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"Refuse Heaped Many Stories High": DeLillo, Dirt, and Disorder

From: MFS Modern Fiction Studies
Volume 45, Number 4, Winter 1999
pp. 987-1006 | 10.1353/mfs.1999.0072

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Modern Fiction Studies 45.4 (1999) 987-1006

Don DeLillo's Underworld explores boundaries, particularly the thin dividing line between what is considered waste product and what is not. Any discussion about what constitutes dirt and abjection leads to questions about concepts of "the body" and consequently gender-specific identity. The narrative's relentless revelation of borders as fluctuating, rather than fixed, demonstrates the problems, not only of disposing of waste, but of identifying waste in the first place. Although this difficulty affects all identities, it is acutely felt by the classic narrative hero, who embodies the patriarchal masculine ideal of cultural authority. Such authority encompasses an inherent potency (even omnipotence), a taste for adventure, bravery, and resourcefulness. Nick Shay, DeLillo's main protagonist, is a professional waste handler and serves as a jarring reminder that the hero contemporary society yearns for does not exist.

As the ideal "male body," the "Hero" should consist of both perfect form and morality, with a certain clean wholeness that precisely differentiates him from the threat of the unclean world. To help us enjoy the book, he should act within clear parameters. These parameters answer to our socially conditioned urge to create a consummate construction, easily identified by its firm boundaries, that we can believe in. Our hero should always be safely on our side of abjection's border, to appease our "need to structure and classify, to build a system against the terror in our souls" (DeLillo, Names 81). The terror is that the undifferentiated mass of waste we dispose of (in a bid to be what it is not, identifying ourselves by our very lack of it) will force its way back into our life, insisting on revealing itself as part of us. Such unwanted baggage sullies our ability to conform to an acceptable prototype, where conforming requires that we display the correct signs, which are, according to Andrew Tolson, "an aura of competence, a way of talking and behaving, [. . .] immediately recognised [. . . and] enshrined in social rituals and customs" (21). Failure to comply results in an undeserving and inauthentic construction, with the potential to create disorder and to lead us into crisis. However, as N.H. Reeve and Richard Kerridge remind us, our yearning for authenticity can never be fulfilled (318). Narrating this constant human search for a tangible self, Underworld emphasizes the dichotomy between the modernist faith in origins and logical cognition and the postmodernist lack of cerebral justification, chronology, and causality -- lack of respect for the "actual pulsing thing" (DeLillo, Underworld 805).

Nick is born and raised amidst the brutality of the Bronx, the son of a poor Italian immigrant. His caustic wit fuses authorial and narrative voices, while his aggressive tendencies confirm that "male behaviour is strongly influenced by the gender role messages men receive from their social environments" (Harris 19). He displays a brute physicality reminiscent of the larger-than-life Hollywood action films of the 1980s, films "that take the male hero to historically unparalleled levels of omnipotence" (Segal 173). Stallone as Rambo in First Blood and Schwarzenegger in The Terminator offer us male heroes who are darkly attractive yet muscle-bound and monosyllabic, physically developed yet emotionally inept. As Nick reminds us when contemplating hitting Brian, "It's which body crushes the other" (797). However, although Nick is dark, handsome, and uses his admirable physique to heave crates of 7-Up, he contradicts the stereotype by using his time in prison to study, ensuring himself a career with prospects and a bronze tower existence upon release.

The movie heroes display their enviable forms for all to gaze upon, yet Nick, rather than reveal the consummate hero's body, remains elusive and shadowy, never far from the borderlands. His appearance and, indeed, his motivation are only revealed in cryptic hints, inferences, and details mediated through third parties. When he meets Klara again after many years she lets us know how fit he looks by insisting that he must "exercise" (72). He confirms that he does indeed run and is very particular about what he eats and drinks. The perfect body is an image we are afraid to let go of; its beauty, and the control and rigor...


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