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The Artists' loop: autocatalysis in Don DeLillo's Underworld.

Nearly two decades ago Tom LeClair's groundbreaking book on Don DeLillo, In the Loop (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1988), invited further studies of the Bronx writer's works in the context of systems theory, which brings together a number of sciences including those of chaos and complexity. Numerous scholars have, since then, established further connections between the continually shifting field of systems theory and DeLillo as well as other authors such as John Barth, William Gaddis, Thomas Pynchon, and Richard Powers. These authors often craft their fictions with one eye trained on newly developing theories, as DeLillo's giant novel Underworld all too well reveals. One recent theory in complexity science, known as autocatalysis, shapes the very structure of this ambitious book and defines the relationships among its many characters.

In At Home in the Universe, Stuart Kauffman introduces the theory of autocatalysis while using it to debunk the concepts of random mutation and natural selection, which "could not possibly explore ... patterns of gene activities in the lifetime of all the ... worlds" in the universe (NY: Oxford UP, 1995, p. 106). Instead, a natural proclivity to order drives evolution, with autocatalytic networks serving as vehicles--groups of proteins and catalysts that interact in such a way that they complete self-contained loops. In order to accomplish these loops, a "soup" of chemicals must cross a threshold from subcritical to supracritical levels. A soup consisting of only a few reactions never generates an autocatalytic network. But once a soup of chemicals possesses sufficient diversity "a living metabolism crystallizes" and an "autocatalytic system snaps into existence ..." (62). Kauffman describes the human body, neighborhoods, cities, and entire civilizations as conglomerates of these autocatalytic networks.

Underworld's first section, "Long Tall Sally", operates as such a conglomerate. The artwork of Ismael Munoz, to start, originates from the single phrase, "graffiti instinct," that Klara Sax mentions during an interview about her B-52 project several decades after, but several hundred pages before she goes to search for him with her art dealer Esther Winship. Before the interview in fact Klara's former lover, Nick Shay, observes that the planes Klara uses are covered in a sort of primordial soup of paint. A few pagers later Shay and his friend Brian Glassic encounter "condoms marked with graffiti that stretched to your erection, a letter becoming a word, a word that expands into a phrase" (111). While waiting for Chuckie Wainwright, Marvin Lundy encounters graffiti-covered tunnels (311). And, finally, when Klara and Esther go hunting for Ismael, Esther remarks that his graffiti "is so completely everywhere" (381).

It is this point at which one notes a paradox. Although the primordial soup of paint covering the bombers seems to evolve into more complex forms through Ismael's graffiti, Underworld's retrograde narration enables a kind of feedback loop between Ismael and Klara. The chapter in which Klara searches for Ismael actually occurs about twenty years before she becomes famous for her bomber project. It is then, in the 70s as she accompanies Esther into New York's subways, that Klara enters Ismael's "system" as a new catalyst. Inspired by the graffiti, Klara then, several years later, organizes the immense bomber project. As Mark Osteen observes in American Magic and Dread, Ismael's work "affects [Klara] powerfully and help[s] her to forge a new set of artistic practices

and philosophies" (Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2000, p. 248). Ismael's art inspires Klara, but Klara's art is necessary in the growing tide of thematic references to graffiti that eventually culminate in Ismael. Ismael and Klara create one another, so to speak, therefore completing an autocatalytic loop.

Kauffman's theory holds that complex organisms arise when autocatalytic networks merge and swallow one another. So it is with the Klara-Ismael network, which eventually falls under a larger network that begins, like Ismael, as a sort of "instinct." Long Tall Sally originates as a vague idea conceived by a songwriter from Appaloosa. At some point during his bombing missions in Vietnam, Chuckie Wainwright re-imagines Sally not as the original lyrics intend but as a hometown girl. Sally then becomes more than a mere idea when a nose artist entitles a drawing after her, one presumably based on Chuckie's descriptions. By the time Nick Shay treks into the Arizona desert, Sally has come to involve countless graduate students and a total of 230 planes. When the number of students goes beyond "the capacity" of the lodging, they fan out into the desert just the way Kauffman says autocatalytic systems "spill out the window and flood the neighborhood" (Kauffman 115).

According to Kauffman, however, if too many catalysts enter a system then the number of reactions can quickly cross the threshold from complexity into chaos. Graffiti in particular presents such a threat. While waiting for Chuckie Wainwright, Marvin Lundy notices "graffiti spray-painted on the smokestacks in languages he did not recognize and in alphabets unknown." Lundy also sees "a truck lot in which every inch of every truck was covered with graffiti" (312). Someone spray paints gang names all over the golf course that Nick Shay helps build while in juvenile detention. Klara's art dealer Esther in fact hopes to "give [Ismael] a wall," while Klara muses that she might even "give him a building ... a city block ... a train with a hundred cars" or, perhaps, an entire novel (377).

Therefore, certain enzymes in an autocatalytic network must actually discourage growth in order to maintain a healthy complexity on the edge of chaos. Examples of this regulation include the relationship between lactose, E. coli, and beta-galactosidase and also in the catalysis of Prozac, which deactivates the enzyme that breaks down serotonin (Kauffman 137). In Underworld, local authorities serve this function. The "weird shit chemical from the CIA," known as the "new graffiti killer," paradoxically sustains Ismael's livelihood as a graffiti writer, recycling his medium in the same way that Nick Shay relocates and recycles garbage. The subway cars themselves act as enzyme inhibitors, killing off the most prolific artist known as Skaty8, who would "tag your little sister" if he could. Without such inhibitors, Underworld might come to resemble the dilapidated ship Marvin Lundy watches while waiting for Chuckie Wainwright, its name "unreadable," and its hull "covered with rust and graffiti ..." (312). DeLillo's Underworld avoids this fate, thanks to the balanced relationships which form its multi-layered networks.

Brian Ray, University of South Carolina
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Author:Ray, Brian
Publication:Notes on Contemporary Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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