Rubbish: Don DeLillo’s Wastelands
DeLillo’s Underworld is one of the most celebrated of all modern American novels, and perhaps the most complex. This complexity is a product of its extraordinarily precise yet oblique chronological structure, which, in its attempt to account for the entire second-half of the twentieth-century, has challenged all its readers, confused many of them, and alienated some. Even distinguished critics of the modern American novel find themselves thwarted by the novel’s tricksiness.  Interwoven with this formidable chronological complexity is a commensurately complex pattern of theme, symbol, and cultural reference which recurs across the novel and in many ways provides its structure. It is with the novel’s thematic pattern and preoccupation that this essay engages. I intend here to examine the ways in which capitalist consumer culture attempts to eradicate the organic from society and replace it with the commodity. The first part of this essay will thus focus on the issue of overproduction and waste disposal in Underworld; in the second part, my focus will be specifically on food and its place in the novel.
Underworld begins on 3rd November, 1951, at the World Series baseball game between the Giants and the Dodgers at the Polo Grounds in New York, an event which the novel figures as a central reference point in twentieth-century American cultural and political history, and one whose resonances are felt across the course of the novel’s 827 pages. The protagonist, Nick Shay, comes to own the ball used at this game, and this baseball becomes the novel’s most potent recurring symbol, as critics such as Knight have noted (Knight, 2000, 297). Like Underworld itself, I want to start with 1950s American culture.
In 1960, Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers was first published. Packard, an American journalist and cultural theorist, had already written two books, The Hidden Persuaders (1957) and The Status Seekers(1959), in which he had commented on advertising, and on the ways that American consumer culture had become crucial in the race for status. In The Waste Makers, Packard turned his attention to the production of items that were designed with a view, not to their function, but to their shelf-life. The book’s opening chapter, ‘City of the Future’, posits the world of a marketing man’s dreams: ‘The heart of Cornucopia City will be occupied by a Titanic push-button super mart built to simulate a fairyland. This is where all the people spend many happy hours a week strolling and buying to their heart’s content. …. Cornucopia City’s marvellous mart is open around the clock, Sundays included’ (Packard, 1961, 16-17). The central thesis of The Waste Makers is that ‘wastefulness has become part of the American way of life’ (19): the book is perhaps the foremost critique of that most important feature of 1950s American manufacturing, ‘planned obsolescence’. The predictions which he made – somewhat coyly- about car ownership in 1975, ‘if marketers had their way’, and indeed about the consumption of everything, right through from bathing suits to bathrooms, were, of course, underestimations (179). The late 1950s, Packard notes, saw President Eisenhower exhorting Americans to ‘buy your way to prosperity’, and a public manipulated into consumerism. In 1950 the chairman of Allied Stores Corporation, B. Earl Puckett, said that basic utility ‘cannot be the foundation of a prosperous apparel industry …. We must accelerate obsolescence …. It is our job to make women unhappy with what they have’ (Packard, 1961, 27-28). This manipulation of people includes the manipulation of time – people have to be made unhappy more quickly. In 1955 marketing consultant Victor Lebow said: ‘Our enormously productive economy …. demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption …. We need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate’ (Packard, 1961, 33).
Packard acknowledges as one of his influences the economist J.K. Galbraith. Galbraith’s influential book The Affluent Society was first published in 1958, and underwent revision in 1969, 1976, 1984, and 1998: it thus spans the same period as Underworld itself. In the Preface to the 1998 edition, Galbraith quotes a paragraph which survived each of the versions and which looks as though it could have been the impetus for much of DeLillo’s novel:
The family which takes its mauve and cerise, air-conditioned, power-steered and power-braked automobile out for a tour passes through cities that are badly paved, made hideous by litter, blighted buildings, billboards and posts for wires that should long since have been put underground. They pass on into a countryside that has been rendered largely invisible by commercial art. (The goods which the latter advertise have an absolute priority in our value system. Such aesthetic considerations as a view of the countryside accordingly come second. On such matters, we are consistent.) They picnic on exquisitely packaged food from a portable icebox by a polluted stream and go on to spend the night at a park which is a menace to public health and morals. Just before dozing off on an air mattress, beneath a nylon tent, amid the stench of decaying refuse, they may reflect vaguely on the curious unevenness of their blessings. Is this, indeed, the American genius? (Galbraith, 1998, 187-188).
Galbraith’s economic analysis of American culture is every bit as prescient as Packard’s sociological text, and their concerns are also those which are foregrounded in Underworld: DeLillo, born in 1936, is himself as much a product of the 1950s culture as Nick Shay, who ‘often seems to speak for DeLillo, both autobiographically and metafictionally’ (Donovan, 2005, 168) and who was born, like DeLillo, in the Bronx, where the novel opens, and aged 16 at the time of the World Series ball game (93). In fact Nick’s birthday occurs some time between October and March; by the summer of the following year he is ‘seventeen and some months’ (742), thus making DeLillo and Shay exact contemporaries.
One of the many problems which Packard identifies with this consumerist agenda is central toUnderworld, and that is the simple equation between waste and abundance (Packard, 1961, 173). This equation, though, is part of a whole problematic: it is not simply that when there is abundance there must be waste, so that excessive amounts of food become decaying matter; but rather that this slide, from the desired to the disgusting, operates, too, in the world of aesthetics. In the distances we are able to travel, the reconstruction of ancient and European worlds in twentieth century America, everything is made immediately available for consumption and thus for disposal. The reconstruction takes place in telling ways. InUnderworld, the landfill site at Staten Island is compared to the construction of the Great Pyramids of Giza (184). Whole towers are made of waste; the novel symbolically juxtaposes a series of towers and cathedrals of waste – the Staten Island landfill, the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre, the Watts Towers of Los Angeles (actually made, the novel informs us, of refuse), and ‘the Tower of the Bomb’ in Kazakhstan, which is described in the novel’s opening section (50), and to which the novel returns at its close. These towers provideUnderworld’s poles of authenticity. The Watts Towers, for example, are the subject of an important interpretive difference in the novel. Klara Sax, who makes art installations out of discarded Cold War military hardware, understands the towers as numinous: ‘An amusement park, a temple complex and she didn’t know what else. A Delhi bazaar and Italian street feast maybe. A place riddled with epiphanies, that’s what it was’ (492). For Nick Shay, however, the Towers are still recognisable pieces of rubbish – he sees ‘The green of 7-Up bottles and blue of Milk of Magnesia, broken crockery and pebbles and seashells and soda bottles and wire mesh’ (276). This issue, of the identifiability of waste, is one I shall return to later, but what must be emphasised is that the fractured society, which Underworld’s title bodies forth, grows from our inability to separate the product –the manufactured item – from the produce –the organic substance from which the product is made, whether that is an item or an ambience. The point of these two disparate interpretations of the Watts Towers is that they are the same interpretation. Klara, who makes art from found objects, sees beauty in abjection; Nick, a Public Relations man for a waste disposal company (282), sees abjection where there is beauty. One of the things which Underworld consistently does is to negotiate the interrelationship between these two categories.
In Underworld, the world, formerly held up by the tensions between culture and counterculture, east and west, capitalism and communism, begins to show itself dissolving, the desired object transmogrifying into the discarded with a rapidity that leaves no room for reflection on its use or value, or pleasure in its ownership or consumption. As a postmodern, post-cold war novel, written after the dissolution of these seemingly fixed social, cultural, and economic categories, one of the things Underworld does is to demonstrate the ways in which the twentieth century’s dominant methodology for the critique of relations between capital, labour and consumerism, classical Marxism, has itself become obsolete. The dauntingly slow pace at which Marx himself proceeds to delineate the value of the commodity, of labour, to understand the whole process of capitalism is entirely at odds with what capital has become. The following is Marx’s definition of the commodity:
A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties. So far as it is a use value, there is nothing mysterious about it …. It is absolutely clear that, by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing. But as soon as it emerges as a commodity, it changes into a thing which transcends sensuousness. (Marx, 1867, 163).
What DeLillo does, in Underworld, is to restore, re-evaluate that which has gone through its life in the capitalist system and which re-enters the world in a guise which comprehends both its individuality (like the Milk of Magnesia bottles at Watts Towers) and its place in the structure. O’Donnell writes: ‘Waste simultaneously signifies randomness, accident, and disorganization; it registers the breakdown of material order as well as the human attempt, through production of objects, to achieve mastery over the physical world’ (O’Donnell, 2008, 111). Where the individual cannot be found in the mass, the mass becomes frightening. In Underworld, we are constantly presented with heaps of rubbish as luxury items, as excess and indulgence; with food as rubbish (91, 283, 361, 363), and rubbish (the products and logos of consumer capitalism) as food (121, 517, 766-67). Throughout the novel we are confronted by these tensions so that we come to see the whole world as, once, oppositional, but now, dangerously sliding into chaos. This physical blurring of course suggests, indeed implies, a moral decay: like the restaurant rubbish which we see degenerate from delicacy to ‘seething vegetable menace’ (363) within a paragraph. A culture which is all surface, which has no numinous centre, cannot nourish. It is the disconnection between the organic, the human, the recognizable individual face and shape, that begins the process of disintegration. The novel examines the ways in which consumer capitalist culture attempts to eradicate the organic from society and replace it with the commodity. DeLillo’s preoccupation with waste is monumental in every sense of the word. In Underworld, images of waste – and wasted land- ooze, seep, intrude, litter, underlie, infect, inform, scent and indeed shape the whole book. The narrative fractures, the very title, suggest fissure, fissures through which dark forces can – and do – erupt.
In the stadium at the opening ball-game, back in 1951, the smell of the organic world is intrusive: ‘reek and mold …. Generational tides of beer and shit and cigarettes and peanut shells and disinfectants and pisses in the untold millions’ (21). At Staten Island landfill, the stench is overpowering (184-85). The novel records in detail Marvin Lundy’s reeking, steamy, meaty bowel movements as he travels across Europe to Russia (310). At the Black and White Ball guests pee into mounds of crushed ice garnished with lemon wedges – as though the urinal is itself a drinking glass (577). The novel consistently conflates consumption with abjection. Characters shit and piss their way through Underworld, from Nick imaging himself reading glossy magazines with his ‘body squatted’ and ‘pants down’ (252), to Matt remembering the nine year-old Nicky reading comics to the neighbouring kids with ‘his pants hanging loosely from his kneecaps’, ‘pausing to loose a turd’ (210). The first time that we meet Nick’s colleagues, the executives of ‘Waste Containment, known in the industry as Whiz Co.’ (278) (the name itself another word for the similar sounding colloquial ‘piss’), they are eating a meal at a ball-game in Los Angeles and talking about the practice of dumping in the ocean off the east coast (91). Such language itself confuses so that ‘dumping’ is then read both as industrial activity and personal evacuation; this is made explicit with the remark that ‘we clean toilets for a living’ (91). Everything is, indeed, connected.
Throughout the narratives of which the book is composed, the book returns obsessively, to ideas surrounding waste, filth, dirt, rubbish, garbage, junk, shit – and to attempts to control, hide, disguise, and –sometimes- salvage or transform that which is thrown away. Whiz Co.’s industrial, corporate disposal of everything from fabric scraps and used condoms to toxic and nuclear waste is the commercial end of the spectrum; at the human level we have Sister Edgar, compulsively scrubbing her hands with brushes that have themselves been cleaned with scouring pads that have been treated with disinfectant (251). Sister Edgar’s ‘twin’ in the novel -‘her biological opposite, her male half’ – (826), is J. Edgar Hoover, and in him, the personal, morbid cleanliness is married to a fear of the world, of dirt, of the foreign body, both literal and figurative.
This litany of the discarded encompasses cars abandoned on waste land: cars that contrast sharply with the desired objects that Brian Glassic drools over and through which he begins his affair with Marian, Nick’s wife; or the cars that are seen as ‘like a consumer cartoon, bulging ….’ (447). The wasted cars ‘are bashed and bullet- cratered, cars with dead bodies wrapped in shower-curtains, rats ascratch in the glove compartment’ (241). The waste land is also the site for the dumping of hospital waste, amputated limbs (249), and a place where abandoned babies fetch up ‘left in dumpster, forgot in car, left in Glad Bag stormy night’ (239). These horrors are a stark message and an even starker contrast with the ball, expensive and quested for as though it were the Holy Grail, through years and murders and stories and outlandish religions (175-76), and which finally comes to rest on the bookshelves in Nick Shay’s tasteful bedroom, paralleled with Aristotle and Shakespeare and Homer (132). What this trope, performed many times throughout the book, marks, is that what is treated with reverence is transformed; treating garbage as a resource gives it a transcendent quality, makes it art but more importantly, makes it life, makes it live.
The most astonishing pile of junk in Underworld is the landfill site at Staten Island, Fresh Kills. It is at this site that Brian Glassic has an epiphany which invigorates and inspires him:
He imagined he was watching the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza – only this was 25 times bigger, with tanker trucks spraying water on the approach roads. …. The towers of the World Trade Centre were visible in the distance and he sensed a poetic balance between that idea and this one. …. He looked at that soaring garbage and knew for the first time what his job was all about. He dealt in human behaviour, people’s habits and impulses, their uncontrollable needs and innocent wishes, maybe their passions, certainly their excesses and indulgences … (184).
From this mountain of wrack, stinking and menacing, Brian focuses on a fragment, a scrap of fabric, around which he constructs a narrative. ‘….maybe that teal thing is a bikini brief that belonged to a secretary from Queens, and Brian found that he could create a flash infatuation ‘she is dark-eyed and reads the tabloids and paints her nails and eats lunch out of molded Styrofoam, and he gives her gifts and she gives him condoms and it all ends up here, newsprint, emery boards, sexy underwear ….’ (185). This secretary inevitably recalls T. S. Eliot’s typist in ‘The Fire Sermon’ section of The Waste Land, with her food in tins, her underwear on the bed and her undesired lover. The archaeological site that the Fresh Kills landfill provides is a locus of textual recycling, too, and it is in this rescuing of poetry from stinking rubbish, of individual lives from fragments that the novel performs what Peter Boxall has described as ‘a miraculous achievement’ in finding value and connectedness in the random and the hidden (Boxall, 2006, 197). This heap, this ‘omnivorous movie terror’ is transformed, through the novel’s attention, to an individual’s story, a poem and a potential hanging garden, with all its connotations of pleasure, beauty, history and exoticism. Such imaginative perspectives link and ennoble past and present; the landfill becomes a place of glamour, but also, in direct refutation of its name, a place of life. DeLillo makes connections and extraordinarily subtle patterns within the text: Mark Osteen has tracked the ‘complex skein’ which links orange through ‘advertising, war, religion and underground art’, (Osteen, 2000, 215); similarly, Boxall enumerates the ways in which Breughel’s painting ‘the Triumph of Death’ ‘forces itself up to the surface’ and he suggests that the postmodern is transcended, transforming ‘the very symptoms of the contemporary – the abandoned waste of postmodernity into signs of redemption’ (Boxall, 2006, 181, 13).
There is one particular aspect of Underworld which startles with its refusal to be nourishing on almost every occasion when we encounter it, and that is food. Food and the occasions for eating have been widely theorised, most notably from a structuralist and anthropological perspective. Roland Barthes writes that food ‘is not only a collection of products that can be used for statistical or nutritional studies. It is also, and at the same time, a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations and behaviours’ (Barthes, 1997, 21). Anthropologists Mary Douglas and Claude Lévi-Strauss have written extensively on food and decoded practices across a range of cultures, with Lévi-Strauss refining his ‘raw v. cooked’ dichotomy to incorporate a whole grammar: based on the linguistic ‘vowel and consonant triangles’ he predicated a ‘culinary triangle’ which had at its poles the raw, the cooked and the rotted (Lévi-Strauss, 1997, 29-9). What strikes me as remarkable, though, is that none of these studies is the least bit of use when it comes to DeLillo. One explanation for this could be that there is, in the whole of Underworld, only one meal that is described to us in any detail, an issue which I shall return to later. But it seems to me that structuralist analysis, with its constant refinements within grand schemes, is simply an interpretive model that cannot comprehend a society that ‘grazes’ far more often than it eats a meal. This thematic concern is a frequent feature of DeLillo’s work. In White Noise, for example, Jack Gladney’s family
milled about, bickered a little, dropped utensils. Finally we were satisfied with what we’d been able to snatch from the cupboards and refrigerator or swipe from each other …. Wilder was still seated on the counter surrounded by open cartons, crumpled tinfoil, shiny bags of potato chips, bowls of past substances covered with plastic wrap, flip-top rings and twist ties, individually wrapped slices of orange cheese. (6-7)
This is not, recognizably, a meal: it has no form or ritual (characters ‘swipe’ and ‘snatch’) and thus cannot be decoded. This is not even eating: it is consuming products. When cheese is a colour, not a variety or a flavour, it too is moved more than half-way from the natural world to the marketed product. Structuralism does not concern itself with transcendence; it can best be described as disinterested (though perhaps uninterested is closer to the mark), which DeLillo certainly is not, leading critics such as Maltby and Salzman to explore ideas of transcendence in his work. More useful in this context than the theorists is Margaret Mead’s polemical essay ‘The Changing Significance of Food’, which deplores American food production. She writes: ‘Divorced from its primary function of feeding people, treated simply as a commercial commodity, food loses this primary significance; the land is mined instead of replenished and conserved’ (Margaret Mead, 1997, 17).
On almost every occasion in the novel when we are presented with food, it is given to us as rubbish, excreta, ‘a seething vegetable menace’ (363). There is very, very little in this novel that you would want to eat. Fish, for example are associated, unrelentingly, with the dumping of sewage:
Brian Glassic said, “I hear they finally stopped ocean dumping off the east Coast.’
‘Not while I’m eating,’ I said.
‘Tell him,’ Sims said. ‘Describe it in detail. Make him smell the smell.’
‘I also hear that the more they dumped in a particular area, the richer the sea life.’
Sims looked at the Englishwoman, who alone ate fish.
‘Hear that?’ he said. ‘The sea life thrived.’
And Glassic said, ‘Let’s eat fast and get out of here and go sit in the stands like real people’ (91-2)
A restaurant in Underworld is a place that produces garbage (or, on one occasion, it is the locus for a gangland family murder) (366). Nick’s colleague, Simeon Biggs, describes going to a new restaurant where he finds himself ‘looking at scraps of food on people’s plates. Leftovers’ (283). Outside he goes into the alley, where he sees that the bin bags have been caged so that derelicts can’t come out of the park and eat this leftover food, which has now become ‘property’ (284). And property has to be properly disposed of. You can eat food but you can’t eat property: it is this semantic transfer from the organic to the capitalist system which renders it inedible.
Throughout Underworld, DeLillo offers a fiercely acute delineation of American consumer culture. In the scene where Glassic goes to visit Marvin Lundy, ‘the cheesecake was smooth and lush, with the personality of a warm and well-to-do uncle who knows a hundred dirty jokes and will die of sexual exertions in the arms of his mistress’ (180). Throughout the novel, food is prepackaged, like Marvin Lundy’s ‘melon packed in clinging wrap’ (193): here the replacement of the compound noun, ‘cling-wrap’ with the gerund ‘clinging’, transfers the idea of sexiness from the produce, the organic system, to the packaging, the commodity. The cling-wrap, with its sanitizing purpose, is further linked with other rubberised containers – condoms, rubber gloves – that prevent intimate contact. It is in these tiny semantic details that we see the instant production of waste: a great many of the landfill items that are identified are packaging, and it is this aspect of American consumer culture that indicates most flagrantly its abuse of wealth.
Manx Martin’s companion, Antoine, sees a chance to make a bit of ‘fast cash’ (360-1) by disposing of restaurant garbage. He fills his car with ‘ripe trash’, telling Martin: ‘I filled up the trunk while they were still eating their dinner’ (362). There is no gap between food and decomposition where pleasure should occur, and the trash, like that at the landfill, has a life of its own: ‘it pushes up out of the cans and boxes, it’s noisy and restless, or maybe that’s just the vermin moving around, on the verge of being carsick’ (363). The novel, in fact, presents a whole underworld of derelicts who eat ‘track rabbits’ (440), that is, the rats that are often seen eating the leftover food. Like Brian Glassic’s shit-fish-shit trinity, we have here the rubbish-rat-food nexus.
I want to turn, now, to the occasions in the novel when food is edible. The first thing to note is that it is seldom appetising or desirable in any sensual way. Nick eats ‘lifestyle salad’, with a ‘chilled fork’ (277), and it is a measure of his success as an American that he can afford to do so; it certainly isn’t the kind of food available on food programmes which, as Janet Fitchen tells us, dole out ‘cheese food’, milk powder, dried beans (Fitchen, 1997, 384-401). Later, we see him trading his dessert for his colleague’s radishes, in order to keep fit (790). Radishes are hardly food at all – they provide nothing in the way of protein (unlike the food which Nick consumes at Tchaika in Kazakhstan, food which leaves him feeling ‘proteinized’) (795). Radishes indicate more an appearance than an act of eating, and this links to the importance of appearance for Nick and Marian, with their constant dieting, soy milk and exercise regimes. When Nick and Marian have people come to dinner we know almost, but not quite, nothing about the food itself; the roasted corn relish is afterwards said to be good; that is all there is to relish in this meal, which is her birthday celebration (126). There is much witty conversation, the guests stay until after midnight, but the meal is absent and there is most certainly no cake. In their house we several times hear the dishwasher at work, as though food were primarily a matter of clearing up, or of waste disposal. They shop for rubbish: ‘We didn’t say, What kind of casserole will that make? We said, What kind of garbage will that make? Safe, clean, neat, easily disposed of. Can the package be recycled and come back as a tawny envelope that is difficult to lick closed. First we saw the garbage, then we saw the product as food’ (121).
Underworld, then, presents food as shit, as rubbish, as rats, as drugs (the groceries that Sister Edgar and Sister Grace dispense are traded for drugs, ‘heroin, the dirtiest street scag available’) (246), as ‘a lifestyle choice’, a marker of affluence. In consumer America we have the horrors of the food made by Erica Deming; DeLillo actually gives us the recipes for her ‘Jell-O chicken mousse’ (513) and ‘Jell-O antipasto salad’ (520). The Demings’ fridge (which is itself not generic but a brand, it is a ‘Kelvinator’) (514) is full, not of food but of products: ‘bright colours, product names and logos, the array of familiar shapes, the tinsel glitter of things in foil-wrap’ (516). This is as far removed from organic produce as it can possibly be; the loaf of chicken mousse is ‘strontium white’ (516). It comes as no surprise that Eric Deming becomes a ‘bombhead’, living in a bungalow in the desert where the sofa remains in its warehouse plastic and is covered with ‘a mess of scientific journals, UFO monthlies, supermarket tabloids half a dozen Playboys and some lost food’ (417). It isn’t only the food that is lost.
The Demings’ house is an absolute reproduction of the admen’s dreams. In it, everything is new, the area is new (514), their car is ‘brand-new’ (515), the vacuum cleaner is new (520), the fridge is pastel-coloured which marks it as new.  This chapter demonstrates absolutely the ways in which everything in the world is connected, from the personal – Eric Deming masturbating into a condom that has ‘a sleek metallic shimmer, like his favourite weapons system’ (514), through the domestic – the vacuum cleaner shaped like a satellite (520), to the vision of Erica Deming, waiting in her kitchen for ‘her men coming home’ (521). Here, in this post-war, baby-boom affluence, everything that should be natural is warped, from the shape of the desserts to Erica’s inability to touch anything organic (519) or talk to her son without a barrier to prevent human contact (521).
The contents of the Demings’ Kelvinator form the counterpart to the novel’s other irradiated Cold War nightmare, the Kazakh Museum of Misshapens, which Nick Shay visits in Underworld’s Epilogue. Here, Heinz pickle jars contain not food but horribly deformed foetuses, two-headed, heads growing from the shoulder, a head twice the size of the body; in the clinic the victims of radiation fall-out are disfigured, suffering from leukaemia, thyroid cancers, spongy growths where the eyes should be, immune systems that do not function (799-800), ‘the man with the growth beneath his chin, a thing with a life of its own, embryonic and pulsing’ (800).
Even when there is edible food in the novel, the conditions under which it has any taste, smell, comfort, communality are strictly prescribed; food, tasty food, food that has connection with sensual pleasure, has no place in contemporary America, but belongs to the past and to other countries. Nick’s idea of family belongs in ‘the kitchen smell of another country’ (636). The Campobasso bread that Rosemary Shay buys from the bakery over which she works is a smell (753) and a dialect (120), belonging to a world which they no longer inhabit. If capital burns off the nuance in a culture, it does so first by burning it out of the food. The biscotti that Bronzini and Father Paulus dip into their coffee are ‘direct descendants of honey and almond cakes that were baked in leaves and eaten at Roman fertility rites’ (672); the streets of the Bronx, then, had a ‘European texture, things done in the old, slow faithful way, things carried over, suffused with rules of usage. ….The acid stink of the chicken market …. The old scale hung from the ceiling, with a lashed bird in the weighing pan’ that the Neapolitan poultryman will kill for you on the spot for 20 cents extra (672) (Fresh Kills in deed). Bronzini’s final days are spent hiding in his apartment, afraid to go out into the streets which now show ‘specimens of urban spoor – spray paint, piss, saliva, dapples of dark stuff that was probably blood’ (211). He feeds himself and his sister on eked out rations: ‘he knew he could stretch the chopped meat, bulk up the tomato soup with macaroni’ (231). He is eloquent on the subject of the salami shop, its ‘bounty and fullness …. The place teeming with smells and textures …. A Gothic Cathedral of pork’ (214). But we leave him in his apartment with oatmeal bubbling on the stove (236).
There are people who eat with enjoyment in the novel – and they are its redeeming characters, in the literal sense of the word. The graffiti artist Ismael Munoz, who rescues from anonymity the abandoned babies and children, transforming them into angels on the Wall of the wasteland, eats peaches and grapes and drinks Perrier water (437). Klara Sax’s rooftop summers are full of ‘old French roses ….the laughter of a dozen people ….an old friend, beach chairs and takeout Chinese and how the snapdragons smell buttery in the sun’ (371); they drink red wine, ‘those deep Bordeaux that resemble lion’s blood’ (379), on roofs ‘planted with trees and scarlet runner’ (380). Both Ismael and Klara are artists, and their art transforms the quotidian, the lost, the discarded, the abandoned. On the streets there are mounds of black bags everywhere, a garbage strike, but in this suspended rooftop world there is another land. And this is one of the most striking aspects of the book – it is only in the unmapped areas of the world that one can be nourished, that one can relish, that sensual pleasure exists.
Marvin’s Kosher cheesecake, we know, cannot be found by those who do not know where to look for it (180). Sisters Edgar and Grace deliver their food, and Ismael has his base in ‘the Wall’, among ‘lost streets, a squander of burnt-out buildings and unclaimed souls’ (238), ‘a tuck of land adrift from the social order’ (239). The only reclamation, transformation, salvation, that is possible occurs in places that have not been bought. Klara’s rooftop parties, the wastelands where Ismael, Edgar and Grace pour out their lives, are fragmentary images of nourishment, though. The desert where we first meet Nick, ‘spectacularly lost’ (64) on his way to re-connect with Klara is another empty space that nourishes. Nick steps off the map here in all ways, out of time and place, remarking when he leaves that ‘it was time for me to become a functioning adult again’ (75). This impulsive gesture – from a man whose whole life from the age of 17 to 57 has been a repression of impulse, (who indeed, could lay claim to having been constructed without human presence, like the Lexus with which he is first identified) (79) leads us to the final desert, where we find the novel’s only image of God’s plenty.
In the whole of Underworld, there is only one occasion when we see a table spread with abundance, and that table is the hospitality table at Tchaika’s test-site in remotest Kazakhastan (788). It is here, in the Epilogue to the novel and in a place about which we are told: ‘Very important place that’s not on the map. Near Semipalatinsk. White space on map’, that we are treated to a feast. The description of the food is vibrant and loving; ‘the vodka looks beautiful, with a lucent ruby softness that belies its spice and bite’; in ‘the briefing room tureens and serving plates are spread across a table, heaped with smoking food. ….glasses of peppered vodka cradled in porringers of crushed ice. Caviar pulsing in chilled bowls’. For the first time in the whole book we see Nick eat with relish; ‘The food makes me happy for a time. I eat everything I can reach. Meat, fish, eggs, my appetite is enormous. I fill myself to near capacity, feeling rebuilt, fundamentally sound and content, proteinized ….’ (794-95). The food is alive, pulsing, tactile; the ‘lucent ruby’ sheds the light of a Gothic cathedral onto this scene, and sanctifies it. But not in America.
This essay was first given as a paper at the conference on Waste and Abundance at Queen’s University, Belfast in April 2007. I am grateful to the organisers for this occasion. As always I owe to my husband, Darryl Jones, gratitude for his patience and editing skills and esteem for his intellectual companionship and rigour.
1.For discussions of these issues the following provide some debate. Michael Dirda notes: ‘One eventually discovers that Underworld operates as a kind of hypertext, a never-ending series of narrative links’ (in Ruppersberg and Engles, 2000, 79). Peter Knight remarks: ‘Although Underworld is structured by the principle that everything is connected, what is striking about the novel is how confusing and fragmented its narrative is’ (in Ruppersberg and Engles , 2000, 298). Christopher Donovan writes: ‘Tony Tanner bemoans the non-linear narrative structure, stressing that in many experimental novels, but not in here, “you usually felt that the scramblings and wretched juxtapositions have some point”’. (Donovan, 2005, 175)
2.See Packard, 120-121 on the changing colours of appliances: pastel colours were in vogue from 1956 to 1960 when the products reverted to white; this chapter is headed October 8th, 1957.
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