Jayne Mansfield may very well have been one of the first emblems of life in a postmodern world. Thus, her strong presence throughout Don DeLillo’s historically sweeping Underworld is nothing if not natural (a strange word choice when alluding to Mansfield). Indeed, there are quite a few nods to major personas of the twentieth century, including J. Edgar Hoover and Lenny Bruce. But there is something more specific about the way DeLillo hones in on Mansfield’s aura of garishness that so perfectly encapsulates everything that was simultaneously great and flawed about postmodernism.
DeLillo covers a great amount of momentous ground, setting his main characters Nick Shay and Klara Sax against the backdrop of major events of the twentieth century, starting with baseball’s famed 1951 “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” In his nonlinear tale, the reader is continually taken back to pivotal occurrences from another character’s life and presented with them again in the context of a different character’s life. Jayne Mansfield’s existence is just such one of those pivotal occurrences. Although the title of Underworld represents numerous facets of American life, it is chiefly referring to all the unpleasant moments that our collective culture suppresses. Mansfield plays into this notion with her tragic end: a washed up movie star deemed the “working man’s Monroe” who was making nightclub appearances in Southern states. Her gruesome car crash in 1967 was a fitting end in terms of mirroring the turn her career had taken.
Klara, an artist and anti-heroine, finds herself the Monroe to her friend Acey’s Mansfield. A fellow artist who isn’t as talented but has received much media attention of late, Acey feeds into the allusive nature of Underworld by making Mansfield the central focus of her new art exhibit. In explaining her reasoning to showcase Mansfield, she states, “’I wanted a packaged look. I didn’t want Monroe, I wanted Mansfield. All bloated lips and total boobs. I mean it was so obvious and it took me fucking forever.’ ‘Have I ever seen a Jayne Mansfield movie?’ ‘Nobody has. Doesn’t matter. She was uncontainable in a movie,’ Acey said.” And this is largely true. Most people can identify who Mansfield is, but not anything she’s been in. This strange phenomenon relates back to how our culture has a predilection for rendering its memory as murky and malleable as possible for the convenience of reacting anew.
DeLillo also explores the idea, through the voice of Acey, that the concept of modernism essentially ceased to exist when the original Jayne—Marilyn—died. Acey insists, “‘…the minute Marilyn died all the other sexpots died with her. They were like philosophically banned from existing. Jayne outlived Marilyn by only five years and for about four and a half of those years she was bummed-out, washed-up, beat up by husband number whatever-he-was and there was nothing left but exploitation movies and heavy drinking.’” Once again, DeLillo proffers the notion that the ultimate underworld of American society is the recycling of pop culture, repackaged to make more profit under the guise of newness. The recycling element correlates with Nick’s profession in waste management as well.
Acey’s seemingly abstract examination of Mansfield takes on grotesque imagery with the line: “‘I want a Jayne that’s a living threatening presence. This is one greasy peroxide blond. Constant secretions from every quarter. This a woman with a heavy flow. Atomic Jayne.’” Because Underworld is centered around the Cold War for the majority of the narrative, this, too, ties in with one of the larger themes of the book: the most obvious of things are always hiding in plain sight, right in front of our faces—be it governmental conspiracy, celebrity misery or human waste (all major plot points in the novel).
Another analysis of Mansfield’s persona comes in the form of comparing her self-love to Monroe’s self-hate. The irony in the knockoff version being more comfortable with herself pertains to the confidence of being American in the mid-twentieth century; it entailed an utter belief in being able to reinvent oneself as a bigger and better version of someone else. Acey elaborates, ‘”See Marilyn hated being Marilyn. But Jayne loved it… She was born to be Marilyn. She lived in a pink palace that had a sizable zoo. And the way these things happen, the discount sex queen becomes famous and famous and famous and finally she’s the most photographed woman in the world.’” The clincher on the argument concludes with “…you have copycat Jayne, the reproduced goddess, and she is all the more strong for being unoriginal.”
DeLillo continues to relate the plot to Mansfield later on in the novel, after Acey’s frequent mentions, via the character of Eric, a young boy dealing with hormones while his mother, Erica (let’s not get into how Oedipal that is), makes various Jell-O molds in the next room. At this point in the book, it’s 1957, still during the height of a decade of sexual repression. And yet, “On the floor between his feet was a photo of Jayne Mansfield with her knockers coming out of a sequined gown. He wanted to sandwich his dick between her breasts until it went wheee. But he wouldn’t just walk out the door when it was over.” This somewhat pathetic sexual scene serves to humanize Mansfield by proving that there were people, specifically men, who saw her as more than just an image. This is an additional American quality as well: seeing the good in filth and classlessness. However, as evidenced by Eric’s later reaction, American optimism eventually sees beyond the rose-colored glasses and into reality:
Eric hid the rubber in his room, pressed into a box of playing cards. He took a long look at Jayne Mansfield’s picture before he slipped it into the world atlas on his desk. He realized that Jayne’s breasts were not as real-looking as he’d thought in his emotionally vulnerable state.”
While Underworld encompasses innumerable aspects of Americana—it is, after all, one of the last “great American novels”—it is Jayne Mansfield as a construct that most effectively serves to summarize it all.