History as Accretion and Excavation

History as Accretion and Excavation

Paul Gleason

Paul Gleason on Joseph McElroy’s mid-career epic, Women and Men, as contrasted with Don DeLillo’s Underworld.

Published in 1987, Joseph McElroy’s novel Women and Men inaugurated a recent series of long novels by some of America’s most innovative writers that bring the postmodern imagination to bear on significant turning points in American history. Whereas Women and Men most prominently considers the shift in the relationship between the sexes in the 1970s, Don DeLillo’s Underworld (1997) takes up America’s movement into and out of the Cold War period, Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon (1997) surveys eighteenth-century colonial America on the eve of the Revolutionary War, William H. Gass’ The Tunnel (1995) contemplates the effect of the World War II period on a scholar of German history and fascist apologist, William T. Vollmann’s ongoing Seven Dreams Series (1990 -) examines the conflicts between Native Americans and Europeans, and Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon (1999) investigates code-makers and code-breakers in World War II and the present day. While all of these novels possess the breadth, scope, and length of earlier postmodern historical novels, such as John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor (1960), Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), and Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977), they neither reflect their predecessors’ disinterest in character nor their primary concern with using fantasy and, in David Foster Wallace’s words, “rebellious irony” to criticize American society and expose its historical assumptions and hypocrisies (66). These recent postmodern historical novels, rather, simultaneously share their predecessors’ critical stance on accepted conceptions of American history and endorse a new approach, one that favors the individual’s experience of history and its importance as a process of discovery to individual and, in some cases, communal growth.

McElroy’s Women and Men and DeLillo’s Underworld exemplify this recent approach to historical fiction. Both novels emphasize character and the importance of historical experience in individual lives. More specifically, both novels see historical experience as a never-ending process of interpretation and discovery that leads individuals to a deeper understanding of history, its relevance to their lives, and its role in connecting them as a community. McElroy constructs this historical vision in his masterwork, Women and Men, an expansive novel that encompasses such disparate discourses as science, economics, politics, anthropology, geology, meteorology, mythology, history, and literature. Throughout the course of this long novel, these discourses repeatedly converge, separate, and comment on each other, creating the vast web of relationships in which Jim Mayn - the novel’s central protagonist - develops the deeper historical consciousness that ultimately contributes to his personal redemption. Like Jim, Nick Shay, DeLillo’s central protagonist in Underworld, also achieves redemption. But, unlike McElroy, DeLillo treats art and language as the central means by which the individual can link personal to historical experience and thereby be redeemed. Whereas McElroy uses many different discourses to integrate his hero into the web of the human community, DeLillo favors philosophies of art, language, and the artist as hero, with the effect of didactically reinforcing Romantic assumptions about the artist’s Promethean role as prophet and provider of truth and meaning. By not returning to these outdated philosophies, Women and Men provides radical and new insight into the individual’s development of historical consciousness through the intersection of memory and the myriad discourses of information that constitute contemporary reality. Refusing to recognize the central existential importance of the artist, McElroy’s novel is a genuine egalitarian structure in which reader, narrator, and text are equally responsible for the construction of historical meaning.

Both McElroy in Women and Men and DeLillo in Underworld create complex novelistic structures that express their views of history as a process of discovery. As Brian McHale has pointed out, Women and Men at its most basic level is a detective story (233). McElroy holds the reader’s attention throughout the 1,200 pages of the novel by including various mysteries and questions - such as the Chilean assassination plot, the reason Jim’s mother Sarah commits suicide, and the connection between Jim and Grace Kimball, among many others - that he or she wishes to see solved or answered. McElroy also intrigues his reader on a more global level by presenting huge amounts of information on his characters without the structural assistance of a conventional, linear plot. As the novel progresses and this information accretes in a non-linear fashion, the reader must discover for him- or herself the correspondences - or, in Tom LeClair’s term, the “homologies” - between characters (153). Readers must find out for themselves the solutions to their questions concerning the characters and plot, thereby becoming, in a key phrase from Women and Men, the “breather-angels” that help the narrator in the construction of the novel’s expansive universe of relationships. The “breather-angels” are the articulators of a gargantuan novelistic structure “capable of accommodating a multiplicity of small scale units” (McElroy 413).

If Women and Men is a detective novel of non-linear accretion, then Underworld is a detective novel of linear excavation. Like McElroy, DeLillo incorporates into his novel a number of mysteries that sustain the reader’s attention - the history of the Bobby Thomson baseball, the nature of Nick’s secret crime, and the events that transpire between Nick and Klara Sax in the 1950s. DeLillo’s structure quite literally helps the reader get to the bottom of these mysteries. After a prologue entitled “The Triumph of Death,” the subject of which is the day in 1951 when Thomson hit the home run that won for the New York Giants their playoff game against the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb, the novel leaps forward in time to the 1990s. From there, the novel travels back in time, answering the reader’s questions about Nick and his relationship with Klara, before it returns again to the 1990s at its conclusion. If we use the novel’s central metaphor of waste to understand its “backward” presentation of time and events, we can see that the connections between characters and events lay at the bottom of a garbage pit that the reader, with the assistance of DeLillo’s structure, has to excavate. Unlike McElroy, who throughout Women and Men sustains a conception of the mysterious nature of the connections between characters by leaving their precise nature unresolved at the novel’s conclusion, DeLillo rewards the patient reader with a chapter entitled “Arrangement in Gray and Black” in which he answers the reader’s questions by directly indicating that Nick killed George the Waiter and had an adulterous affair with Klara.

As previously stated, Women and Men and Underworld take as their starting points what their authors see as two key turning points in American history. McElroy’s period is the 1970s, a decade that, according to him, saw a tremendous shift in the relationship between the sexes. Much of Women and Men centers on the activities of Grace, her feminist philosophies, and the doings of the people who attend her Body-Self workshops in the 1970s. The novel also is very concerned with Jim’s relationships with women and, more specifically, his attempts to come to terms with the women in his life: his grandmother Margaret, his mother Sarah, his daughter Flick, his wife Joy, and his new lover Barbara-Jean. But McElroy’s accretive method allows the narrative to move swiftly from the very specific time period of the 1970s to other time periods, including the distant mythical and geological past of Southwestern America, which he discusses most prominently in the brilliant and beautiful “Ship Rock” chapter, and an unspecified future time when individual men and women will stand together on a metal plate, be transformed into one frequency, and then migrate to a distant space colony, where they will exist as one being.

The “Ship Rock” chapter exemplifies McElroy’s accretive method, illustrating his conception of the integral relationship between history and the way in which individuals have the potential to grow through the development of historical consciousness. The chapter begins as follows, with two unclear pronouns and an unanswered question: “From any distance it is all by itself. But he is not thirty-five miles away now. But what is he?” (198). As the reader moves through the first pages of the chapter, he or she quickly realizes that the “it” is Ship Rock and that the “he” is Jim. The question indicates that the chapter - and a lot of Women and Men - concerns Jim’s attempt to understand himself and his “desire to change” or develop (199). History plays a major role in this development. As the chapter progresses, the reader follows Jim as he contemplates the multiple historical and personal meanings of Ship Rock, which include Ship Rock’s role as a mechanically and artistically reproduced American landmark (there is a painting of Ship Rock in Jim’s motel room), facts about its size and geological past, and its Navajo name (199). The chapter goes on to expand on many of Ship Rock’s other identities: its religious and mythic identity as a “great stone ship” on which Navajos once traveled (203), its personal identity as a reminder of the stories of the East Far Eastern Princess that Jim’s grandmother Margaret told him when he was growing up, its identity as a point of conflict between environmentalists and capitalist miners, and its identity as a reminder of the defeat of the Navajo civilization at the hands of white invaders. Having contemplated all these accumulated meanings, Jim comes to understand that “A truth is that Ship Rock isn’t so alone as it seems” (214). He begins to see that Ship Rock is not only an isolated desert mountain, but also a place where disparate historical and personal meanings abide. Now he can think of all the “women, and men [who] came here with him yet were waiting for him” at Ship Rock (215). His notion of Ship Rock as a collective of interconnected people and meanings is a “discovery earned” (215), one that parallels his novel-length quest to make connections between himself and other people, as well as the reader’s novel-length quest to answer McElroy’s challenge of connecting the various characters, stories, and discourses of Women and Men.

Whereas McElroy finds equal epistemological importance in the many discourses of the “Ship Rock” chapter and of Women and Men as a whole, DeLillo in Underworld favors the epistemologies of art and language. In so doing, he reintroduces Romantic conceptions of the artist as hero into the postmodern novel, populating Underworld with a host of heroic artists and artist-figures, some fictional and some historical, who work in a variety of media. These artists include the visual artist Klara Sax, the comedian Lenny Bruce, the filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, the graffiti artist Moonman 157, and the creator of the Watts Towers, Sabato Rodia. These artists, who all work in some way with waste, allow the characters of Underworld to find existential significance in historical experience.

While retaining McElroy’s emphasis on the individual’s ability to find cohesion and truth in history, DeLillo surprisingly retreats to philosophies that favor the central importance of the artist. But this retreat entails a specific and original caveat, namely that the artists work in the medium of waste. I have discussed elsewhere and in greater detail the artists of Underworld (see Gleason 135-41). But for the purposes of this essay, it is sufficient to elaborate on Klara Sax, one of the most important artists in Underworld, as a good example of DeLillo’s Romantic conception of the heroic artist. Near the beginning of the novel, Nick visits Klara in the Arizona desert, where she and her staff have gone to repaint some decommissioned Cold War atomic bombers and artistically arrange them on the desert floor. She tells Nick that in doing this work, she and her staff express “a sort of survival instinct…to trespass and declare [them]selves, show who [they] are. The way nose artists did, the guys who painted pinups on the fuselage” (77). Klara indicates that the artist working with waste demonstrates his or her individuality and freedom, as well as his or her connection to past artists who were engaged in a similar project. Klara’s artistic venture takes on great historical significance when the reader learns that one of the bombers on which she works is the very Long Tall Sally on which Louis T. Bakey, another character in Underworld, served during the Vietnam War (613). In repainting and configuring this piece of American waste on the floor of the Arizona desert, Klara not only creates an artwork that signifies individual freedom, but also builds a monument to people like Bakey, whose identities risk being lost in American history’s master narrative of war. Klara, accordingly, produces an artwork that microcosmically reflects the unwritten history - or “under-history” - of Cold War lives that DeLillo himself chronicles in Underworld.

Klara’s artwork takes on its greatest significance and attains its truest power when other people view it. At a later point in the novel, Nick and his wife Marian pass over the bombers in a hot air balloon. Beholding the bombers, Nick states, “And truly I thought they were great things, painted to remark the end of an age and the beginning of something so different only a vision such as this might suffice to auger it” (126). The bombers affect the way in which Nick understands history, causing him to recognize that the time when he lives is a transitional period between the Cold War era and a new era, much in the same way that DeLillo’s novel affects the reader. It is Klara’s artistic “vision” that helps Nick reach this conclusion, just as it is DeLillo’s “vision” in Underworld that helps the reader reach a similar conclusion.

Klara’s artwork also transforms the way in which Nick and Marian perceive phenomenological reality. After looking at the bombers, Nick states, “Everything we saw was ominous and shining, tense with the beauty of things that are normally unseen…” (126). The bombers and, by extension, the artist Klara make reality more beautiful and significant for Nick and Marian. The rest of the novel’s artists, especially Moonman 157 in his subway graffiti, Eisenstein in his film Unterwelt, and Rodia in his Watts Towers, serve a similar purpose in providing characters with a new understanding of their existential and historical experience. Like the artist-heroes of Shelley, Carlyle, and Byron before them, DeLillo’s artists are prophetic and visionary.

Nick’s comments on the visionary or prophetic nature of Klara’s art introduce another theme common to Women and Men and Underworld - that of religious belief and spirituality. In an interview with Diane Osen, DeLillo discussed the Cold War’s “certainties and its biblical sense of awesome confrontation.” The comedian Lenny Bruce, one of the key artist-figures in Underworld, repeats in his “sermons to desert rabble” (586), which he gives in performances during the Cuban Missile Crisis, DeLillo’s notion of the atomic bomb’s religious significance: “the atomic bomb is Old Testament. It’s the Jewish bible in spades. We feel at home with this judgment, this punishment hanging over us” (592). Bruce’s idea is that the atomic bomb binds Americans together in a community of fearful believers. Earlier in the novel, DeLillo cites J. Edgar Hoover as a government authority who recognizes and appears to take pleasure in the atomic bomb’s community of fear. As Hoover contemplates the crowd at the Giants-Dodgers game on that fateful day in 1951 when the Soviet Union successfully tested an atomic bomb, he thinks that “All these people…have never had anything in common so much as this, that they are sitting in the furrow of destruction” (28). Hoover and the government authorities who use the atomic bomb to promote this environment of fear during the Cuban Missile Crisis - Bruce hilariously cites the ridiculously named McGeorge Bundy, Roswell Gilpatric, Bromley Smith, and Llewellyn Thompson, among others (592) - function in opposition to artists like Klara and DeLillo, whose visionary art gives voice to a community of individuals that were once lost to history and inspires them to recognize the beauty of things that they normally would not see. Klara’s art redeems the waste that the American government produces in order to manufacture an environment of fear. It replaces the Cold War’s religious atmosphere of fear with a new artistic spirituality that recognizes individuality, freedom, and historical awareness.

I have already indicated that McElroy in Women and Men does not uphold DeLillo’s Romantic conception of the paramount role of the artist in deepening humanity’s historical consciousness and self-awareness. McElroy is not satisfied with a simple return to Romanticism, concluding instead that vast amounts of information from a variety of different disciplines need to be taken into consideration when establishing a viable epistemology that can be used to approach the contemporary world in all its complexities. In reaching this conclusion, Women and Men fits into the tradition of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and forecasts the novels of Richard Powers, David Foster Wallace, and Neal Stephenson. But, unlike these precursors and followers, McElroy sees an elusive spiritual dimension operating in the ways in which different systems of knowing intersect and inform each other. He also finds a spiritual mystery in the ways in which different lives and stories connect in an immense, ever-changing, and ultimately unknowable web of relationships.

The “Breather” chapters of Women and Men demonstrate McElroy’s spiritual approach to information and historical consciousness. After the first chapter of the novel, which describes the birth of a child and proposes an essential separation or “division of labor” between Women and Men (7), McElroy presents the first of many “Breather” chapters, “BETWEEN US: A BREATHER AT THE BEGINNING.” His goal is to present in an initially confusing manner many of the novel’s central characters, ideas, and events. He introduces his reader to Grace and Jim, providing him or her with elusive, non-linear insight into the stories of his two central characters. Beginning the chapter with the sentence, “We already remember what’s been going on” (8), he uses the pronoun “we” to position the reader in the story as an active participant in constructing meaning. His readers are the “angels” to which the novel repeatedly refers - that is, the beings who discover relationships and serve as the “guardians or messengers, vascular go-betweens…” (11). As active participants in the discovering of relationships, these reader-angels have the potential to construct Women and Men as “a community…capable of accommodating even angels real enough to grow by human means” (11). In other words, McElroy posits the act of reading his novel and linking its parts as means by which readers can grow individually while simultaneously forming a community. In fact, the “Breather” chapters, which occur periodically in the novel between the more conventional chapters of straightforward narrative, function as meditative spaces where the reader can rest - or, in McElroy’s language, take a deep “breath” (9) - and contemplate the mysterious connections between events and characters. McElroy’s use of the word “angel” and his construction of meditative spaces are no accident: he sees as a spiritual quest the act of recognizing patterns in a text and a reality that consist largely of accreted information.

At the outset of the first “Breather” chapter, for example McElroy makes many references to history. He is very careful to indicate that the novel considers the twentieth century (9) and, more specifically, the “mid-seventies of the century.” He also points out early on the intimate connection between history and individual lives when he writes of “History passing through [Grace’s] helping hands and voice revealed to her twenty-four hours a day…” (11). McElroy presents Grace’s irreducible relationship with history. As a reaction to the “division of labor” seen in the novel’s first chapter and the patriarchal societies in which Margaret and Sarah lived, Grace’s feminist philosophy forms a point of connection between the novel’s present - 1970s America - and the past. History exists in Grace’s body, voice, and actions - in the head she shaves to protest society’s objectification of women, the radical feminism she espouses, and the Body-Self workshops she gives to liberate women.

It is not difficult to see the way in which history affects a character like Grace, whose political and historical awareness is extremely high. But what about a character like Jim, who repeatedly makes DeLillo’s paranoid argument of history as a conspiracy theory, an unreal text “all made up” by people in positions of power (434)? According to the accretive method of Women and Men, history and politics cannot be separated from individual lives and personal experience. Jim’s view of the textual and essentially unreal nature of history reflects his initial inability to feel connected to his past and to the women in his life. How can he, as a real person, feel a sense of belonging to an unreal past that consists of a host of seemingly unconnected narratives, which include his mother’s suicide, her adulterous affair with Bob Yard that produced his brother Brad, his grandmother’s tales of the East Far Eastern Princess, and his divorce? As Robert Walsh has argued, Jim’s development in the novel results from his ability to connect these narratives and become an active part of the social community (269). This development parallels the act of forming a community in which the reader engages in reading the novel. In having his reader and central protagonist share the same communal quest, McElroy rejects DeLillo’s paranoid understanding of history as a narrative written by powerful men such as Hoover and his cronies to which the heroic artist must respond.

Earlier I discussed the way in which Jim connects multiple historical and personal meanings in the “Ship Rock” chapter. His project in Women and Men as a whole is to apply what he learns in this early chapter to his own life. He needs to discover that he, like Ship Rock, “isn’t as alone as [he] seems” (214). He does this most significantly in his relationship with Barbara-Jean. At the end of the novel, McElroy writes of Jim “taking certain steps toward the girl Jean through the night obstacle course of model edifices capable of accommodating a multiplicity of small-scale unit-memories…” (1177-8). Jim, who appears very isolated in the early “Ship Rock” chapter, approaches his new lover through his memories, which accrete as the book progresses. Jim’s memory is one of the many “model edifices” that the reader helps McElroy construct as he or she reads the novel. This memory consists of many different elements and serves as the structure in which they converge. These elements include the extremely painful personal memories of his mother’s adultery and suicide, his divorce, and his estrangement from his son, as well as the more historical and political memories of the NASA space launch, America’s involvement in Pinochet and Allende’s Chile and the subsequent Chilean assassination plot, the U-2 plane that the Soviets shot down during the Cold War, and Native American relations in late-nineteenth century America. McElroy structures Jim’s memory as a place of convergence to argue that individual lives do not transpire in a vacuum but are always imbedded in history, just as history is always imbedded in individual lives. Of course, this argument about the irreducible connection between individuals and history does not originate with McElroy. But McElroy is radically original in the way in which he does not try to work out for the reader the precise nature of this connection; rather, he uses his accretive method to suggest a mystical and essentially irrational bond between history, individuals, and the world around them. The only way for an individual like Jim to overstep the boundary of self and experience this redemptive community is to approach another individual in the mystical and irrational surrender of love. At the conclusion of Women and Men, Jim does just this in his relationship with Barbara-Jean, thus becoming a final point of convergence with the angel-reader as an active participant in the novel’s vast, accommodating structure.

The structure of Underworld has similar importance as a reflection and constant reminder to the reader of DeLillo’s view of history. But it serves ultimately to privilege art, language, and the heroic artist. In the summer of 1978, Jesse Detwiler gives Nick and Big Sims, another fellow waste manager, the following advice: “Bring garbage into the open. Let people see it and respect it. Don’t hide your waste facilities. Make an architecture of waste. Design gorgeous buildings to recycle waste…” (286). Later in the same passage, he teaches his colleagues how the discovery of means of waste disposal led to the advent of civilizations and “to systematic investigations of reality, to science, art, music, mathematics” (287). Detwiler’s theories may be presented ironically and even ridiculously, but the way in which they parallel DeLillo’s project in Underworld should not be underestimated. The novel itself is “an architecture of waste,” a “gorgeous” structure that very seriously and systematically investigates Cold War America by analyzing its waste and demonstrating how artists can help us achieve a deeper understanding of it.

In my discussion of Klara Sax, I commented on how DeLillo’s artists strive to redeem waste by using it to create artworks that rebel against official narratives of history and thereby promote individual freedom. I have also mentioned how Klara’s bombers reinvigorate Nick and Marian’s perception of reality. Now I need to focus more specifically on Nick and discuss the ways in which his spiritual understanding of the relationship between waste, language, and history leads to his personal redemption and rebirth as a desert ascetic.

Like Klara, Nick at the beginning of Underworld has retreated to the desert, where he lives a contemplative and detached life in the 1990s as a waste manager, perhaps performing penance for his murder of George the Waiter. Positioning him at the top of an office building in Phoenix, Arizona, DeLillo fashions his hero as a kind of St. Antony, one who has experienced the resurrection inherent in the mythological meaning of the phoenix. Contemplating the significance of waste, Nick spends a lot of time practicing what he learned from Detwiler in 1978. He values the Bobby Thomson home run ball - which DeLillo clearly considers as a form of waste (99) - because “[i]t’s an object with a history” that prompts him to think about “the mystery of bad luck, the mystery of loss” (97). Nick’s notion of the mystery of loss is extremely important to his and DeLillo’s understanding of the connection between history and waste. The home run ball attains its mysterious status because it links many known and unknown historical narratives of loss, including Dodger pitcher Ralph Branca’s loss to Thomson and the Giants in 1951, Cotter Martin’s loss of the ball to his father, Nick’s own loss of his childhood and Bronx home when he killed George the Waiter in the early 1950s, and America’s loss of its Cold War certainties and beliefs. For Nick and DeLillo, waste assumes a mystical identity as a reminder of loss.

It is not surprising, then, that DeLillo has Nick approach waste with the care and diligence of a saint observing prayers and rituals. The following sentences indicate the ritualistic care with which Nick disposes of his family’s recyclable waste: “At home we removed the wax from cereal boxes. We had a recycling closet with separate bins for newspapers, cans and jars. We rinsed out the used cans and empty bottles and put them in their proper bins” (102). Nick, in a very physical way, recycles waste with the same care that Klara and DeLillo recycle the “under-history” of individual lives in their art. In the same passage, Nick points out the connection between language, waste, and resurrection when he states that the word “receptacle” comes from the Latin verb meaning to “receive again” (102). Nick’s interest in language reflects his Jesuit education and discussions with Father Paulus, who at one point in the novel asks him to name all the parts of his shoe. When Nick falters in his attempt, Father Paulus informs him that “[e]veryday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things” (542). According to Father Paulus and his young protégé, language has the mysterious power to make the individual aware of everyday phenomena or, to use DeLillo’s controlling metaphor of waste, to bring to the top of the garbage dump the phenomena to which the individual may once have been oblivious. By using language to discover the proper names of quotidian things, Nick can maintain a saint-like focus on phenomenological reality. He can experience the revitalization of reality inspired by Klara’s artwork and live a life in which he recognizes the universality of loss in American history.

In Underworld, then, language, as well as art, serves a redemptive and communal purpose. In the novel’s final passage, DeLillo enforces this notion when he uses the second-person pronoun “you” to address directly the reader, imagining “the sound of small kids playing a made-up game… speak[ing] in your voice” (827). He returns to the novel’s point of departure - Underworld begins “He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful” (11) - and suggests that Americans speak in the same voice and have a common linguistic identity. Underworld itself, with its many American voices and cadences, is a summa of American English and an indication that one can deepen one’s historical awareness only through an in-depth recognition of language. The novel’s final passage moves from a discussion of language to a consideration of individual phenomena on the writer’s desk. DeLillo’s long list of items includes “the monk’s candle reflected in the slope of the phone…and the chipped rim of the mug that holds your yellow pencils” (827). The linguistic accuracy with which DeLillo describes these items adheres to Father Paulus’ philosophy of the use of precise language in raising the speaker’s awareness of quotidian phenomena. DeLillo concludes his novel with the argument that language is a mystical web that has the ability to connect Americans to each other, their history, and the phenomena that surround them.

DeLillo in Underworld and McElroy in Women and Men write historical novels that emphasize the irreducible relationship between history and individual existence. DeLillo’s notion of the primary significance of art and language in making the individual aware of this connection differs from McElroy’s more egalitarian approach to different epistemologies. In its retreat to archaic Romantic philosophies of art, language, and the central importance of the heroic artist, Underworld is a much more didactic novel than Women and Men, one whose structure and characters serve to parrot the philosophies of its creator. Women and Men, on the other hand, is much more radical, original, and ultimately satisfying because it attempts to equalize many discourses and disciplines that may be unfamiliar to the reader. It also respects the reader more than the didactic Underworld and makes him or her an integral participant in the construction of historical and existential meaning.

At the end of Underworld, DeLillo questions cyberspace and considers as “fantasy” its ability to settle differences and resolve conflicts (826), instead favoring art and language. It is McElroy’s great achievement in Women and Men that he is able to create his own world wide web in which all epistemologies - art, language, and history included - connect in one vast system of growth and change.


Works Cited

DeLillo, Don. Underworld. New York: Scribner, 1997.

Gleason, Paul. “Don DeLillo, T.S. Eliot, and the Redemption of America’s Atomic Waste Land.” UnderWords: Perspectives on Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 2002. Pages 130-43.

LeClair, Tom. The Art of Excess: Mastery in Contemporary American Fiction. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

McElroy, Joseph. Women and Men. Normal, IL: Dalkey Archive, 1993.

McHale, Brian. ” Women and Men and Angels.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 10.1 (1990): 227-47.

Osen, Diane. “Window on a Writing Life: A Conversation with National Book Award Winner Don DeLillo.” The BOMC Reading Room. Available online, http://www.bomc.com/ows-bin/owa/rrauthorinterviews.

Wallace, David Foster. “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments. Boston: Back Bay, 1998. Pages 21-82.

Walsh, Robert. “A Wind Rose: Joseph McElroy’s Women and Men.” Facing Texts: Encounters between Contemporary Writers and Critics. Ed. Heide Ziegler. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1988. 263-72.