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“Of childhoods and other ferocious times”

Traumatic Reverberation in Don DeLillo’s ‘Underworld’

Paula Martín Salván

Pages 335 - 355


Don DeLillo’s ‘Underworld’ is often read as a fresco of the Cold War era. These critical readings tend to minimize the attention paid to the psychological portrait of Nick Shay, the character whose existential path is the main narrative vehicle of the novel. The correspondence between the private and public levels of the story is usually taken for granted. In this essay, I contend that there is no direct narrative or causal connection between Nick’s personal history and America’s Cold War history. In fact, Nick is conspicuously absent from most of the key historical events portrayed in the novel. I propose a reading of Underworld that brings Nick Shay’s personal history to the forefront. My main aim is to analyze the narrative devices deployed by DeLillo to depict this character in order to determine how the interweaving of the individual and historical dimensions takes place in the text through a stylistic pattern of equivalence known in trauma studies as “traumatic reverberation.” The homologous reverberation at both levels—individual and historical— produces the textual illusion of a continuity between them, which, I contend, is not causal or thematic, but structural. This pattern articulates a parallelism between the two dimensions of the text, emphasizing the paradoxical nature of traumatic memory: an absent core around which the text gravitates, persistently signaling a point of origin that is never fully realized.


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