The Genius of Don DeLillo’s Post-Underworld Work

Don DeLillo. Illustration: Daniel Clowes

Have we held Don DeLillo’s Underworld against him? Masterpieces of an epic scale are a tricky business, not least for the distorting effect they can have on the rest of a writer’s works. Tolstoy wrote two, but most mortals — Melville, George Eliot, Joyce — only get one. And while War and Peace and Anna Karenina cycle through screen adaptations, how many readers reach for a major minor work — a work of beauty but of limited scope — like The Kreutzer Sonata? The same question already applies to Zero K, DeLillo’s new novel. “In recent years,” James Wolcott wrote in his memoir Lucking Out, “DeLillo must ask himself the cosmic question, ‘Why go on?,’ his later novels greeted with a fish-face without a trace of affection for everything he's done before, beating him up with his own achievements (Libra, Underworld) instead.”

Underworld was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer and the National Book Award (which DeLillo had collected for White Noise in 1985; his acceptance speech then: “I’m sorry I couldn’t be here tonight, but I thank you all for coming”). Underworld lost both — the NBA to Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain; the Pulitzer to Philip Roth’s American Pastoral — but since his 1999 Jerusalem Prize he’s picked up most of the lifetime achievement awards not bestowed in Stockholm or London, and in 2006 Underworld placed second to Toni Morrison’s Beloved in a New York Times Book Review poll on the best American fiction of the past quarter century. If the poll were held today, Beloved, published in 1987, would have aged out of the running, and Underworld’s stiffest competition would be from novels written under DeLillo’s spell: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. My vote is for the master.

Yet Underworld is a curious ambassador from the land of DeLillo — it has more in common with Cold Mountain and American Pastoral than anything else he’s written besides his conjuring of Lee Harvey Oswald, Libra. Like that book, Underworld adheres to many of the crowd-pleasing conventions of the historical novel, entering the minds of real-life figures and dramatizing famous events — look, there are the Twin Towers being built! — even if it does so in its own fractured way. By now, its bravura opening set piece — at the Polo Grounds with J. Edgar Hoover and Jackie Gleason in the stands for the Shot Heard Round the World — may be his most widely read work, and the novel that contains it his last blockbuster bestseller. But it’s far from representative: only in Underworld and Libra could DeLillo, whose career has been spent mostly in purely fictional terrain, be said to resemble E.L. Doctorow. Underworld is also long, really long—almost twice as long as DeLillo’s next longest. One of the NBA judges let slip to the critic John Leonard that their consensus was that Underworld could have been cut by a couple hundred pages (the sad lot of the literaryprize judge — too much reading). The notion of pernicious excess was echoed in more sophisticated form by James Wood, first in a dissenting review of Underworld, and again in his 2000 manifesto against “hysterical realism”: “Underworld, the darkest of these books, carries within itself, in its calm profusion of characters and plots, its flawless carpet of fine prose on page after page, a soothing sense that it might never have to end, that another thousand or two thousand pages might easily be added. There are many enemies, seen and unseen, in Underworld, but silence is not one of them.”

Silence is a strange thing to ask of a novelist: It’s any writer’s worst enemy, the departure of the animating gift. But not so strange to ask of DeLillo, whose art is the opposite of a painkiller. “I don’t offer comforts except those that lurk in comedy and in structure and in language, and the comedy is probably not all that soothing,” DeLillo told The Paris Review in 1993. It’s an acute self-evaluation. It gets at the way DeLillo has always gone against the grain of a culture that looks to novels for the balms of moral reassurance, that has a taste for bromides about the extraordinariness of ordinary lives. “Lurk” is exactly the right word for the pleasures that inhabit his novels. “Cool” is a word often stuck to his characters; some of them have little existence beyond their aphoristic utterances, and his narrators are often stunted men, puzzled by their own impulses. DeLillo is more interested in probing the limits of consciousness and perception than in sketching inner lives. His books face outward into the cultural mist. You could say this makes them anti-novels, or you could say he’s expanded the novel’s range by shutting off a few of its familiar frequencies. His books’ pleasures have a shadow quality and can elude a reader’s notice if the proper attention isn’t being paid. I’ve always found that if I come away from DeLillo’s prose without some sort of laughter, I’ll find on rereading that I was doing something wrong. The bleak comedy of his nihilistic banker’s Bloomsday Cosmopolis was lost on me when it appeared in 2003: it seemed out of sync with the recessional post-9/11 moment. Michiko Kakutani called it “a major dud,” and Walter Kirn dismissed it as an “intellectual turkey shoot, sending up a succession of fat targets just in time for its author to aim and fire the rounds he loaded before he started writing.” But the way the attacks rendered his treatments of terrorism in Players (1977) and Mao II oracular, the crisis of 2008 rendered Cosmopolis prescient in retrospect. Far from loading his rounds in advance, he was making discoveries in the act of writing. We wouldn’t be ready for its systemic humor until the credit default swap confirmed that the joke was on us.

The term for this comedy is “deadpan.” A modern word, not even a century old, its first great exemplar was Buster Keaton, and his spirit governs the opening set piece of Players, in which characters on a plane sit aloft in a piano bar watching a Godard-style film of terrorists killing golfers. “We’re steeped in gruesomely humorous ambiguity, a spectacle of ridiculous people doing awful things to total fools,” DeLillo write. A woman in buckskin pants stabs a man in the back with a machete: “Buster Keaton, says the piano.” Here’s the paradox of DeLillo’s genius: He’s the great comedian of violence in our hyper-mediated age. There’s always violence happening on screens in DeLillo’s novels — the Zapruder film; the Texas highway killer caught on camcorder in Underworld; the stabbing frames of 24-Hour Psycho in Point Omega. Buster Keaton and Jean-Luc Godard, James Joyce and the charnel house of the evening news, Hitler and Elvis, Lenny Bruce and J. Edgar Hoover, the H-bomb and the day-glo supermarket aisle — these are a few of the colors of the DeLillo swirl.

DeLillo began publishing short stories in 1960, in the journal Epoch, but has said that he started writing his first novel, Americana (1971), shortly after the first of August, 1966, when Charles Whitman climbed a tower in Austin, Texas, and ushered in the era of the modern mass shooting; DeLillo was fascinated that the newspaper said Whitman brought deodorant with him to commit his massacre — an absurd detail that defies conventional novelistic psychologizing.

The career that followed has unfolded in four phases. First, wild comic visions of a post-’60s America as medieval hellscape, most notably in Great Jones Street, his burnt-out post-Altamont rock’n’roll satire of 1973, set in a downtown Manhattan that “seemed older than the cities of Europe, a sadistic gift of the sixteenth century, ever on the verge of the plague.” Then, the blazingly written thrillers of the late ’70s, capped by The Names (1982), narrated by an American in Athens unaware he’s really working for the CIA. With White Noise (1985), a nuclear contamination comedy told by a professor of Hitler Studies who can’t speak German, he started staring down the gun barrel of history, an effort that yielded Libra, positing a CIA plot to create an assassination scare that veered into the killing of the president, and Underworld. And then, finally, the major minor works that followed, five novels that constitute a beguiling late phase (there have also been two plays, and a career-spanning 2012 short story collection) and each in its way a reckoning with encroaching silence. Every one is defined by an absence: a dead husband (The Body Artist, 2001), a rapidly dwindling fortune and an impending date with a murderer (Cosmopolis, 2003), the felled Twin Towers (Falling Man, 2007), a missing daughter (Point Omega, 2010). These books have been critically embattled, but we ignore their strange signals at our peril. Compared to his earlier works, DeLillo’s prose style has undergone a quickening. His sentences have always had a cascade effect, but lately their arc is steeper. Gravity has assumed more force. And here style and theme have something in common. “If writing is a concentrated form of thinking,” DeLillo told The Paris Review in 1993, “then the most concentrated writing probably ends in some kind of reflection on dying. This is what we eventually confront if we think long enough and hard enough.”

It’s also a career that has had what seemed like several authors. The late John Leonard identified “at least three DeLillos”: the “Poster Boy” of postmodernism who saw through the corporation and the television, starting with the first half of Americana, set in a network TV office and surely one of the blueprints for Mad Men but funnier (DeLillo was working as an ad copywriter for Ogilvy and Mather when JFK was shot); the “secret sadhu,” who brought a pan-religious sense to a post-religious age, and had the empathy and imaginative reach to enter the heads of Moonies marrying en masse at Yankee Stadium in Mao II; and the “Bombhead” watching “history drift deathward” who theorized armageddon as a football game between superpowers in End Zone. Underworld is the great social novel of nuclear dread, a panorama in the shadow of man’s new divine powers of destruction. Zero K is its inverse: a post-Cold War elegy about people who believe they’ll live forever. It’s an almost anti-social book, written not into history but toward the future. What happens if death is not a certainty? How do you type on a keyboard without a period?

Zero K is DeLillo’s ultimate Book of the Dead. Or the Temporarily Dead. Or the Maybe Someday Undead. Told in an elaborate deadpan, it’s largely set in a vast, labyrinthine underground complex in a remote and barren region of the former Soviet Union. (Bishkek is the nearest city, across the border, so we seem to be in Kazakhstan; the 2013 meteor that exploded in the sky outside Chelyabinsk, Russia, is invoked, but that’s more than 1,000 miles to the north — “Siberia was put there to catch these things.”) Here a set of billionaire donors are bankrolling a project in mass cryonic suspension called the Convergence. Like the reader (this one anyway), the narrator, Jeffrey Lockhart, is skeptical of the undertaking. He doesn’t mention Ted Williams’s brain; the serial mishaps of Robert Nelson, the 1960s cryonics pioneer who couldn’t keep his refrigerators on; the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, currently preserving 146 “patients” in Scottsdale, Arizona; or the many chilled and reheated characters we know from science fiction (Han Solo as wall ornament) — but we can tell he thinks this place is more likely to be a mausoleum than a freeze-dry incubator for the someday mass resurrection.

Technology has assumed both the oppressive power of the bomb and the salvational promise of religion. The scenario is simple enough: Jeffrey’s father, the billionaire Ross Lockhart, is one of the Convergence’s funders. Ross’s second wife and Jeffrey’s stepmother, the anthropologist Artis Martineau, suffers from multiple sclerosis and other illnesses that have taken a terminal turn. She will be undergoing “whatever initial methods would allow preservation of the body until the year, the decade, the day when it might safely be permitted to awaken.” In the novel’s first half Jeffrey wanders the complex, part macabre unfunhouse, part subterranean Solaris. He passes “a boy in a motorized wheelchair resembling a toilet.” In the food unit he shares a meal called “morning plov” (“Carrots and onions, some mutton, some rice”) with a man in a purplish cloak worn over striped pajamas he dubs “the Monk.” He has mute sex with an escort who brings him to his chamber. He witnesses a presentation in front of an oversize jewel-encrusted bronze skull (the camp decorations don’t stop there) by several of the Convergence’s theorists, a pair of whom he decides to call “the Stenmark Twins.” (The only names available to Jeffrey underground are the ones he invents himself.) These two speak in alternating aphorisms and strike some sinister notes:

“The dormants in their capsules, their pods.”
“Are they actually dead? Can we call them dead?”
“Death is a cultural artifact, not a strict determination of what is humanly inevitable.”
“And are they who they were before they entered the chamber?”
“We will colonize their bodies with nanobots.”
“Refresh their organs, regenerate their systems.”
“Embryonic stem cells.”
“Enzymes, proteins, nucleotides.”
“They will be subjects for us to study, toys for us to play with.”

This shorthand semiotic singsong is a signature DeLillo move: It recalls the call-andresponse lecture on Hitler and Elvis trivia by Murray Jay Suskind in White Noise; the series of dialogues on the abstractions of global finance conducted in the back of Eric Packer’s limousine in Cosmopolis; the child anchors narrating the Greek debt crisis in the story “Hammer and Sickle.”  Examples could be plucked from any of his books, and this is the sort of thing Wood has in mind when he derides DeLillo as a “Frankfurt School entertainer.” Funny how two rights make a wrong when you yoke them together. DeLillo’s heightened comic dialogues are for his longtime readers one of his novels’ obvious zones of pleasure, and in Zero K the Stenmark Twins’ utterings are also the sound of the master playing tennis with himself across the decades.

The grim laughs don’t stop within the Convergence. As Jeffrey observes Artis and other dormants going under, “a freezeframe of naked humans in pods,” and learns that the caretakers occasionally remove the heads, Jeffrey Lockhart wonders: “Do they ever get a hard-on, dead men in pods? Jolted by some malfunction, a shift in temperature levels that creates a kind of zing running through the body and causing their dicks to spring up, all the men at once, in all the pods.” His father tells him, “Ask the guide.” A dick joke in the middle of a death fugue — one dripping with Heideggerian dread and captive to intimations of a techno-totalitarian future. But Zero K bleeds with these sorts of moments. Jeffrey watches the Stenmark Twins talk about death, war, and a reanimated future from a slot in a concealed chamber and towards the end of the presentation spontaneously starts to perform squat jumps: “Soon I developed a parallel image of myself as an arboreal ape flinging long hairy arms over its head, hopping and barking in self-defense, building muscles, burning fat.” He’s an echo of Gary Harkness, the college football player who narrates DeLillo’s second novel, End Zone (“I squatted and jumped and jumped and squatted. Life was simplified by these afternoons of opposites and affinities”), or Shaver in his pseudonymous out-of-print hockey burlesque Amazons who’s afflicted with an involuntary hopping disease called “the Jumping Frenchman.”

Underneath all these gags, Jeffrey is telling the story of losing his family: first Artis, and soon his father and his lover and her adopted son. At the end of the novel, he’s entirely alone. DeLillo himself now has few peers but many heirs. First the White Noise generation: Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, Donald Antrim, Colson Whitehead and Jonathan Lethem all steeped themselves in his cultural comedy and followed their own dark paths. Another wave seems to be under the spell of Underworld: Jennifer Egan, Dana Spiotta, Christopher Sorrentino, and Rachel Kushner. They’ve learned from DeLillo’s vision of history and his way of imagining the lives of artists. An outlier is Atticus Lish, whose novel Preparation for the Next Life has a stylistic kinship to DeLillo’s early books and just as sharp a feel for the streets.

You can’t wield so much influence without growing old, and the departure of the animating gift is a permanent threat. DeLillo has done some thinking on this score. Consider the remark of Bill Gray, an author in flight from his own failed novel, in Mao II (1991): “When the novelist loses his talent, he dies democratically, there it is for everyone to see, the shitpile of hopeless prose.” So every new book loosed on the world has to it an element of defiance. DeLillo is now 79, and unlike Roth he hasn’t surrendered. In Zero K, he’s built a temple to house all his ghosts.

Zero K is in bookstores now.

*A version of this article appears in the May 2, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.