I don’t remember much about when I first read Don DeLillo’s Underworld. At dinner the other day my friend Frank, who was my roommate back then, said I read it just before reading James Ellroy’s The Cold Six Thousand. That puts it sometime in 2001. While rereading Underworld these past couple months I thought it was earlier. The book came out in 1997.
Pinning it down precisely isn’t that important. This year I’ve been trying to track changes over the decades of my life. A simple way to do that is to reread books that made an impact to see how they hit me now. Tropic of Cancer was a revelation and Suttree was a hoot but I really disappeared into Underworld. It was the perfect book for my project because one of its big themes is how the characters “talk” to all the versions of themselves as they age. It’s a fluid conversation which time-travels and crisscrosses over fifty years. That’s just the span I’ve been investigating myself.
The relationship between personal and world history is the main theme of the book. Tracking a baseball which may or may not have been Bobby Thomson’s shot heard ‘round the world is less about solving a mystery or proving authenticity than about the desperate need to have tangible evidence that our lives matter. As in fairy tales, every hand the ball passes through is transformed for good or ill. For its last owner, Nick Shay, the hero of this whole epic book, the ball is a symbol of failure. He was a Dodgers fan after all. Not long after that fateful home run his team left Brooklyn for LA. Nick leaves New York as well. Decades later he’s at a ballgame with coworkers and it’s revealed that he owns the famous ball. He can’t or won’t articulate why he bought it, nor how much he paid.
I moved a couple months into lockdown. Packing makes you reconsider all your possessions. I threw away a lot. It was a time to think about why I keep what I keep since it was literally about to weigh me down. Did I want to keep carrying it into in my new place? I didn’t throw away everything but I’ve become committed since May not to hold onto things once I’ve gotten what I need out of them.
This means mailing books out as soon as I’ve read or abandoned them. They’re of no use gathering dust on my shelves. I pick a friend who I think might get something out of it and bike to the post office.
I trashed over half of my artwork before moving but still have hundreds of drawings and paintings which need to be dealt with. This is another motif of Underworld—waste and the problem of how to dispose of it. One of DeLillo’s great images is a ghostly garbage barge which can’t find a port. No one knows what it’s carrying nor wants to find out. A pretty good snapshot of Western civilization.
I work from life so this year has narrowed the vista. Loitering in public was a sizable part of where work work was generated. Enforced isolation has made me burrow inward. I might have gotten to collage eventually by natural evolution but staying in has made it into a kind of refuge. I need new things in front of my eyes and old scraps from the past have provided that. It helps that my memory is so lousy. It all looks new to me—whether I made it, saw it, or read it.
That’s the thing about the rereading I’ve been doing this year. I wanted to learn something about how I’ve changed but I can barely summon anything from the past if it’s not manifested physically. Like a book or a drawing or a high school homework assignment. There’s a trace or ghost image of something connected to me in these things but for the most part I take them in as if for the first time. They must have left a mark but I can’t track it.
When I finished Underworld it was equal parts relief and regret. I’d scaled this mountain of a book and come down the other side. It was sometimes a slog but mostly entrancing. Reading it made everything else disappear but also revealed connections which made me put the doorstop of a book down and look this or that up. Other times it made me start a new picture. Now that I’m done with it where will I go?
Maybe next year will be about looking forward. We have so much to forget.