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World Trade Centers and World-Wide-Webs: From Underworld to Over-Soul in Don DeLillo
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World Trade Centers and World-Wide-Webs:
From Underworld to Over-Soul in Don DeLillo
Richard Hardack, Independent Scholar (bio)

"I think of it as one, not two. Even though there are clearly two towers. It's a single entity, isn't it?"

Klara Sax, Underworld

Binary Codes

What we might in retrospect consider the non-dialectical twinning in Don DeLillo's Mao II, the double lls, the linguistic Twin Towers that also form the backbone of DeLillo's name, return as uncanny doubles on the front and back covers of Underworld. That novel takes place at what has been construed as a last moment of an old world, before the September 11 attacks, when the internet still offered hope of a non-commercialized transcendence of national, racial and gender divisions. For DeLillo, the world-wide-web, a new circular Over-Soul and symbol of spiritual globalization, might mend the divisions, the twinning, of Mao II, Coke Two, the Twin Towers, East and West, the Cold War—the binaries of the world above ground. In Mao II DeLillo used the Roman (Western, non-Arabic) numeral II to construct the purported difference between East and West. DeLillo uses the same parallel lines to frame the towers and frontispiece of his next novel. But Underworld rewrites the xenophobic politics of Mao II, situating spiritual rebirth in the East, and in a collective identity—most emblematized by the world-wide-web—that DeLillo had previously treated with ambivalence. Perhaps what is most surprising is that, [End Page 151]


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Underworld front cover photograph by André Kertész.

Reprinted by permission © André Kertész/Higher Pictures.

[End Page 152]

through this sequencing of towers and webs, ones and zeros, Underworld fulfills an almost formalized teleology of longing and betrayal that was also specifically manifested in Emerson's and Melville's transcendentalism. The "virtual world" DeLillo imagines at the end of his novel, and gestures toward throughout, realizes a larger trajectory of American literature, an immersion into the "All" of the Real, except that DeLillo's "Real" is devoid of materiality and dimension.

DeLillo plays with the idea that the East-West Cold War initiated a world historical dialectic with a millennial teleology that would end history. Phillip Wegner, for example, considers Underworld a neo-realist historical novel that maps "the increasing obsolescence during the later stages of the Cold War period of the older nation-states and systems of nation-states and the emergence of a new global social and spatial formation" (54). What is striking about this periodization is that De-Lillo narrativizes and validates Western paranoia and polarization but then introduces a fantasy of millenarian transcendence that, even if sometimes ironicized, is also substantiated. We move in "parallel" narrative time from a Cold War era of division that includes dual towers, atomic weapons, paranoia, and waste, to one of globalization(s), which is marked by a promise of union and salvation in an "Eastern" web. That overarching split between division and unity permeates the novel, since the impulse to connect traverses both periods and in fact connects them, most obviously in the figures of Edgar. DeLillo is not just periodizing the Cold War, but the "second tower" that is the projected/rejected surplus of the West. As DeLillo was no doubt aware, the World Trade Center was comprised of "East" and "West" Towers, which were identical lines. But the twin towers are also the World Trade "Center," a designation that already belies its duality. It is as if DeLillo were walking a tightrope in the steps of Phillipe Petit, bridging the towers as the text bridges East and West. These towers, which DeLillo's characters associate with weaponry, were to be displaced by the peace of an "Eastern" world-wide-web. But a different East intervened, and the towers were supplanted not by the web of peace, but another era of "horizontal" conflict. What was supposed to be a millennial end to the Cold War was not a transformative but recursive event, signaling the displacement of one Eastern antagonist by another.

The uncanny effect is that DeLillo, who was perhaps America's preeminent novelist of terror...