Biography

Don DeLillo was born on Nov. 20, 1936, in New York City’s borough of the Bronx, to Italian immigrants. DeLillo had little contact with literature until he was 18, when he describes being carried away by the power and beauty of language. He attended Fordham University in New York, but found the city a far more exciting playground, citing its access to experimental art, jazz, and movies. He had a brief stint in the advertising world, and though he claims it was an uninteresting time of his life, his obsession with media and American culture may find its roots there, as well as in his immigrant background.

His magnum opus, Underworld (1998), spans the latter half of the 20th-century and explores celebrity, consumerism, and waste. While many reviewers praised it, most readers could not finish the 827-page tome.

 

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“My firm was involved in waste. We were waste handlers, waste traders, cosmologists of waste. I traveled to the coastal lowlands of Texas and watched men in moon suits bury drums of dangerous waste in subterranean salt beds many millions of years old, dried-out remnants of a Mesozoic ocean. It was a religious conviction in our business that these deposits of rock salt would not leak radiation. Waste is a religious thing. We entomb contaminated waste with a sense of reverence and dread. It is necessary to respect what we discard.

I saw a man on the via della Spiga standing in front of a mirrored column smoothing his hair, running both hands over his hair, and the way he did it, the cast of his eyes, the slightly pitted skin, both hands guiding the flow of his hair – this was half a second in Milan one day – reminded me of a thousand things at once, long ago.

The Jesuits taught me to examine things for second meanings and deeper connections. Were they thinking about waste? We were waste managers, waste giants, we processed universal waste. Waste has a solemn aura now, an aspect of untouchability. White containers of plutonium waste with yellow caution tags. Handle carefully. Even the lowest household trash is closely observed. People look at their garbage differently now, seeing every bottle and crushed carton in a planetary context.

[…]

At home we separated our waste into glass and cans and paper products. Then we did clear glass versus colored glass. Then we did tin versus aluminum. We did plastic containers, without caps or lids, on Tuesdays only. Then we did yard waste. Then we did newspapers including glossy inserts but were careful not to tie them in twine, which is always the temptation.

The corporation is supposed to take us outside ourselves. We design these organized bodies to respond to the market, face foursquare into the world. But things tend to drift dimly inward. Gossip, rumor, promotions, personalities, it's only natural, isn’t it - all the human lapses that take up space in the company soul. But the world persists, the world heals in a way. You feel the contact points around you, the caress of linked grids that gave you a sense of order and command. It’s there in the warbling banks of phones, in the fax machines and photocopiers and all the oceanic logic stored in your computer. Bemoan technology all you want. It expands your self-esteem and connects you in your well-pressed suit to the things that slip through the world otherwise unperceived.”

 

Comment

The protagonist, Nick Shay, is an expert in waste management. He confronts the basic crisis of our disposable consumer economy: what to do with the inexhaustible mountains of toxic garbage generated every day. Nick believes that waste is a religious thing: “We entomb contaminated waste with a sense of reverence and dread. It is necessary to respect what we discard.” Although his job forces him to consider the collective refuse of American culture, the great impasto that binds us all together as a nation, Nick’s upbringing still shapes his approach to the problem: “The Jesuits taught me to examine things for second meanings and deeper connections. Were they thinking about waste? We were waste managers, waste giants, we processed universal waste.”