DeLillo’s Underworld and Archaeology of the Contemporary World

This weekend, I started to read Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) It may be the longest book that I’ve ever read which, in and of itself, was a bit of a thrill. In fact, I’m still not done, but I’ve read enough to make a few preliminary observations.

My main argument is that Underworld anticipates the field of archaeology of the contemporary world or at very least maps so neatly onto it that the two rely upon each other to generate meaning. The book, as many folks know, follows the life of Nick Shay, the baseball in “the shot heard round the world,” the dawn of the atomic age, the post-war expansion of the American west, and the maturing of consumer culture in the 1970s and 1980s. There are an almost infinite number of themes woven throughout the novel and in an effort to disentangle my own reading of the novel, I’ll offer some preliminary observations. 

1. Everything is connected (and everything is contemporary). One of the most endearing things about the book is its disregard for linear time. The book jumps from the 1980s to the 1950s to the 1960s and 70s as it negotiates the interwoven plot lines through which characters and objects converge. This technique not only made clear how everything is connected, a recurring observation various characters make throughout the book, but also that everything is contemporary. The post-war world no longer requires the conceit of linear time. As memorabilia dealer Tommy Chan tells baseball collector Marvin Lundy during his quixotic effort to locate the baseball hit by Bobby Thomson to win the 1951 pennant: “you can’t precisely locate the past, Marvin.” (322). This is especially true in a world where money “travels at the speed of light” (386). The recurring images of Bobby Thomson and Ralpha Branca standing with various Presidents offers a useful reminder the past is evergreen.

2. Commodities and Garbage. A colleague who studies DeLillo motivated me to approach Underworld by observing that the book is about trash. Nick Shay, the main character (if such a thing exists in a book like this) works in waste management and throughout the book contemplates the flow of commodities to garbage. His family’s diligent approach to sorting recycling, for example, and his understanding of all goods as future trash reveal a fixation on waste that simultaneously reminds the reader that objects don’t go away, they simply change states. Klara Sax remembers “”We took junk and saved it for art.” And Nick and Klara meet up in the dessert where Sax is creating a massive art project by repainting surplus B-52s. The massive salt vaults destined to house radioactive waste makes a cameo when Nick Shay visits them as they’re being prepared to house radioactive waste which will remain dangerous for a million years. Later in the book, J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson reflect on their practice of investigating organized crime figures by “ransacking their garbage” (p. 557) when it turns out that activists are trying to ransack Hoover’s curbside trash. 

Everything is connected and everything continues to exist. 

Midway through the book, a Bill Rathje – A.J. Weberman hybrid appears at a California waste management convention (p. 286ff) as a character called Jesse Detwiler. Detwiler tells the assembled waste management executives that “waste is the best kept secret in the world” (p. 281) and urged them to “make waste public, local, visible” (p. 286). In the end, Detwiler reminds us that “everything’s connected.”

3. The Southwest. The move from New York City and the 1951 pennant race to the desert southwest followed, loosely, the path of the Giants and Dodgers from New York to California. The urban fabric of mid-century New York likewise gives ways to the climate controlled suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona and the alternation between the two places tracks the change in notions of domesticity between the mid- and end of the 20th century in an effort to complicate this concession to linear time in the book. 

Nick Shay’s old neighborhood in the Bronx deteriorates as garbage collects in vacant lots and attracts toxic tourists (p. 247). These lots, in a passage that seeming anticipates Anna Tsing’s Mushroom at the End of the World (2015), show signs of life including plants and shelter for a young girl (p. 238-239). The tourists, ironically, come to visit these streets to witness New Yorkers in their native environment.

In the West, it’s not the vacant lots, but the massive “”Sonoran waste, where the interplay of terrain and weapons was a kind of neural process remapped in the world…” (p. 451). As the Bronx develops to accommodate life in the vacant buildings, empty lots, and abandoned cars, the Sonoran desert, anticipating the important critiques of Jason De León, becomes an unnatural weapon as its forbidding landscape protects nuclear research sites (as well as the border with Mexico).  

As an archaeology of contemporary American culture finds its legs, Underworld sets out a road map both for disciplinary interest in waste, consumption, the American West, and the ever deepening tensions between the objects, individuals, communities and capital that course through our everyday lives. At the same time (heh heh), it offers a temporal template that rejects the linear flow of time and complicates causality. A more mature and developed of concept of post-war contemporaneity offers an important gloss on more utopian promises of the “end of history.” As Delillo demonstrates that everything is connected, but the old notions of linear causality aren’t the only way to make connections. 

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