Jul 12, 11
Read from October 28, 2010 to July 12, 2011
Two things might help: look at this as a novel in short stories. There are plot-readers and there are characterization- readers. This is a book for the latter. It's more themes than anything. The second thing, if you're looking for it to try to make sense, is to see it as a look at the underclass being manipulated by the powerful people. We can do little more than observe and react weakly while the few control what happens to us.
And, yes, it's literally about trash. But the metaphor is deeper than that. To me, it's us trying to live as fully as possible while dealing with these things that we try to bury, bury in our mind, in our fields, in our past. Fear of the Cold War, you bury that until it's too vibrant to be overlooked. In the second half of the twentieth century, our reach has become so much further than our sight. So then the parts about Vietnam start making sense. The character Chuckie and Louis in the bombers brings this point to life. You fly over a nuclear bomb explosion, and the rest of your life is trying to cope and to remove yourself from that situation. And you can't.
The cover also illustrates this : we're living under this permanent dark cloud, and hoping to be able to forget that long enough to have an enjoyable life. At a certain point, though, it's beyond us and so all we can do is spectate and continue to pay our taxes (or not).
I was lucky to read this while finishing the PEOPLE's HISTORY of the UNITED STATES, which certainly colors how I view this. I felt like DeLillo's book has a lot of things that Zinn didn't touch - the psychological impact of all this - and Zinn had a lot that helped to provide a basis for discerning what was happening in UNDERWORLD. The effects of the Cold War, well I didn't realize it but Korea was the start of that, Vietnam the culmination, then two long decades more of low-intensity disturbance. You can never feel too comfortable.
At the same time, there's more than just depictions of fear and loathing. Something about this book gives me an optimistic feeling, maybe making me show that even though these are the circumstances, we're not defined or limited by them completely. You see this often: in the brilliant intro, the young people hopping the turnstiles; the woman painting the jets; the man with money in his pocket and thinking of leaving his family; the trash collectors' strike.
I especially like that DeLillo doesn't necessarily make it obvious that ,''hey, look, this is the same character from 70 pages ago''. There's likely several times when I overlooked the repetition of the same main people. The links between them, likewise, are not very strongly noted, the times they come into contact with each other. I feel this is a reflection of our ability to recreate ourselves anew, which we've done again and again in the past 60 years, i.e., not being able to recognize yourself. And that is an optimistic trend. But it's very subtle. That's partly why, it may seem like you're not reading much of anything but then a very small series of allusions and you have to reevaluate what you just read the past 20 pages.
I find it difficult to understand why this book is put down again and again. I had one period where I sat it down for a long time, around the first third, but I always intended to pick it up again. Its 850 pages but feels like half of that in my opinion: the chapters are short, each sentence has a vitality that makes reading and rereading a pleasurable experience. IT feels as much a tone poem as anything. And the second half only continue to come more alive with each page turned. It stops feeling so disjointed and random, in the same way that Infinite Jest seems to pick up momentum and meaning, both of them able to do so even without the necessity of a linear plot to propel this machine forward.
Nor is this postmodern. I don't feel the sharp flavor of black irony, I don't see any word games just to be cheeky. The language doesn't always make sense, but I feel that is as much for the sounds and rhythm than for trying to impart or communicate (the fun of Finnegan's Wake, eg). It has little to do with Thomas Pynchon, even though many of the themes and subject matter are related. That optimism is part of it, though it's
Reading now the Wood take-down and the DeLillo rebuttal, and my thoughts are this:
The swells and abatements of the tension are the exact point... the cloud is there above you, you forget about it, something bad happens and you remember it, then you try to forget again. So its not supposed to be one epic tense narrative. But the ebb and flow are the way that life in this time was experienced. Wood's argument seems to focus most on paranoia, something I felt he is likely over sensitive to. It's certainly there, but it's not the only thing and shouldn't be the decisive feature as to whether this is a great book or not.
It turns out, there's a Dustin Hoffman film called Lenny (Oscar nominated for the acting). And this year a Lenny documentary came out, too. so both of those seem to be good ones to check out whence I return home.