This is a novel...that draws together baseball, the Bomb, J. Edgar Hoover, waste disposal, drugs, gangs, Vietnam, fathers and sons, comic Lenny Bruce and the Cuban Missile Crisis. And that's just for openers.
It also depicts passionate adultery, weapons testing, the care of aging mothers, the postwar Bronx, '60s civil rights demonstration, populuxe culture, advertising, graffiti artists at work, Catholic education, chess and murder. And still we're not through.
There's a viewing of a lost Eisenstein film, meditations on the Watts Tower, an evening at Truman Capote's Black & White Ball, a hot-air balloon ride, serial murders in Texas, a camping trip in the Southwest, a nun on the Internet, reflections on history, one hit (or possibly two) by the New York mob and an apparent miracle.
Most amazingly, none of this seems jumbled or arbitrary: As DeLillo says and proves: "Everything is connected in the end."
--Michael Dirda; Washington Post; 1997
Klara Sax (on painting WW II aircraft, Southwest desert):
"Many things that were anchored to the balance of power and the balance of terror seem to be undone, unstuck. Things have no limits. Money has no limits....Violence is undone, violence is easier now, it's uprooted, out of control, it has no measure anymore, it has no level of values."
She said, "See, we're painting, hand-painting in some cases, putting our puny hands to great weapons systems, to systems that came out of the factories and assembly halls as near alike as possible, millions of components stamped out, repeated endlessly,and we're trying to unrepeat, to find an element of felt life, and maybe there's a sort of survival instinct here, a graffiti instinct -- to trespass and declare ourselves, show who we are. The way the nose artists did, the guys who painted pinups on the fuselage."
Brian Glassic (at L.A. baseball game):
"We had the real Dodgers and Giants. Now we have holograms."
Nick Shay (at home, Phoenix, Arizona):
I had the baseball in my hand.....You have to know the feel of a baseball in your hand, going back a while, connecting manythings, before you can understand why a man would sit in a chair at four in the morning holding such an object, clutching it -- how it fits the palm so reassuringly, the corked center making it bouyant in the hand, and the rough spots on an old ball, the marked skin, how a thumb likes to worry the scuffed horsehide. You squeeze a baseball. You kind of juice it or milk it. The resistance of the packed material makes you want to press harder....And it was smudged green near the Spalding trademark, it was still wearing a small green bruise whereit had struck a pillar according to the history that came with it -- flaked paint from a bolted column in the left-field stands embedded in the surface of the ball.
"Bronx-raised Nick Shay, born Nick Costanza, is this book's solitary, and if he's slicker than some previous DeLillo isolates, he remains a man who believes in scouring focus, in self-correction, in discipline, thought and rigor. "I've always been a country of one," he tells us, the book's sole first-person voice. "There's a certain distance in my makeup." Nick's life is two-part, a before and after, and DeLillo saves the Before for the novel's stunning final section, covering Nick's late teens in the Bronx in 1951 and '52."
By Phil Hanrahan, Special to the Journal Sentinel
The character of Nick Shay is a complicated one. In Part I, he is difficult to understand and figure out. It seems to me that Nick Shay is sort of removed and on the outside of everything, especially from his family life. He discusses how he listens to his mother talk to his wife about his childhood, father, etc. and that he only half listens to these conversations. Evidently, his wife is getting this information from Nick's mother because he did not offer it to her himself. This seems sort of like he has a past that he does not want to talk about and is keeping things from his wife. The part when he is with his brother further exemplifies the distance he keeps between himself and his family. There appears to be something about his past that Nick refuses to accept--I don't know what--and maybe it is this that prevents him from truly connecting and opening up to his family.
I have found myself intrigued by Klara Sax's art project and her reasons for doing it. She seems to allude to the end of the Cold War as a part of the motivation behind the project. "Abandoned aircraft. Like the end of World War II. . . The one difference is we haven't actually fought a war this time. We have a number of postwar conditions without a war having been fought."
I think an item from the 1989-91 Our Times is useful to thinking about Klara's enormous project:
The nations of the Soviet bloc, Shevardnadze declared. . .had 'absolute freedom' to choose their own governments. The Warsaw pact was dead; the seeds for democracy were sown. . .The threat of Soviet invasion. . .had dissipated into thin air. The NATO powers pronounced the Cold War over.
The end of the Cold War marked an important turning point in history. Cold War ideology had permeated American thought for over 40 years and the end of it was significant. I think this is what Klara is responding to when she says:
Now that power is in shatters or tatters and now that these Soviet borders don't exist in the same way, I think we understand, we look back, we see ourselves more clearly, and them as well. Power meant something thirty, forty years ago. It was stable, it was focused, it was a tangible thing. It was greatness, danger, terror, all those things. And it held us together, the Soviets and us. Maybe it held the world together. . .It's gone, good riddance."
As we finish one unit and approach the next, we cease to forget old memories. Throughout DeLillo's novel, Andy Warhol's legacy continues. Warhol introduced Americans to new forms of art "by appropriating images and objects from everyday life by using impersonal techniques" (Banes 27). DeLillo recreates Warhol's avant-garde artistry through his character Klara Sax. Klara, who once created art out of "aerosol cans and sardine tins and shampoo caps and mattresses", is now dealing with B-52 long-range bombers. Like Warhol, her radical plans come from within. She is obsessed with her work and her finished project makes a statement about society.
Another similarity between Klara and Warhol is that they both had an entourage of people that care for them and their projects. They expose their coworkers to new experiences and hopes that they will see beauty in things that are normally unseen.
Finally, Banes description of Warhol and other avant-garde artists readily applies to Klara: On the home front the avant-garde operated as an oppositional culture, criticizing official stories about freedom. For while avant-garde artists thrived on - and could not have made their art without - the abundance and freedom that American culture offered, they were aware of the often unstated limits to that freedom. And they pressed against those limits with their art (qtd. in Banes 175).
The year is 1992 and Brian Glassic has Nick drive to an unknown area in order to check out his recent finding, "Condomology". In this chapter, DeLillo captures different personalities of all generations in the center of condom heaven.
During Nick's adolescent years condoms were worn to prevent pregnancy; "don't go in bareback" he remembers as he walks down the aisle. As AIDS became an epidemic and education on this disease began to spread - condoms appeared everywhere including television commercials and classroom education. Therefore in the 1990's, the safety and promotion of condom wearing is not unlikely to result in a mega-store or museum-like enterprise devoted solely to different types of protection.
As we learn more about Nick, his childhood and his friends in chapter 5, we learn more about the differences between the present and the past. Throughout this novel, DeLillo attempts to recapture life's greatest events, fears, and emotions. The novel draws together legendary baseball, the Bomb, J. Edgar Hoover, waste disposal, drugs, gangs, Vietnam, and even the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Like the Polo Grounds, people of all ages and different backgrounds gather together at "Condomology". Brian runs into a bank teller, a gray haired man sings down the aisle, and college students gather in masses. Brian and Nick discuss the evolution of the condom fad - the correlation of "scumbag" to condom and how times have changed as they browse condom lollipop trees.
The section ends with a true contrast between generation to generation as Brian talks about the condom he purchases for his son, "That's the new type that's odor free. I bought him the old cheap latex that binds the sex member and reduces the sensation and smells bad. Because I want him to pay a price for being sensible."
Throughout the novel, Nick Shay seems to be trying to escape the events of his past. He moved away from the Bronx, does not talk about his early years with his wife, and tries to disassociate himself from his family. I believe part of this need to forget, is the result of the unexplained disappearance of Nick's father. Throughout the novel, Nick is plagued by memories of his dad. In Part One we learn that Jimmy Costanza abandoned the family when Nick was eleven. While his mother and brother were able to accept the fact that Jimmy walked out, Nick believes he was murdered. On the night of his disappearance, Jimmy went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back. Nick thinks "they took him out near Orchard Beach, where the shoreline is crannied with remote inlets, and they dropped him into the lower world, his body suspended above the rockweed, in the soft organic murk."
Sometime between 1951 and 1952, Nick learns the truth behind the disappearance of Jimmy. One night at the pool room, Mike the Book introduced Nick to Mario Badalato, a former acquaintance of Jimmy and member of the mob. In a matter of moments, Badalato dispelled of the notion that Jimmy was murdered. He tells Nick, "nothing could have been done to your father without me knowing about it·.and even if I don't know beforehand·I would of heard." In Badalato's opinion, "Jimmy was not in a position to offend somebody so bad that they would go out of their way to do something."
Almost thirty years later, Nick could not accept the fact that Jimmy abandon his family. This in part, could be attributed to Nick's Italian(ness), "He (Jimmy) did the unthinkable Italian crime. He walked out on his family." A crime Italians "don't even have a name for." Rather then face this truth and accept the facts, Nick runs from his past, never to reveal one of many dark secrets concerning his background.
One of the entries from OUR TIMES, entitled "Messengers Trailing Orbs of Light," from 1992 disscusses a similar thematic approach of presentation as DeLillo's Underworld. From the brief outline of the play, Tony Kushner covers all aspects of culture and society. He combines an AIDS metaphor, with a troubled couple, numerous religions, and an executed angel. These diverse topics mirror DeLillo's in a variety of forms. The wife is addicted to valium (Marian used drugs); the husband has no sexual feelings for her (Nick is bored and unattracted to Marian). Also, Jews, WASPs, and numerous other religions are discussed throughout the novel. And lastly, DeLillo's ending with Sister Edgar as an angel and Kushner's climatic executed angel are both an interesting addition and interpertation to their specific narratives.
As the question goes, "What would DeLillo say about this play?"