The following report is courtesy Amy Friedman:
Don DeLillo appeared in conversation with Adam Begley at The Congress Centre, 23-28 Great Russell Street, London, England on 15 January 1998.
The reading and interview took place in the blondwood auditorium at Londons Trade Union Congress Building. Don DeLillo's Underworld had its official British publication the same week, on January 9th, but due to advance release and sales the book had gone into a second printing by the release date, and first editions were already becoming hard to find in London. Publishers Picador and Booksellers Waterstones, the co-sponsors of the reading, had obviously conspired to hold some back; the decorations for the reading consisted of several large table-top pyramid arrangements of Underworld, in the downstairs lobby and on the stage, and these were all first editions.
Don DeLillo was introduced by Adam Begley, and he read to a rapt, capacity audience the 40-minute collection of Underworld extracts called The Mosaic.
Then he conversed with Adam Begley for some 30 minutes, before taking questions from the audience. A summary of their conversation and of the questions follows, taken from my own notes.
Adam Begley asked Don DeLillo how he came to write Underworld and how significant it is that he sets some of it in the Bronx in which he grew up.
Don DeLillo explained that there was a enigmatic angle to the creation of the novel, almost an element of mystery, and he locates a sense of this element in the soaring omniscient narrator of the Prologue. A number of things about the novel came together in the composition of the Prologue. There was, for example, the dawning recognition that the 16-year old boy he writes of in the Prologue, who is in the Bronx listening to the ballgame on a portable radio on the roof of his apartment building, is the main character of the novel. Writing about the Bronx was a sort of return to the material and sources of his early short stories.
Adam Begley then referred to the atomic test that the Soviets detonated on the same day as the baseball game and asked about the effect of this event on the young DeLillo.
DeLillo explained seeing the copy of the New York Times with the two events juxtaposed on the front page. Seeing the two, he said, was a shock and a revelation and the novel became a way for him to explore whether or not there was a connection between these events.
Adam Begley asked if the Cold War was an oppressive factor during DeLillo's youth.
Don DeLillo explained that it wasn't directly a factor, that it more seeped into life in the 1950s, and that there was for him no sense of immediate danger until the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. American culture, he noted, with its cartoony manifestations -- pop art, cars resembling jet planes, etc., -- also cushioned the effect of the Cold War by absorbing it in a way which diminished a sense of threat. Adam Begley commented on the Lenny Bruce routines which DeLillo scripted as part of Underworld, which take place during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Begley wondered how DeLillo had had to prepare himself to channel the voice of the historical figure, Lenny Bruce.
DeLillo gave some background on Lenny Bruce for his British audience, describing Bruce as a brilliant and controversial night club comic in the late 50s and early 60s who was arrested a number of times for obscenities. This was something, DeLillo noted, that Bruce introduced into the Eisenhower years. Without being invited to. DeLillo noted that Bruce also had problems with drug addiction and died of a drug overdose in the mid-1960s. DeLillo explained that he decided to write five comic routines delivered by Lenny Bruce in the novel during the week of the Cuban Missile because it gave a temporal/historic anchor in the period he was writing about: the mid-60s were a time for that kind of comedy in the States, he said, and it seemed to me that here was a guy who should have but evidently did not deliver it at the time, so I decided to do it for him. DeLillo summed up the creation of the monologues as an intended homage to Bruce.
Begley inquired whether DeLillo was a fan, and DeLillo affirmed that he had been, although he had only seen Bruce perform a few times.
Begley next asked about the construction of such a complicated work, wondering if DeLillo had used some sort of map or diagram to keep straight all the plot strands.
DeLillo replied that he had used no map, but that it was more his own sense of the symbolic connections in the book that guided him through its structure. If I were to summarize them very briefly, he said, these are people connected in the shadow of the bomb and this sense of connections tends to permeate the novel in a curious way. These are connections that exist in all our lives, but which we don't recognize, which we barely glimpse, or dont quite understand. The underworld, he continued, is the underworld of consciousness in a sense, an unperceived lurking undercurrent. DeLillo then summed up his perspective that art potentially tries to find the coherence in the strange and uneducated energies of life, and his subsequent faux-ponderous nod in the direction of the audience got one of the biggest laughs of the evening.
Begley confessed awe that Underworld was constructed without some physical method of signposting through the complicated plot. He continued to pursue his question: was a cross reference outline used? diagrams?
DeLillo insisted that he used no outlines, only notes, and these were often about specific characters, or dialogue as it occurred to him. He acknowledged the open structure of the novel but said it had been built over time, accruing rather than following a plan.
Begley then moved to the topic of waste, pointing out that it makes up a crucial part of the book. In Underworld, he said, environmental threats, everything from sludge to plutonium, seem to be taken much more seriously than in previous works, and he cited White Noise as an example. He queried the source of the change in DeLillos stance on this.
DeLillo acknowledged a sort of escalation around this theme, shown in his depiction in Underworld not of a localized toxic spill, but of the precipice of nuclear war. In Underworld, he explained, two underground themes merge at the end: weapons and waste. He talked about the Cold War-era worship of weaponry, and the nature of that admiration: we admired the beauty of our weapons, we devised noble names for our weapons from Greek and Roman myths. But, he continued, we didn't think much about the waste. There is a Russian character at the end of the book, he said, who devises a kind of theology of weapons and waste in which weapons are godly manifestations and waste is demonic. This links with a sentence he wrote early on about plutonium; the novel gets its title most immediately from the fact that the word plutonium derives from Pluto, god of the dead and ruler of the underworld. As he continued writing the text he found that there gradually seemed to be many more manifestations of the idea of underworlds.
Begley commented that there seemed to be all kinds of waste in the book, and that there are two characters who are especially terrified of contamination from waste. One is an historical character, the other is invented: J. Edgar Hoover and Sister Edgar. Begley asked how they came into being and how they compared in this way.
DeLillo replied that one can not write a novel about Cold War America without an element of fear, suspicion, and paranoia. DeLillo made a major discovery when he learned that J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, was in fact at the 1951 ball game. Once he realized this he understood that he had a connection between the ballgame and the Soviet nuclear test, because Hoover would know about the test and could be the vehicle for the introduction of this material. So J. Edgar Hoover, he concluded, carries a certain amount of fear and distrust and paranoia though the novel, and he is linked up with the elderly nun named Sister Edgar, because she is sort of his psychological female counterpart. And, he said, laughing, at the end they merge in cyberspace, dont ask me how they do this.
A journalist identified herself as a writer for the London Evening Standard, and asked DeLillo what he thought of London and Do we have an Underworld?
DeLillo responded: If I'm making remarks that are going to be quoted, I think I'll take off my microphone and head out the door. I'd rather not speak. I'd rather not do a three-dimensional interview. He received loud audience applause for his handling of the press.
Someone asked about DeLillo's linking of the apparently antithetical categories of annihilation and recreation in his work. DeLillo replied that Underworld is characterised more by a concern with all manner and gradation of conflicts, conflict from the level of games to the level of nuclear exchange.
Someone asked if the size of Underworld was an issue for its author. DeLillo answered that a book, in essence, constructs its own appropriately-scaled frame. He got a laugh when he admitted that what he knew in the early stages was that he'd written a twenty-thousand word prologue and hadn't yet introduced the main character, so he knew he was in trouble. Some of us write against the tenor of the times, he added, and sheer length can be a function of that.
Someone asked about the litany-like repetition of sentences and of pieces of information in Underworld. DeLillo agreed that litany was a fair description, and that there is quite a bit of repetition in Underworld. He explained that he saw this as a function of the time-displacement element of the books complicated backwards chronological narrative movement.
The penultimate question was whether DeLillo enjoyed Thomas Pynchon's Mason and Dixon, and when he first read Whitman.
DeLillo answered in reverse order. He said he read Whitman fairly early, shortly after he read Moby Dick at 17. He commented that he was very impressed by both, and found their use of language had the ability to transport a reader. He said he admires Pynchon. The final question was about the future of language in a technological world.
DeLillo stated that he didn't think the environment could damage language, more that it poses a challenge to writers and to everyone else. He implied that language can still flourish in these circumstances. He concluded by citing how the language in Underworld marks both cultural passage and transcendence. You transcend your narrow background, he said, through language.
He thanked the crowd for attending, and, in good humour, signed books for a long queue of appreciative readers.