Merging Myth and History

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

At first glance, Don DeLillo seems like a character in one of his own books. Slender and watchful, the 60-year-old novelist hangs around the edges of his publisher's Rockefeller Center offices, silent as an afterthought.

Although he is dressed casually in black jeans, a denim shirt and a black tweed jacket, there is a formal air about him, and he speaks with a certain economy of language, pausing often to think about exactly what he wants to say.

Occasionally, he slips on a pair of black-framed glasses, but more often, he emphasizes his point with a precise gesture, a raised hand or eyebrow or a penetrating look.

DeLillo has been a major figure on the landscape of American fiction since the publication of his first novel, "Americana," in 1971. In that book and others, he has tracked the obsessions of postwar America, from terrorism and the John F. Kennedy assassination to college football, rock music and celebrity.

Working in a style that is deliberately elliptical--"the way I connect my writing to the world around me," he explains, "is through a kind of fragmentation, not really of sentences but somehow of feeling, of sensibility, a kind of obliqueness"--he explores the interstices between moments, the way image can at times overwhelm reality and echoes of history linger in the most isolated lives.

An exceedingly private man, DeLillo has long avoided interviews. But with publication this month of his 11th novel, "Underworld," he has decided to develop what he calls "a spirit of cooperation," motivated perhaps by a big advance from his publisher, Scribner.

"Underworld" is an 827-page epic that aspires to be nothing less than a psychic history of the Cold War era. Beginning with an extraordinary prologue that recasts the New York Giants-Brooklyn Dodgers playoff game of Oct. 3, 1951--the day Bobby Thomson hit his legendary home run--the book moves forward to the 1990s only to return slowly to the past.

In a recent New York Times Magazine essay, DeLillo wrote that he was inspired by something he noticed while looking up an account of the baseball game.

"Front page of the New York Times. Oct. 4, 1951. A pair of mated headlines," he writes. "Giants capture pennant"--this was the dramatic substance of the first headline. . . . "Soviets explode atomic bomb"--this was the ominous threat of the second."

It's classic DeLillo, the odd juxtaposition merging myth and history, and it allows him to create a book that encompasses both.

Bringing together an array of fictional characters and historic personalities, "Underworld" addresses baseball, nuclear weapons, waste management and videotape, as well as, for the first time, DeLillo's experience of growing up in the Bronx.

Question: In many ways, "Underworld" is your most personal novel, with the deepest connection to the circumstances of your own life. Why did you stay away from your personal history for so long, and why have you decided to touch on it now?

Answer: When I was writing short stories, as a 17-, 18-, 19-year-old, I wrote stories largely set in what is sometimes called the Italian Bronx, where I grew up. And they weren't very good. But it was way too soon for me to be able to write intelligently about such immediate experience, and over the next few years, my life changed in such a way that I never even thought about it--the last thing I wanted to do was write a novel about growing up in the Bronx. It's probably not a coincidence that my first novel is called "Americana."

In a curious way, I repeated the experience of my immigrant parents. They came to this country to realize opportunities they didn't have, and at some point I wanted to explore the wider culture, which meant, for the time being, forgetting about those narrow streets and that sort of diminishing experience, diminishing in time.

It wasn't for many years that I began to have a sense that I could write in a penetrating fashion about those years. It wasn't until I got to "Libra"--the first chapter of "Libra," specifically, in which Lee Oswald spends a year in the Bronx, which, of course, he did. This was my entree into his life and his consciousness, the fact that I lived six or seven blocks from where he lived for one year.

Q: "Libra" and "Underworld" have many elements in common, not least the way they rely on the interplay between fiction and history to bring their stories to life. In these books, it's as if there's a secret history operating in the cracks of official history.

A: That's part of the reason I call the book "Underworld," because I wanted to give a sense of underground history. It really starts in the prologue, with the ballgame. I began to feel, seeing those two headlines in the New York Times of Oct. 4, 1951, as if I were an archeologist who'd found two matching pieces of pottery in the dirt in Mesopotamia. I wondered what the symmetry might conceivably mean, and how important the ballgame was in relation to the Soviet atomic test.

Which is the true history? Is it the rare moment in which a sporting event leaves the back page and moves to the front page? Or are such events more significant than we believe? Are such events the things that enter our dreams and our consciousness and stay with us much more penetratingly than decisions by generals, presidents and prime ministers?

Not that I can find an answer to the question. But this was a motivating factor, and I began to think that it is history, too. Somewhere, toward the end of the prologue, the announcer Russ Hodges meditates on the subject. This is the people's history, this is the "underhistory."

And this is what we mean by underworld in an important sense. This is what people are going to remember when they get old and sick. They're not going to remember that men walked on the moon. They're going to remember where they were when Bobby Thomson hit the home run.

Q: In "Underworld," such moments occur within a broad social context, in which the personal unfolds against a larger world. Yet many novelists today shy away from this perspective, preferring to focus on the small, the intimate. Is there a conscious effort on your part to expand these terms?

A: When I was writing "Libra," I felt a sense of excitement that rose directly from the historical circumstance that informed the book. The power of history is enormous, and there's a way in which the past, being as deep as it is, brings out something in a writer that the immediate present may not be able to summon.

In the case of this book, and the fact that there are personal elements in it, I think it draws out a kind of generosity and a sense of heart that the immediate present may not have been able to bring out of me. So, I think it's the excitement and the enormous lure of history that drives me to write such a book.

Q: In some way, that "lure of history" motivates much of your writing. Even your smaller novels--"Mao II," for instance--operate within a particular historical moment.

A: "Mao II" is, in part, about the power of the image. And it wasn't until I was well into it that I began to think about my first novel, "Americana," which, if I had to summarize, I would say is about the power of the image, as well. I don't think I would have said that at the time. I was just writing day to day. I was struggling. I was improvising. But there's a curious connection between the two books, maybe centered on the fact that the novelist in "Mao II" agrees to have his picture taken, for mysterious reasons.

Of course, such documents are an important part of "Underworld." There are a dozen documents in this book--movies and TV shows and photographs and videos and rock 'n' roll--simply because this is the way we know much of what we know in this culture at this time. I suppose Dos Passos did it with the "Newsreels" in the "USA" trilogy, and I thought it gave me another dimension.

So, instead of writing directly about a Chicago street gang, I simply describe a painting someone has made of a member of the Chicago street gang as a kind of surrogate reality.

Q: What about the notion that this surrogate reality has supplanted true reality, that we're somehow being overwhelmed? This comes up throughout "Underworld," and it's also a theme in your other work.

A: It's as though--I think Susan Sontag said this in connection with photography--reality is being consumed. I think of it in terms of the endless repetition of certain videos that keep appearing on TV news. It's almost as though we are becoming consumers of these moments. It might be a homicide, a beating, a car crash. And they run them so repeatedly, you feel they're trying to obliterate memory in a curious way. It's like a product; you see, it's like the mass production of another product, except it happens to be a moment of reality captured on a tape.

This is all we've got left of nature, this improvised moment of violence. It's not choreographed movie violence, it's something startlingly real. It's real, it's live, it's taped. It's so enormously appropriate to this time, when there's a tremendous preoccupation with the image. That's been happening for a long time, but it seems to be deeper now, and woven so thoroughly into our perceptions that maybe it is hard to tell what is real and what is on film.

Witnesses to dramatic moments constantly say, "I thought I was in a movie. It was just like a movie."

Q: To what extent has this sensibility influenced your own reluctance to engage the spotlight?

A: I don't have a strict set of firm convictions about this. I really operate on mood and whim. I think there is still something honorable about the writer who says no, the writer who refuses to present himself as a public entity. In some sense, you can even extend this to the books some of us write. At some level, don't some writers write long, challenging novels as a way of refusing to become part of the process of consumption, of rampant consumption and instant waste? There's a small undercurrent of protest there.

Q: Your novels deal with many of the fascinations of the Cold War era and, in a way, "Underworld" is the culmination of that. Now that the Cold War is over, has your perspective changed? How does this affect what you may write?

A: I think we're still trying to understand what happened in those years. And what did not happen. In other countries, the signs are tangible. Germany became reunified, the Soviet Union split apart.

Here, we're not so sure how we ought to feel about it all. I don't know whether this kind of subject could become something a novelist might explore. It's too early for me to say, after having done this book. But I do think, speaking generally, that people may begin to feel a curious loss of a sense of measurable certainty, and even a sense of clearly defined confrontation, which somehow provided a measure for our feelings.

Everything was measured in those Cold War years in the most horrendous terms, but you could measure danger, you could measure risk, and the loss of this has led us into a curious period of drift, I think, in which personality, celebrity, enormous wealth and general emptiness seem to be filling the void.

Q: How is fiction different? Can it redeem history? Or at least give it a shape?

A: History and fiction come out of totally different realities. History is an enormous and powerful three-dimensional construction; fiction comes out of dreams, daydreams, memories, intuitions. It comes out of a writer's fragile and undependable self. At the same time, this self is the only thing we have that can match the enormous social reality around us.

There's something in language itself that opposes history. There's something in the writer's pleasure in devising language that is contrary to the kind of death and destruction that tends to inform history at any given time.

The writer has his longing, his creative delight in language, his sense of self-preservation, the pleasure he takes in putting together words and sentences. And he poses it against the endless destruction of history. So there is, it seems to me, an innate competition--or not a competition, but a dissonance--between these two forms. And somehow this means that language and fiction can serve the purpose of redeeming history, in a curious way. They can liberate it from its own narrow and brutal borders.

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