"Nick owns the baseball. The Bobby Thomson home run ball. The actual object."I read this book because someone on this blog, or some adjoining space, recommended it as a good Don DeLillo novel. (I had been skeptical.) I'm not especially impressed. As a writer, DeLillo has two flaws which jump out most insistently in the 825-page Epic Novel format. For one thing, he constantly resorts to freeze-frame passages full of flowery purple text, which he appears to think are some kind of sign of literary virtuosity. They are rarely so. They sound immature and overdone--but fair enough, that's an aesthetic difference. The more serious problem is that, despite his obvious desire to be open-minded and democratic and Whitmanesque, his less-important characters turn very readily into stereotypes: the hotshot ad exec, the trendy painter, the street-smart graffiti artist. When these stereotypes are negative, it's easier to forgive him; when they are positive, the result is invariably embarrassing. (The closest analogue I can think of is the Zion rave scene in The Matrix Reloaded.)
Sims took his time lighting the cigar.
"Nobody owns the ball."
"Somebody has to own it."
"The ball is unaccounted for," Sims said. "It got thrown decades ago. Otherwise we'd know it."
"Simeon, listen before you make pronouncements. First," Glassic said, "I found a dealer on a trip I took back east some years ago. This guy convinced me that the baseball in his possession, the ball he claimed was the Thomson home run, was in fact the authentic ball."
... "Well, I didn't buy the object for the glory and drama attached to it. It's not about Thomson hitting the homer. It's about Branca losing the pitch. It's all about losing."
"Bad luck," Glassic said, spearing a potato on my plate.
"It's about the mystery of bad luck, the mystery of loss. I don't know. I keep saying I don't know and I don't. But it's the only thing in my life that I absolutely had to own."
- Don DeLillo, Underworld (1997)
All of these defects had already occurred to me by the time I was halfway through the book. It was only when I got to the unbearable, awful, cringeworthy last 25 pages that another thing struck me: the '90s are truly over. I'm not blaming the book for being published when it was, of course. But it clearly embodies a particular aesthetic whose time has now recognizably passed. (I think Infinite Jest has aged somewhat better, even despite the gimmicky footnote thing.) What are these last 25 pages? They're a vaguely Gibsonian attempt at writing about "cyberspace," complete with a horribly malformed URL (but without the touching ingenuousness of Neuromancer). It is precisely the sloppiness in the depiction that signals the book's expiration date: the mistake is so vivid and glaring because the Internet is now such a basic, fundamental part of our lives. It's like seeing someone try to make a pop culture reference and get it wrong.
Of course, what complicates the situation is that the '90s aesthetic was all about what things would be like when the Internet (and all its brethren--globalization, the end of history, etc. etc.) will have become a basic, fundamental part of our lives. It's driven by a particular kind of post-Cold War pseudocyberpunk angst that somehow, for no apparent reason, has ceased to be relevant. Not only have these concerns today lost their coherence and their groundedness in a historical moment; it is now the Cold War period itself that seems abnormal, even exotic. (The anticipation of something like that no doubt entered into DeLillo's vision for the novel.)
In a sense, the '90s project was doomed to fail--if, indeed, it did so. By attempting to blend the anticipatory feeling of dread with a kind of prolepsis founded upon their contemporary experiences, these writers (who include the early DFW as well as, for instance, John Barth in this lackluster period of his writing) ensured that they'd never be able to capture the experience of the future. They deal with this problem in different ways; Wallace escapes it in part because he makes it deliberately goofy and off-center. DeLillo is always serious, even when he's trying to be funny, and that makes Underworld ultimately a ridiculous book.
When I was in high school I came to believe that the history of culture had ended in 2001, and in part even in 1995. (The former, of course, coincided with my freshman year.) Sure, there were trends and events and so on, but there'd never be anything like the disruption of human sociability produced by the Internet and cell phones. I still sometimes suspect I was right, even though I know I was wrong. But what I missed was the fact that the feeling of continuity was as much a constitutive kind of difference as the feeling of rupture. The '90s could not make sense of the future because, perhaps, they never really remembered the past.