A lovely throwaway sentence in Don DeLillo's "Underworld"

Written on February 5, 2024

Midway through the journey of Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld (1998), there’s a sentence that, at first glance, seems unremarkable:

“We drove an empty road.”

It’s a one-sentence paragraph that anyone could have written—though it comes immediately after a paragraph of clearly DeLilloesque description that not anyone could have written:

The rim clouds took on a chromium edge and the high sky was still an easy noonish blue. But the pit went dark in a hurry, the vast plastic liner wind-lapped and making the eeriest sort of music, just outside the wave-fold of nature, and the surface was indigo now, still faintly sky-streaked, washed by gradations of shade and motion. We stood a moment watching and then went back to the car. Detwiler sat in the middle of the rear seat, needling us about dumping our garbage on sacred Indian Land. And about Whiz Co’s vanguard status. He thought the firm had the hard-core appetites of any traditional company.

We drove an empty road.

“You tracking the rumors, Sims? This ship you’ve got.”

“It’s not my area.” […]

I am always hesitant to overexplain the aesthetics of literature—to try to reduce its music and mystery to a test-tube formula—but this sentence warrants some additional schematizing.

The first remarkable thing about the sentence is that, strictly speaking, it is not grammatically correct.

“Drove” is of course the irregular past tense of “drive.” “Drive” has several meanings, among them (per the New Oxford American Dictionary):

  1. To operate and control the direction and speed of a motor vehicle. [no object, usually with adverbial of direction]
  2. To propel or carry along by force in a specified direction. [with object and adverbial of direction]
  3. Urge or force (animals or people) to move in a specific direction [with object and adverbial of direction]
  4. (Of a source of power) provide the energy to set and keep (an engine or piece of machinery) in motion.
  5. (Of a factor feeling) compel (someone) to act in a particular way; especially one that is considered desirable or inappropriate. [with object]

(And some others derivative of these definitions. . . )

DeLillo’s usage corresponds to definition #1, but he uses “drove” as a transitive verb (having an object), where the object of the verb is “an empty road,” and with no adverbial of direction. A grammatically correct sentence might say: “We drove down an empty road,” or “We drove on an empty road.” But “an empty road” does not make sense as the direct object of “drove”: the car is being driven, not the road.

But any of these grammatically correct sentences would have been lesser. DeLillo’s sentence is musical and lyrical; it trusts its reader to deduce the meaning. More formally, I think the sentence works better than its alternatives because of its prosody: the sentence is composed of six syllables, grouped into three perfect iambs:

We drove / an emp- / -ty road.

Why does it sound so good? There’s something sonic and psychological about the effect of the prose rhythm. In her book Poetic Closure: A Study of How Poems End (1992), Barbara Herrnstein Smith writes that “Metric regularity, especially when accompanied by monosyllabic diction, has closural effects . . . it has an expressive effect that enhances closure and authority . . . it suggests control, authority, […] dependability, [and] a slowing down of pace.”

The one-sentence paragraph closes the paragraph that precedes it and transitions to the dialogue that follows. The expressive adjective “empty” works together with the three iambs to create a sensation of slow movement and isolation.

How conscious was DeLillo of the formal metrical elements? DeLillo’s book begins with baseball’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” and what I know is that a great outfielder doesn’t need to know the formula for the acceleration due to gravity in order to perfectly catch a fly ball. It’s one great minor sentence in a book full of them.