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UnderWords: Perspectives on Don DeLillo's Underworld (review)

From: symploke
Volume 13, Numbers 1-2, 2005
pp. 370-371 | 10.1353/sym.2006.0029

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symploke 13.1/2 (2006) 370-371

Joseph Dewey, Steven G. Kellman, and Irving Malin, eds. UnderWords: Perspectives on Don DeLillo's Underworld. Newark and London: U of Delaware P and Associated University Presses, 2002. 219 pp

This volume offers thirteen ways of looking at Underworld, revealing some of those layers of meaning that lie "under words," as Joseph Dewey says in his introduction (9). Twelve of these essays succeed admirably, offering thoughtful assessments in succinct, clear prose—a rarity in academic writing. Indeed, a good number of these essays employ a style sufficiently lucid as to be accessible to most undergraduate students. Showing us how Poe, Pynchon, Updike, Fitzgerald, Eliot, Lenny Bruce, and others inform DeLillo's novel, these writers suggest new ways of re-reading Underworld and "open further speculation" on the work, just as Dewey hopes they might (15).

In their keen attention to the nuances of DeLillo's language, the first three essays are the most traditional—even formalist—of the collection. Close-reading the "stubborn dichotomy" of J. Edgar Hoover and Sister Edgar, Dewey and Irving Malin find resolution in the "third Edgar": Edgar Allan Poe (20). They find it not through DeLillo's reworking of Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" in the "Black-and-White Ball" scenes, but in how "The Raven" (which recurs in Underworld) suggests that corruption (Hoover) and transcendence (Sister Edgar) are "complimentary processes, parts of the same vast enterprise" (25). Focusing on the oscillations in the novel's narrative voice, David Yetter demonstrates how DeLillo manipulates point of view to convey "the whispers of the individual while simultaneously absorbing the clamor of the crowd" (36). Robert McMinn suggests that Underworld frequently invites us to make connections, not only so that we may catalogue its many motifs, but because connections lead to the book's concluding word. After discussing Nick's atonement, McMinn observes, "if we can share information, if we can be connected, we can be at peace." This, he says, "is why DeLillo finishes his longest novel . . . with a one-syllable note of transcendence: Peace" (48-49).

After three essays that synthesize, UnderWords offers a wide-ranging discussion that resists easy summary, perhaps in deliberate counterpoint to the relatively tidier conclusions of the preceding analyses. Among its many points, David Cowart's essay suggests that through Nick Shay, DeLillo's language illustrates how to craft a self-awareness that pushes "against social, biological, and historical determinism," allowing Nick to exercise "something like free will" (64). Placed after Cowart's piece, Steven G. Kellman's chapter amplifies its predecessor's emphasis on the power of words and offers a seamless transition into the following two analyses of Pynchon. Kellman suggests that DeLillo's writing style keeps the novel's conspiracies open-ended, never a closed system. And, as Timothy L. Parrish demonstrates in his discussion of Gravity's Rainbow and Underworld, a key difference between Pynchon and DeLillo is that DeLillo's characters have a qualified faith in language as a potential means of resistance, but Pynchon's do not. Using Mason & Dixon as a central point of comparison, Carol Ostrowski considers the figure of the Jesuit in both novels: Pynchon's playfully hyperbolic representations of Jesuits parody anti-Jesuit paranoia, while DeLillo's more realistically rendered Jesuits warn of "the dangers of undisciplined paranoia." Both novelists, Ostrowski points out, show us that "American literary paranoia has a pedigree that extends much further into the past than World War Two" (102).

Ostrowski's study of Catholic themes provides a deft segue to a trio of essays united by faith or the need for faith. Re-reading Underworld against John Updike's essay on Ted Williams' last game ("Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu"), Donald J. Greiner argues that both DeLillo and Updike share a faith in the power of stories to bind a culture together and to provide it with a form of spiritual renewal. In contrast, Joanne Gass focuses on a loss of faith. Though her essay would be strengthened by productively problematizing its use of R.W.B. Lewis's The American Adam, it makes compelling connections between two disillusioned Nicks: Fitzgerald's Nick Carraway and...

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