I. A Too-Simple Story
I had always assumed that “the media” was a rhetorical hobbyhorse, like “the culture” or “postmodernism”: useful in a pub debate or an op-ed column, and otherwise too abstract to pin down. Then one Saturday last fall, I found myself on the corner of 49th Street and Rockefeller Plaza, in the borough of Manhattan. My wife and I had ventured in from Brooklyn to look for Christmas presents, and after an hour of well-intentioned consumerism, my stamina was flagging. I bought a cup of coffee a couple doors down from a Japanese bookstore and waited on the sidewalk for the missus to emerge. And suddenly, it seemed, I was in the thick of it. Above me loomed the corporate redoubts of Simon & Schuster, GE/NBC, and NewsCorp. At ground level, their effluvia filtered down like a fine spray. An American Idol carol, heavy on the bass, floated across the ice of the skating rink and the faces of the buildings. An LED display outside a news studio supercollided headlines like a Jenny Holzer installation—ESIDENT PUSHES IRAN SANCTIONS BABY SHOWS AVIAN FLU SIGNS AWARDS TO BE HOSTED BY . . . I felt on the verge of epiphany, or possibly migraine, when a shout distracted me.
“Look! It’s Earl!”
A matronly woman just descended from a double-decker bus was gesturing toward NBC’s souvenir store. I followed the line of her finger, expecting to spot a celebrity, or at least a human being. Instead I saw a poster for a TV show called “My Name Is Earl.” A one-dimensional actor with a two-dimensional moustache. One might have seen this ad in any store window or bus shelter in any small town. Nonetheless, the woman had her camera phone out, and as I watched, she aimed at the plate glass and pushed the button, effecting a simulacrum of a simulacrum of a . . . well, you get the point.
Philip Roth long ago lamented the way American life outraces the novelist’s imagination, but lately one feels an entirely different order of mismatch is at hand. In an age when phones double as cameras, and airplanes as missiles, the culture’s rate of change is an acceleration curve, the novel’s, at best, a true-aimed arrow. Gridded by lines of telecommunication and ginned up on global capital, the space between lived life and the possibilities of narrative representation expands geometrically.
One reputable school of thought, with roots somewhere across the Atlantic, would have us disregard this unmapped area as quite beside the point. For this school’s adherents, terms like “mismatch” promote a competition that doesn’t really exist. The proper concerns of the novel remain, in the critic James Wood’s distillation, “language and the representation of consciousness”—as they were for Chekhov a century ago.
Another school of thought (notably American, notably male) anguishes at the difficulty of capturing The Great, Sprawling Wreck of It All. In its vulgar form, the idea that fiction should “bring us news about the culture” can be blamed on Tom Wolfe, whose bumptious 1989 polemic “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast” promulgated a reportorial realism like . . . well, a lot like Tom Wolfe’s. But for several prominent younger writers, responding to “the culture” has been a more anxious undertaking. In David Foster Wallace’s “E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and Jonathan Franzen’s well-known Harper’s essay, we find updates on Roth: thirtysomething novelists confronting “despair about the American novel.” Wallace is unusually succinct on this point: “Today’s most engaged young fiction does seem like some kind of line’s end’s end.”
Of course, my Manichean caricature fails to take into account the tangle of tastes and interests that always mediate principles, and thus the nuances of Wood’s, Wallace’s, and Franzen’s respective positions. Each has acknowledged that, as Wood puts it, “Thanks to video and television and the Internet . . . we are far more self-conscious than at any time in history”—that the cultural situation sketched above is real. And each, in his own way, would like to believe that universal literature is still possible, however idiosyncratic his approach to creating it. Still, as Cynthia Ozick suggests in a more recent Harper’s piece, the critical essay, for too long the poor relation of literary fiction, has lately come to resemble its hype-man. Reflecting the heightened self-consciousness of postmodern culture and the proliferation of venues for point and counterpoint, American writers today feel an acute need not only to create literature, but to theorize it. They indulge this need repeatedly, and at great length. At its most intense, anxiety over the fate of reading, culture, and civilization as we know it has entrenched our best literary minds in a partisanship that recapitulates our broken politics: liberalism vs. conservatism. Ben Marcus and Heidi Julavits huddle in one camp, Dale Peck and B.R. Meyers in the other. In such an overcrowded and overdetermined rhetorical field, even Mr. Wood’s elegant corrections can (pace Ozick) land with all the subtlety of brickbats.
The appearance, in 1997, of Don DeLillo’s Underworld might have brought much-needed clarity to debates about the future of fiction . . . might, indeed, have harmonized what had come to seem antithetical. Here was a major novel that drew equally on the realist legacy—its ironies, historical depth, and strong point of view—and on the absurdism, historical holography, and fragmentation of the postwar fiction of social critique. Here was a novel that situated “the news about the culture” in a context deeper than anything dreamt of by Tom Wolfe. “A Bleak House of the digital age,” James Wood called it, from his pulpit at The New Republic.
Yet Wood intimated, in the first sentence he published about Underworld, that the book was “a failure.” And he would return to this verdict in subsequent reviews—of Zadie Smith, of Jeffrey Eugenides, of Jonathans Franzen and Lethem, of Colson Whitehead—like a chef who keeps touching a stove-burner to see if it will cook. Indeed, for a decade now, James Wood has been working to discredit Underworld—its ambitions and its execution. In his own ambition to free literature from the taint of the hysterical, the theoretical, and the journalistic, Wood has, I think, allowed himself to misread one of the few contemporary novels that might satisfy both his own hopes for the future of the novel and those of his Jacobin detractors. And in so doing, he has exemplified, however unintentionally, one of the truths Underworld uncovers about the way we live now: that every movement of the free individual threatens to become, instantaneously, a social fact.
Or does it not speak volumes about America circa now that our best critic keeps missing the boat on one of our best novels?
II. Half Against “Against”
In the early-middle phase of his distinguished career, Wood’s nuanced readings and supple prose sat uneasily next to a writerly inclination best described as prosecutorial. On canonical authors, he was very, very good. (The essays on Chekhov and Mann in The Broken Estate should be required reading for any novelist.) Surveying the contemporary scene, however, he had a tendency to yoke his acute brilliances to larger proscriptions—and to choke them off, if necessary. Reviews like “Thomas Pynchon and the Problem of Allegory” and “Julian Barnes and the Problem of Knowing Too Much” succeeded as essays only insofar as they departed from their stated agendas; where they conformed, they amounted to manifestoes by negative example.
Or perhaps this last sentence is too like one of Wood’s. Sometimes, as in “Toni Morrison’s False Magic,” a serendipitous alignment between the preoccupations of the essayist and his subject allowed a sustained wisdom. And Wood would occasionally champion a writer like Norman Rush or Monica Ali. Broadly speaking, though, contemporary fiction lured Wood away from his better angels. Each new novel seemed to suggest to him ideas about the state of the republic of letters before it suggested ideas about its own characters and ideas. And the state of the republic was, as we have seen, not good. A literary Man in the White Hat, Wood mounted up again and again to drive from the territory of letters a form only recently arrived there: the “big, triumphalist” contemporary American novel, the latest incarnation of what Northrop Frye called “the anatomy.”
By design, the anatomical novel is encyclopedic; by nature, Wood is homiletic, and when the two clashed, more noise than illumination resulted. Mason & Dixon may have been, as Wood claimed, an allegory, but it was, at the same time, a picaresque, a historical novel, a slapstick comedy, and a buddy movie. To isolate one of these tendencies, rather than to explore the modulations among them, was to misrepresent the experience of reading Pynchon. (Wood came closer to evoking that experience when he spoke of the “agitated density of the prison.”) The trouble with Wood’s essay on Underworld, then, would begin with and flow from its title: “Against Paranoia: The Case of Don DeLillo.” Having already indicted DeLillo as “a didactic writer who wants to be honored for not being one,” Wood set out to demonstrate once and for all “the incompatibility of the paranoid vision with great fiction.”
“Paranoid” is about as fair a descriptor of DeLillo as “allegory” is of Pynchon: shallow when deployed in isolation, it gains depth when viewed as part of a larger authorial temperament. A peculiarly historical unease animates all of DeLillo’s mature work, from the fearful symmetries of Libra to the aesthetic disquisitions of Mao II. Beamed through the surfaces of DeLillo’s flatter characters, this unease strikes an object—it becomes properly paranoid. And, as Wood points out, Underworld is full of such characters. The retired teacher Albert Bronzini reflects on the Challenger disaster and finds that “he could never completely dismiss the suspicions of the paranoid elite . . . that the whole thing had been staged on a ranch outside Las Vegas.” In the novel’s curious epilogue, a dead nun named Sister Edgar is somehow raptured up into cyberspace, wherein “she feels the grip of systems. . . . She senses the paranoia of the web, the net.” (We have earlier observed Sister Edgar donning rubber gloves to protect herself from infection by the community she serves: “the viral entities hidden within, submicroscopic parasites in their soviet socialist protein coats.”)
But Underworld is a novel, not an algorithm, and these small paranoias needn’t tally up to a single paranoid sum; for every retentive Sister Edgar, Underworld gives us an expulsive Lenny Bruce; against the politically engaged conceptual artist, Klara Sax, who sees history as “a matter of missing minutes on the tape,” the novel counterposes a protagonist, Nick Shay, who refuses to “accept this business of life as a fiction, or whatever Klara Sax had meant.” Wood, in pursuit of an explicit program, is too willing to snatch from characters’ mouths their intuitions that “everything is connected.” He wants to believe that “their bulk amounts to a pedagogical statement,” that “their differences are burned away by the scandal of their sameness.” But in his single-mindedness, the essayist starts to sound a bit paranoid himself. (Even in the Kierkegaardian sense of the word, “scandal” is a bit much.)
That is, Wood sees paranoia everywhere he looks. He finds it where it exists, in the phrase “soviet socialist protein coats,” and complains,
This is not how a nun would express herself, even a cranky nun. It is how DeLillo expresses himself. Which is not to say that DeLillo believes that the Bronx is, or ever was, full of KGB agents; only that DeLillo’s verbal investment in this idea exceeds its worth and thus appears to credit it.
He refuses to credit that the author might wish to ironize his characters, wish to express their thoughts in his own subjective and hyperbolic language; or that his characters might not experience their own thoughts in language at all—that free indirect style may be just another (albeit illuminating) literary effect. (And of course, in the late 1950s, reactionaries like Sister Edgar and her doppelganger J. Edgar Hoover believed that all of New York was, as they say, crawling with Commies).
Wood also sees paranoia where it is not—in the reflections of waste management consultant Brian Glassic, for example. Here is DeLillo following Brian’s daydreams as he overlooks a landfill:
He saw himself for the first time as a member of an esoteric order, they were adepts and seers, crafting the future, the city planners, the waste managers, the compost technicians, the landscapers who would build hanging gardens here, make a park one day out of every kind of used and eroded object of desire.
And here is Wood:
The paranoid character is necessarily pompous. . . . One notices that Brian/DeLillo assumes that garbage only comprises “object[s] of desire”; whereas garbage actually contains objects of indifference, convenience, and hatred.
Are not “indifference, convenience, and hatred” what we feel once the objects of our desire have been, in DeLillo’s terms, “used and eroded”? Eliding these participles, even the sharpest close reader will misrepresent the sense of the passage he’s quoting, and will miss (as we shall see) an explicit concern of the book: the tension between desire and time.
In short, paranoia leads Wood astray. In his third paragraph, Wood characterizes “the paranoid state in which the bomb put us all” as “one of a few themes” in Underworld; two pages later, it has become the “central theme.” But paranoia is Wood’s central theme; for DeLillo, it is merely one of many subjects. In its long trajectory, Underworld explores the way the human mess of longing and loss exceeds the narrow grasp of the paranoiac. And we find that human mess not only in the margins patrolled by Wood but throbbing, inchoate, inside our protagonist—to whom DeLillo has granted a deep (and deeply reticent) interiority. Using DeLillo as a quirt with which to discipline Colson Whitehead, Wood would suggest that “there are no human beings in [Underworld], no single individual who absolutely matters and whose consciousness matters absolutely to himself.” In fact, the form of Underworld insists repeatedly that its main character, Nick Shay, is an individual who matters. In Nick, as in White Noise’s Jack Gladney or Libra’s Lee Harvey Oswald, postmodern unease broadens into an existential dislocation that suffuses the narrative like an Airborne Toxic Event. To have really lived during the cold war, DeLillo believes, is to have felt this dislocation. The paranoiac’s attempts to explain it, to pin it to a single cause, falsify history. Which is why the novelist chooses, instead, to evoke it.
III. Held Up Without a Gun
I am not saying that if one writes about many paranoid people one becomes oneself paranoid, only that a novel speaks its themes not only in what it says explicitly but in what it accumulates gently. A theme is not only spoken but consolidated, and this consolidation betokens a paranoid vision. The novel comes to seem complicit with the paranoia it describes. That is to say, the form of Underworld is paranoid. . . . The novel does indeed read like “ten thousand wisps of disinformation.” (“Against Paranoia: The Case Against Don DeLillo”)
A synopsis of Underworld is as difficult to pull off as a synopsis of Bleak House or Minima Moralia or Gravity’s Rainbow. Key subplots include the sentimental education of Klara Sax; the search for the baseball Bobby Thomson knocked out of the Polo Grounds in 1954, winning the American League pennant for the Giants; and the efforts of two nuns to minister to a crumbling community in the Bronx. The cast of characters runs into the dozens (only a handful of them fully inhabited). The setting shifts from New York circa 1954 to Kazakhstan circa 1992 and back again. Nor do all these threads connect in any ultimate way, as they might in a gumshoe novel where the detective’s various investigations turn out to be part of the same crime. For a reader invested in the good government of the novel, Underworld’s plot may seem, prima facie, “maddeningly centripetal.” (By also calling the novel “distractingly centrifugal,” Wood licenses himself to tax the novel with being at once too pointed and not pointed enough, but at the expense of pursuing either impression in depth.)
Yet it is relatively easy to sketch the form of the novel, and therefore intriguing that the perceptive Mr. Wood either misapprehends or mischaracterizes it: “Its big, broken structure moves back and forward through all the decades since 1951 . . . and the book intends to be a collection of lavish fragments, set down in a maze.” In fact, the novel’s structure is elegantly linear: if not quite a “single narrative sweep,” it is far from a “thousand wisps of disinformation.” Underworld starts in 1954 and ends in the 1990s; in between, it marches steadily backward through the intervening decades (with brief dips into 1954 to trace the path of the baseball). DeLillo is too fine a craftsman to force this structure into rigidity: certain of the sections hew to the first person point-of-view of Nick Shay, in a single year; others move with subjective omniscience among other characters over a set of years. (And yes, a dedicated anatomist, DeLillo has his sociological longeurs.) Nonetheless, the backward tug of the narrative is always palpable, and as in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, suspense arises from questions of what happened, rather than those of what will happen. These questions center on Nick. Why has his wife been unfaithful to him? Why does he refuse to tell her about his past? What has hammered him into the hardened shape in which we first find him?
Structurally, then, the protagonist and his repressed past are the arch that hold everything else aloft. That Nick, more like Fitzgerald’s Nick Caraway than Hemingway’s Nick Adams, resists seeing himself as the center of his own story speaks eloquently to his condition. Wood is correct that Nick “exists, grayly,” but not that, “fictionally speaking, he is a stranger promoted above his station”; Nick’s claim to our interest is precisely that he is a stranger to himself. “I was barely there,” he tells us, early on. Like his willed grayness, his worldview offsets the novel’s vivid, Dostoevskian obsessives: he believes in order and reason—in living “responsibly in the real.” “I didn’t accept this business of life as a fiction,” he declares. “History was not a matter of missing minutes on the tape. I did not stand helpless before it.” And yet we sense in his dip into the past tense here that Nick’s “responsibility” has yielded no firmer grasp of the meaning of being than have the conspiracy theories of Bronzini or the phobias of Sister Edgar. His life keeps erupting into disorder. When we first meet Nick, impulses he doesn’t understand have driven him to revisit an old lover, and as we move backward in time we will see him cheating on his wife, spending $35,000 on the Bobby Thomson baseball, cuckolding Bronzini, and eventually (in his adolescence) committing homicide. His characteristic locution as an adult is, “I told myself,” and it emerges that his life has become a sort of fiction, a story about self-control.
Even as it ripples outward into a broader consideration of the cold war era, Underworld’s long, slow dive into the past traces Nick’s attempt to understand himself. His realization that he is, in the end, as much acted upon as acting, will release him from his grayness and into clarity: “I’ll tell you what I long for, for the days of disarray, when I didn’t give a damn or a fuck or a farthing.” And this candor leads to change, and reconciliation. In the early pages of the novel, we see him taking solitary drives in the desert and running wired through empty streets alone:
I ran along the drainage canal with Sufi voices tracking through my head and sometimes I saw a plane taking off, all light and climb and calculus, and I though of my son Jeffrey when he was younger—the gift he thought he possessed to take an aircraft out of the sky, the mastery of space and matter, a power and control that rose damnably from the curse of unbelonging.
When we leave him, he is inhabiting these spaces, and the spaces of his past, with his wife, Marian. “All the hints and intimations, all the things she spied in me at the beginning of our time together—come to some completion now,” he says. “We walk along the drainage canal past tree trunks limed white—white against the sun.” Still, DeLillo resists consolidation. A mute pain illuminates Nick’s days, like the glimmer of a distant satellite. “This is what I long for,” he tells us, “the breach of peace, the days of disarray when I walked real streets and did things slap-bang and felt angry and ready all the time, a danger to others and a distant mystery to myself.” Which is another way of saying that Nick Shay’s consciousness matters to him, absolutely.
IV. Negative Capability
“I’m completely willing to let language press meaning upon me,” DeLillo once told the Paris Review. Despite his hedged admiration for Underworld’s “often distinguished prose,” Wood has tended to resist the more poetic side of DeLillo’s gift, subjecting sentences that incline toward the visionary to a relentlessly literal exegesis. In his weaker novels, like the half-baked Cosmopolis, DeLillo has obliged Wood with easy targets. But one should note the way that Underworld’s imprecisions and consonant profundities—”soviet socialist protein coats,” “light and climb and calculus,” “come to some completion”—confound didacticism, rather than enforce it. These are the phrasings of a novelist concerned with evoking, rather than explaining.
It bears saying that an enormous gulf of sensibility divides DeLillo and Wood. As a student of Chekhov, Wood prefers his irony finely calibrated, and DeLillo can never quite manage the local warmth of a James, a Tostoy, or a Bellow. He is too possessed by his own mettle. At his best, as in his review of DeLillo’s recent Falling Man, Wood has acknowledged, without excusing, DeLillo’s pursuit of an aesthetic project quite different from Wood’s own. But at his least generous, Wood has seemed to object to DeLillo’s very temperament, and has chosen to ignore DeLillo’s own ironies. He has, most significantly, failed to see that the form of Underworld is, among other things, a marvel of dialogics. In allowing its characters to talk at cross-purposes, the novel resists the pedagogy of the paranoiac, and allows DeLillo’s themes to ripen into questions: What is history? Who makes it? What are we so afraid of?
DeLillo allows a dozen different characters to answer, and refuses to adjudicate among them. (As a pedagogical statement, Underworld makes no sense. This explains some of Wood’s confusion of theme and subject, and his continued inability to parse Underworld’s putatively facile connections (“the atom bomb is connected in some way to baseball and to JFK, et cetera,” he wrote in 2005).) This is not to say, however, that Underworld participates in the postmodern abdication of point-of-view, or settles into journalistic stenography. Rather, DeLillo’s characteristically rhythmic prose, by turns diamond-clear and misty, knits Nick Shay’s story to the stories that surround it as surely as Faulkner’s cadences hold together Light in August. In a way, the central theme of this novel is its texture: the feel and taste and touch of postwar American life in its tensed glory. Taking DeLillo’s paranoiacs at their word, Wood reads “connectedness” as “conspiracy”; but at the broader level of the novel’s point-of-view, DeLillo’s sense of connection is, like Forster’s, far more inclusive. He flirts with the didacticism he’s accused of when, during the novel’s opening baseball game, he eavesdrops on announcer Russ Hodges imagining “another kind of history.”
He thinks they will carry something out of here that joins them all in a rare way, that binds them to memory with protective power. People are climbing lampposts in Amsterdam Avenue, tooting car horns in Little Italy. Isn’t it possible that this mid-century moment enters the skin more lastingly than the vast shaping strategies of eminent leaders, generals steely in their sunglasses—the mapped visions that pierce our dreams? Russ wants to believe a thing like this keeps us safe in some undetermined way.
Pressing his case against DeLillo, Wood would no doubt point to the whiff of the occult in that first sentence. But notice the way the narrator picks up and discards both the general form of an idea (“joins them all in a rare way”) and the superstitious one (“binds them . . . with protective power”), settling for an evocation of the tactile (“enters the skin”). Notice the way that life—people climbing lampposts, tooting car horns—intrudes on argument. The paragraph will go on to inhabit diplomatic registers, paranoiac registers, sentimental registers (“this old safe game of ours”), but it will deposit us again, and for good, in the disenchanted enchantment of the real: “And fans at the Polo Grounds today will be able to tell their grandchildren—they’ll be the gassy old men leaning into the next century and trying to convince anyone willing to listen, pressing in with medicine breath, that they were here when it happened.” DeLillo is more than willing to imagine the visionary as windbag. Which doesn’t mean that Russ Hodges’s dream of connection isn’t true; only that DeLillo presents it, finally, as contingent.
If this author has sometimes hectored us in his earlier books, in Underworld he means to clear space for ironies perpendicular to the novel’s weave: a weft of mid-century moments. However incompletely, DeLillo imagines a novelistic form that will hold “the mapped visions” of paranoia in perspective. He’s aiming for something larger, a realism lasting and undetermined: a ground-level history to counter the advertent and inadvertent falsifications that buffet us in the age of the image. This is the ambition Wood characterizes as “distractingly centrifugal.” But DeLillo’s urge to keep his material from collapsing into a featureless critical mass is far from a distraction. It is exactly the point.
V. Why Anyone Should Care
Largely overlooked in the thickets of literary opinion alluded to in section I. of this essay is the middle term of David Foster Wallace’s “E. Unibus Pluram” argument: that contemporary mass culture not only defies fiction to represent it as content, but has coopted its formal vocabulary.
In the first few decades of America’s superpowerdom, a vanguard of novelists steeped in the realist tradition sought to respond to the cultural scene by advancing beyond the patrimony of mimesis. They relaxed the discriminating irony of Flaubert into the encompassing absurdism of Donald Barthelme; morphed the historical engagement of Tolstoy into the “effective history” of E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime; and bent the depth psychology of Mrs. Dalloway to the schizophrenic purposes of Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter.” Absurdism, pastiche, and fragmentation were the realisms of their day. And each, like Flaubert’s Olympian detachment, self-consciously constituted a “Critique de La Vie Quotidienne” (to borrow a title from Barthelme).
Yet it is now difficult to recover how radical “black comedy” and its fellow travelers once seemed. (Or how radical were the formal experiments of Woolf and Tolstoy and Flaubert before them.) For, as Wallace observes, “TV has coopted the distinctive forms of the same cynical, irreverent, ironic, absurdist post-WWII literature” that once sought to address it. Postmodern mass culture has long since made room for absurdism, fragmentation, and historical pastiche in its pantheon of signs. (Indeed, one way of grasping the present moment historically is to see it as “decadent”; as in Weimar Germany, the aesthetic advances of previous generations proliferate wildly, stripped of their ethical necessity.)
Moreover, the lag-time between creation and cooption seems to be shortening. Almost two decades passed between the historical holography of Ragtime and the Pepsi commercial in which the corpse of Fred Astaire dances with Paula Abdul. The gap between The Ice Storm’s ironized nostalgia and that of That ’70s Show was considerably narrower. Now irony defangs itself in its indiscriminacy. Schizophrenic fragmentation, a novelist’s response to the dislocations of technologized life, has become ubiquitous. As seemingly every other novel in the creative writing programs flourishes multiple narrators, narration by robot, second-persons copulating with first-persons to produce third-person plurals, there is nothing for the reader to be awakened to. It is a simple fact of consciousness that our daily existence is studded with YouTube clips and sports recaps. But the ethical content of metafiction, its ability to raise questions of how we should be in the world, has withered away. A fragmented film such as Babel gives the impression of “edginess,” but in its form, tells us nothing we didn’t know already.
To summarize: our avant-garde strategies (and others, like the “starved aestheticism of the sentence” or the blurring of fiction and nonfiction) have ceased to signify a critical position toward the culture. Or rather, they do nothing but signify it, like a T-shirt that says Fuck Late Capitalism—sure to get approving glances in an M.F.A. workshop, but unlikely to open up an imaginative space for readers. Think of the anecdote that opened this essay: the mainstream has itself become avant-garde. A great novelist may, as Walter Benjamin says of Proust, found an order or dissolve one. But one can imagine a future in which the formal innovations of even the most gifted novelist will be used to sell dryer sheets before the first .pdfs of the novel have even hit the web. Thus, on the one hand, Jonathan Franzen’s “despair.” Thus, on the other, James Wood’s insistence that out-culturing the culture is a goal both impossible and nonsensical for the novel.
Oddly, then, the legacy of the 19th-century avant-garde—realism—begins to suggest an aesthetic way forward for both Young Turks and the stewards of tradition. From any perspective, discriminating irony, the holding of things in point-of-view, and a reverence for history seem to represent a radical departure from the current cultural climate. This is not to suggest that the novelist should retreat to an aesthetically rear-guard position, but rather that, at this late date, it may be possible to synthesize the preoccupations of critics who measure a novel by how it comports with tradition and of young Turks who look for fiction to bring something new in the world. A synthetic Great American Novel reaches back into tradition and reshapes it to imagine consciousness under the present conditions. My point here has been that Underworld is such a novel.
Which makes it frustrating to see Wood, our great champion of “language and the representation of consciousness,” dismiss the book so resoundingly. And so repeatedly: like tendrils of untrained ivy, briefs against Underworld sprout here and there in Wood’s essays on “hysterical realism” and “shallowness” and the “portable smartness” in vogue among certain young novelists. One feels he has the ambition of undoing, or at least countervailing, DeLillo’s influence among a younger generation of novelists—and the critic can have no nobler ambition than influence. DeLillo has already been an acknowledged influence on two Anglo-American novels of the last decade that will, like Underworld, still be read fifty years from now: The Corrections and Infinite Jest. (As Wood has influenced two authors who have at least a fighting chance: Zadie Smith and Claire Messud). And so Wood must persist in dissenting from a theory of the novel he identifies with DeLillo: “the effort to pin down an entire writhing culture.”
But something about these asides, perhaps their sheer profusion, suggests that Wood isn’t quite sure of himself where Underworld is concerned, that he keeps going back to try to reassure himself that his original reading of the novel didn’t miss something. And again, when one compares Wood’s grievances—against “information” and against hysterical implausibility—to Underworld’s achievements, one starts to wonder. “Portable smartness” is, I agree, an annoying hallmark of contemporary fiction, but it’s not an impression I carry away from DeLillo’s best novels. Even at his most portentous, DeLillo would rather grope for understanding than flourish erudition. “Longing on a large scale is what makes history,” he tells us, for example. As a thesis on the philosophy of history, this has problems Wood would be all too happy to point out. But in at least one important respect, it rings true: It is the huge scale of DeLillo’s longing that elevates Underworld above mere knowing and that will, with or without Wood’s further consideration, secure its posterity.
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