end of history, exhausting them whilst emphasising an indefatigable quality therein. Cultural lines between American and Russian, east and west, local and global, black and white, man and woman, are eroded in the broader arc of the mutually destructive and creative forms of waste and abundance.
Accumulatively, through DeLillo’s distinctive cinematic collage of 20th century American history, we can begin to understand how identity is formed through the creative capacity of waste. There is the nuclear waste which provides that distinctly American “existential threat”, or the mafia underworld threat of being “wasted” as Nick Shay assumes his father was, or the garbage waste of the FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover which is locked away in order to protect his privacy from anti-establishment anarchists. Or there is the quotidian waste that gathers around our lives and begins to define us – our recycling which has an aura of the cosmic about it, our garbage which betrays our habits and preferences, or our nostalgic keepsakes, like a worthless and priceless baseball, which manages to contain both a historically concrete fact and a fantasy of endless, wasted imagination.
About the author
Liam Harrison has recently completed an M.Phil in Anglo-Irish Literature at Trinity College Dublin with a thesis on Samuel Beckett and Tom Murphy. He is a member of the TCD post-graduate Beckett reading group, writes Dublin theatre reviews for The Reviews Hub, and earns his bread at the Irish publisher Gill. He occasionally tweets as @liamllewelyn