“DeLillo’s most affecting novel yet...A dazzling, phosphorescent work of art.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“The clearest vision yet of what it felt like to live through that day.” —Malcolm Jones, Newsweek
“A metaphysical ghost story about a woman alone…intimate, spare, exquisite.” —Adam Begley, The New York Times Book Review
“A brilliant new novel....Don DeLillo continues to think about the modern world in language and images as quizzically beautiful as any writer.” — San Francisco Chronicle
|Product dimensions:||5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.80(d)|
About the Author
Don DeLillo, the author of fifteen novels, including Underworld, Falling Man, White Noise, and Libra, has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Jerusalem Prize for his complete body of work and the William Dean Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2010, he was awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Prize. The Angel Esmeralda was a finalist for the 2011 Story Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. In October 2012, DeLillo receives the Carl Sandburg Literary Award for his body of work.
Hometown:Westchester County, New York
Date of Birth:November 20, 1936
Place of Birth:New York City
Education:Fordham University, 1958
Read an Excerpt
From Part 5, Better Things For Better Living Through Chemistry: Selected Fragments Public and Private in the 1950s and 1960s, Chapter 3, January 11, 1955
We were about thirty miles below the Canadian border in a rambling encampment that was mostly barracks and other frame structures, a harking back, maybe, to the missionary roots of the order except the natives, in this case, were us. Poor city kids who showed promise; some frail-bodied types with photographic memories and a certain uncleanness about them; those who were bright but unstable; those who could not adjust; the ones whose adjustment was ordained by the state; a cluster of Latins from some Jesuit center in Venezuela, smart young men with a cosmopolitan style, freezing their weenies off; and a few farmboys from not so far away, shyer than borrowed suits.
"Sometimes I think the education we dispense is better suited to a fifty-year-old who feels he missed the point the first time around. Too many abstract ideas. Eternal verities left and right. You'd be better served looking at your shoe and naming the parts. You in particular, Shay, coming from the place you come from."
This seemed to animate him. He leaned across the desk and gazed, is the word, at my wet boots.
"Those are ugly things, aren't they?"
"Yes they are."
"Name the parts. Go ahead. We're not so chi chi here, we're not so intellectually chic that we can't test a student face-to-face."
"Name the parts," I said. "All right. Laces."
"Laces. One to each shoe. Proceed."
I lifted one foot and turned it awkwardly.
"Sole and heel."
"Yes, go on."
I set my foot back down and stared at the boot, which seemed about as blank as a closed brown box.
"There's not much to name, is there? A front and a top."
"A front and a top. You make me want to weep."
"The rounded part at the front."
"You're so eloquent I may have to pause to regain my composure. You've named the lace. What's the flap under the lace?"
"I knew the name. I just didn't see the thing."
He made a show of draping himself across the desk, writhing slightly as if in the midst of some dire distress.
"You didn't see the thing because you don't know how to look. And you don't know how to look because you don't know the names."
He tilted his chin in high rebuke, mostly theatrical, and withdrew his body from the surface of the desk, dropping his bottom into the swivel chair and looking at me again and then doing a decisive quarter turn and raising his right leg sufficiently so that the foot, the shoe, was posted upright at the edge of the desk.
A plain black everyday clerical shoe.
"Okay," he said. "We know about the sole and heel."
"And we've identified the tongue and lace."
"Yes," I said.
With his finger he traced a strip of leather that went across the top edge of the shoe and dipped down under the lace.
"What is it?" I said.
"You tell me. What is it?"
"I don't know."
"It's the cuff."
"The cuff. And this stiff section over the heel. That's the counter."
"That's the counter."
"And this piece amidships between the cuff and the strip above the sole. That's the quarter."
"The quarter," I said.
"And the strip above the sole. That's the welt. Say it, boy."
"How everyday things lie hidden. Because we don't know what they're called. What's the frontal area that covers the instep?"
"I don't know."
"You don't know. It's called the vamp."
"The vamp. The frontal area that covers the instep. I thought I wasn't supposed to memorize."
"Don't memorize ideas. And don't take us too seriously when we turn up our noses at rote learning. Rote helps build the man. You stick the lace through the what?"
"This I should know."
"Of course you know. The perforations at either side of, and above, the tongue."
"I can't think of the word. Eyelet."
"Maybe I'll let you live after all."
"Yes. And the metal sheath at each end of the lace."
He flicked the thing with his middle finger.
"This I don't know in a million years."
"Not in a million years."
"The tag or aglet."
"And the little metal ring that reinforces the rim of the eyelet through which the aglet passes. We're doing the physics of language, Shay."
"The little ring."
"You see it?"
"This is the grommet," he said.
"The grommet. Learn it, know it and love it."
"I'm going out of my mind."
"This is the final arcane knowledge. And when I take my shoe to the shoemaker and he places it on a form to make repairs a block shaped like a foot. This is called a what?"
"I don't know."
"My head is breaking apart."
"Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren't important, we wouldn't use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Say it," he said.
"An extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace."
His white collar hung loose below his adam's apple and the skin at his throat was going slack and ropy and it seemed to be catching him unprepared, old age, coming late but fast.
I put on my jacket.
"I meant to bring along a book for you," he said.
Copyright © 1997 by Don DeLillo
What People are Saying About This
Underworld is a “dazzling and prescient novel…A decade after 9/11, it’s worth rereading Don DeLillo’s 1997 masterpiece to appreciate how uncannily the author not only captured the surreal weirdness of life in the second half of the 20th century but also anticipated America’s lurch into the terror and exigencies of the new millennium...A breathtaking set piece…the prologue is a bravura display of Mr. DeLillo's literary powers."—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
Michael Ondaatje Author of The English Patient You pick up and travel with DeLillo anywhere the bliss of a baseball game, the meeting of old lovers in a desert. He offers us another history of ourselves, the official underground moments. He smells the music in argument and brag. He throws the unbitten coin of fame back at us. The book is an aria and a wolf-whistle of our half century. It contains multitudes.
Reading Group Guide
- "Underworld" can refer to many different facets of this book, such as the labyrinthine subways that wind beneath New York City, or the underground art scenes frequented by Klara and her friends. But it also alludes to the "underworld" that lives within each of us, the fusing of our memories, emotions, and personal histories that make us who we are. Do you agree with the prison psychiatrist who tells young Nick Shay that "we all have a history we are responsible to?" Discuss other "underworld" themes in the book.
- As Underworld's cover photo represents, there are many "twin forces" explored in this book. Identify these themes of duality and discuss how they're rendered by DeLillo.
- Few books boast a more brilliantly conceived Prologue than Underworld. Discuss your opinions of it: its construction, its language, its use of real-life in a tale of fiction. Why is the Prologue titled "The Triumph of Death?" How does its gritty, "you're-in-the-ballpark" tone compare to the tone of the first chapter? Do you think the Prologue could stand alone as a short story?
- One of the most striking aspects of Underworld's narrative is its sprawling, nonlinear structure. By the end of the novel, we have gone full-circle; we start at the baseball game in 1951, fast-forward to the 1990s, and then work our way back to 1951 again. Why do you think DeLillo chose to structure his book this way? Is he saying that while we mark time in a linear fashion, time itself-and our memories-are not linear at all? What does this say about the interconnectedness of the present and the past? In what other ways does this story and its writing come full-circle?
- Klara Sax says "many things are anchored to the balance of power...."(76) Do you agree that, without the Cold War, this balance is gone? Is there chaos because we don't have an element of danger hanging over our heads? Is life better or safer now that the Cold War is over? Or do we simply have new enemies?
- Bobby Thomson's game-winning ball serves as the string that links Underworld's numerous characters, subplots, and themes. Is the ball a symbol of achievement or failure? Or, does that assessment depend simply upon who is holding it? Who do you think should have ended up owning the ball? To whom did it mean the most, and why?
- When Cotter realizes that he will go home with the game-winning baseball, he feels like an important part of history. But does he truly realize the significance of the game he just witnessed? How often are we actually aware that we are witnessing history-in-the-making? What is it about a moment in time, or an event, that makes it obvious that it will go down in history?
- Do you agree with Marvin Lundy when he states that "reality doesn't happen until you analyze the dots?" (182) What is more reliable: our own personal perception of an event as it happens, or our memories of it years later, after we have had time to think about it, process it, and be influenced by other's opinions and recollections?
- How have video cameras changed our lives? Do mundane moments become elevated simply because they are caught on tape? Does the repeated viewing of an event (such as the Rodney King beating) make it more horrifying than it would be if only imagined? Or does seeing it over and over in some way make it less terrible? Discuss how the public surfacing of the Zapruder film in the 1970s changed the way Americans considered the Kennedy assassination. How does this compare with other historical moments (such as the Giants/Dodgers game of 1951) that were not filmed? Which is more powerful, and why?
- Our country's largest man-made monument is the Fresh Kills garbage dump on Staten Island. Explore the irony that we, as a nation, have so much garbage that we have specialists like Nick Shay devoted to studying it. Why did Nick choose to enter such an unappealing field? At one point, he says that his choice of careers came at a point in his life when he was looking for a "faith to embrace." (282) Is his , "faith" 20th century American over-consumption?
- Discuss Lenny Bruce's philosophies about life and our government, as expressed in his comedy routines. How did his routines change as the Cuban Missile Crisis ran its course? Do you think he was an alarmist, or was he playing up his fears to be funny? Do you think his rants accurately reflect the nation's feelings? How did his different audiences react to his performances?
- Discuss the notion of art versus garbage, as explored in Underworld. How fine is the line between the two? if Klara turns everyday junk into art, can it be argued that the two are one and the same? Are painted planes in the middle of a desert really art? Is the Earth's landscape an appropriate background for art? Or is it perhaps more appropriate than any other? What do you think of the "garbologists" who collect Hoover's trash? Does putting it on display make it art?
- In regard to Truman Capote's infamous Black and White Ball, DeLillo writes that "the factoidal data generated by the guests would surely bridge the narrowing gap between journalism and fiction." The blending of fact and fiction is a main element of Underworld, and it's precisely what Capote did with In Cold Blood, the first book to present true crime in a novel form. Do you think there should be a thicker line between fact and fiction? Under what circumstances do they become one and the same?
- Discuss the unique way DeLillo writes dialogue. How do you feel about the way his characters often talk "over" each other? Is this a realistic rendering of the way we communicate? What do you think of the way his characters often let topics of conversation drop off, only to suddenly pick up where they left off at a later time? Does their ability to do this attest to the strong connections they have with one another?
- In one memorable scene in the book, Marian recounts how she abandoned the trouble-making family dog, and then told her children that he ran away. Later, as she drove the children around "looking" for the dog, she almost came to believe the story she'd made up. Have you ever convinced yourself that a lie you told is true simply because you told it so many times? How often do You think this kind of "revisionist history" occurs in our daily lives? Within our government? Discuss other "secret manipulations of history" (495) explored in Underworld.
- DeLillo is a highly expressive writer, penning characterizations that stick in the reader's mind. For example, he describes Jack Marshall as a man "on the perennial edge of dropping dead. You know these guys. They smoke and drink heavily and never sleep and have bad tickers and cough up storms of phlegm and the thrill of knowing them is guessing when they'll pitch into their soup." (391) Pick one of your favorite characterizations and discuss.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read 150 pages of the 827-page book, and skimmed much of the rest, and only read that much of it because the novel was on a list of literary fiction I'd been working through. I knew it was difficult and wanted to give it a fair chance to win me over. Otherwise, I would have stopped at the second page of story. I not only don't find this is a great book and a "page-turner" as promised in the blurbs, I found the novel a badly written one from the first pages: endless run-on sentences-of-doom, forced and clunky metaphors, random bits forced into sentences where they don't belong. I'm aware, that like the doorstop length, these are all techniques that plenty of critics would find evidence of profundity, but they left me cold. The book jumps from omniscience with touches of second person in the Prologue to first person in Part One, and much of the rest looking though the novel is third person. You can tell looking at the section title pages that the main story is non-linear; like Pinter's "Betrayal" or the film "Memento," you work yourself backward from the early 90s to the early 50s in each of the six parts until you hit the epilogue set in the near future. Nothing about this book is straightforward--not the prose, point-of-view, narrative, characters or the very thin plot. Even many reviewers who found the book a mess thought the prologue a work of genius, so if you're not enchanted by it--and I wasn't--I doubt the book will hold you. I think that prologue does say a lot about Delillo. Both it and a great deal of the book hangs on baseball as a metaphor for American culture and is about a legendary game between the Giants and Dodgers in 1951--through it we follow not just a turnstile jumper but characters like J Edgar Hoover and Jackie Gleason--who is described vividly and repellently as throwing up on Frank Sinatra. That turnstile jumper who skipped out of school finds a seat and is befriended by a man who buys him a soda. At the end of the game he'll twist this man's fingers to pry the home-run baseball out of his hands. So, if baseball is America, then the message is America is grasping, greedy, thieving, and repellent. The bulk of the book then deals with the man who ultimately bought that baseball--Nick Shay--who is in waste management. The first person narrative of Part One is more accessible than the Prologue, but still at times disjointed in the modernist way, and we're headed to another extended metaphor: American culture as trash. In short, if you're looking for a gripping story with characters you care about and a narrative that sucks you in, you're looking in the wrong place. But if you're the kind who loves a disjointed narrative with overwrought, pretentious prose that revels in showing us the tawdriness of American life, by all means, go pick up a copy.
Underworld is one of those books that does not seem to inter-connected, this seemingly detachment from character to character drives home the colossal picture that Delillo is trying to make. It will not be enjoyed if seen otherwise.
This book is a masterpiece, but like many good things, it may be best to start with some earlier (and probably easier to follow) books by the author. Libra (a novel about Oswald's and the mafia's role in the assasination of JFK), White Noise, and even End Zone are all probably good places to start. That said, Underworld is awesome in its scope (fifty years, many subplots, Delillo's incredible command of dialogue), and highly recommended.
Delilo writes about American culture with incisive clarity and wit. Some people get it, and some people, like the negative reviewers on this page, don't. There's something to be found in every sentence.
If one were to pick their recipe for a 'perfect book', 'Underworld' would not meet many readers' criteria. The ending is somewhat disconnected and disappointing. This is not a book that you will sit up all night to finish, nor is it a book you can walk away from for a week or two due to its complexity. However the vast tapestry woven from the opening chapter of the 'Shot Heard Around the World' and the detailed and real character development are arresting. The contrasts between postwar neighborhood centered New York City life and today's disposable society are telling and the New York portraits-past and present- are wonderfully evocative. I generally like a fast read, as long as it is well written, but this book remains in my memory.
My, what a voluptuous tome. Manifold story lines reveal the story of America in the 2nd half of the 20th century. -recurring motifs of waste and baseball and Cold War- very difficult read (too much like short story collection in parts) and I admit to skimming a few chapters in the 2nd half, but oh so well written.
Hundred pages to go and I really couldn't care less.
Underworld is a stream of consciousness novel, but with a caveat: I don't mean the consciousness of an individual, but collective consciousness, the consciousness of a nation over the course of several generations. Reading this novel is a peculiar experience because I didn't get especially emotionally connected with any of the characters, and I got the sense that I as a reader wasn't meant to. Instead, characters wander in and out of the story, living their own lives without regard for the audiences' witness. The common threads that run throughout the meandering narrative are tentative: all about present tension and future anxieties that cannot quite be named, but are undoubtedly there. Characters live lives characterized by "the faith of suspicion and unreality. The faith that replaces God with radioactivity, the power of alpha particles and the all-knowing systems that shape them, the endless fitted links." It's quite modernist, this certainty that there's something in the world that's still worth pursuing but with deep uncertainty about what that might be.So maybe it's not fair for me to dislike this book because it lacks focus and meaning. That is, after all, the essence of modernism, so I guess it was successful in that respect. But the book had the chance to do something and become the "new Americana," this simultaneous distrust of and nostalgia for the country's past. So I wish it had pursued a sentiment and purpose to that end more strongly, even if it might have transgressed the ethos of modernist literature.
A baseball - that connects so many lives. Too many. Had a hard time keeping up with all the different characters and the time jumps.
Don Delillo¿s cold-war opus, Underworld, leaves me underwhelmed. The scope of the novel ¿ over 800 pages, divided into prologue, seven main parts, and an epilogue, littered with over 100 characters, spanning from the 1950s to the dawn of the internet-era in the 90s ¿ just did not hang together for me. There is a certain flatness and thinness that mires the total-effect of the narrative; it¿s difficult to divine the basic thrust linking all these themes (the mind-numbing hum of 20th century technological America, mortality, nihilism, violence, marital infidelity, love, luck, etc.) and all these sundry minor characters that Delillo summons to stand for them (the Texas Highway-Killer, for instance, appears throughout the middle of the book for several lengthy sections but seems to have no bearing on the book as a whole).But perhaps this sense of sprawling disjunction is precisely Delillo¿s desired effect. Delillo is here, as elsewhere, interested in the historical¿¿longing on a large scale is what makes history¿ (11)¿which precludes centering a novel on a single character, relationship, or theme. If the book has a ¿hero¿ (although the counterpane¿d texture of it would seem precisely to preclude any gestures of classical heroism) it is the Hemingwayesque Nick Shay. Nick, or Nicky, as he is known in the 50s-era Bronx parts of the book, is, like many Delillo heroes, a twist on the classical all-American guy; he¿s got a family, a wife, kids, and a corporate job, but a past, a sin, a violent secret (the killing of a man in a bar when he was seventeen) that separates him out from the typical grain. The problem with this America spinning around the psyche of Shay, his family, and his lovers¿such as the older artist Klara Sax, who, on some level, seems to verge on a second protagonist, but remains marginal and undeveloped, I think¿is that it¿s not totally clear how the threat of nuclear war or the Cold War culture bear on that psyche. The novel¿s minor characters are at turns funny, tragic, and wax philosophical, but are ultimately all vaporous, appearing splendidly in a puff of Delillo¿s taut prose, then disappearing just as suddenly. The sprawling variety of the book¿hop-scotching back-and-forth across years, people and places¿suggests a grand narrative, but one never materializes. One is left with a numbness and a vague hope. A dry hope at best. But maybe, as I said earlier, all of this is Delillo¿s point. The question is how one ought to respond to this. Perhaps it is an artistic failure. Or perhaps I'm just missing the point.
"Underworld" is not an easy novel. A very dense and complex facade of ideas, images and characters, Don DeLillo presents the juxtaposition of that which is beautiful and that which is destructive, the grim and grotesqueries of life in America as well as the pollution of the skies and the subtle similarities between America's favorite sport and the space race. Do not attempt unless meaning to finish it! I promise you completing this treatise on the past century is very rewarding.
The description of the baseball game (with Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, and J. Edgar Hoover sitting together in the stands, apparently based on reality) near the beginning is one of the most thrilling and well-crafted descriptive pieces I have ever read, anywhere. For fans of Thomas Wolfe's life-affirming, details-rich prose, DeLillo will be a revelation.
I have to admit I loved this book, and it has nothing to do with the extended piece at the beginning re: the famous baseball. Just because I'm a Giants fan....I actually gave my copy to a fellow Giants fan, the first 50 pages of which he devoured on Christmas morning. Oh, I hate November!But I digress. What I remember of the rest of the book was appreciating its realism. There were conversations in this book that I swear I have personally had with actual people in the real world. An ability to write believable dialogue will win me over bigtime. It's one of those "Great American Novel" kind of books, which I usually despise, but this one worked for me.
DeLillo's novel of the Zeitgeist of post WWII America would fit comfortably with John Dos Passos' U.S.A. The novel carreens from the 1950's through the late 1990's and includes appearances by Lenny Bruce, J. Edgar Hoover and Frank Sinatra. It visits the Conspiracy Theory Cafe, psilocybin mushrooms and a balloon ride over junked bombers turned into art in the Arizona desert on its way to a final murder and miracle in New York. The heart of the novel lies in the Italian immigrant tenements of the 50's where two boys grow up waiting for a father who went out for a pack of cigarettes and never returned and where a father steals his son's hard-won baseball from a legendary game.
* NO Spoilers were used in the writing of this review! *These are 827 pages that I never wanted to end.The gorgeous writing and kaleidoscope of ideas have the effect of a revelation.I now - unwillingly - compare all other books to this one.It saddens me that Underworld appears to be under appreciated...
I first experienced the work of Don DeLillo in a college class on postmodern American literature. White Noise was easily my least favorite of the novels we read that semester...and yet, for some reason, I keep coming back for more of DeLillo's work. This is the fourth book of his that I've read, and it suffers from the same problems I have with each of the others.First off, DeLillo's style always leaves me with the feeling that he's just trying too hard. Yes, this does result in some amazing prose, but only in places, and not enough, in my opinion, to justify the off-puttingness of the rest of it. Most writers edit their work to make it more clear; I feel like DeLillo edits his work to make it more obscure. I feel like he's more concerned with the language than he is with the story. There's a balance to be found there, and he just rarely strikes it for me.On a somewhat related note is that I just never really feel like DeLillo's characters are real people. For me, good literature begins with vivid, real characters--not necessarily likable, but believable, flesh and blood humans in all their glory and fallibility. That's something I've never found in any of DeLillo's work. Now, I know that one theme of postmodern literature is disconnectedness, so maybe that's intentional on his part. I can respect that, but it leaves me cold. I get to the end of the book, and all I really feel is "eh."Now, all that said, there's definitely something about this book. It has a grand scope, painting a picture of America from the beginning of the Cold War through the beginning of the Internet age. There's no questioning its ambition. It also has some interesting things to say about waste, about war, about culture and environment, and about threads that run through our lives. It was worth reading; I guess I was just hoping for more from a book I had heard so many good things about.I think I'm going to give DeLillo one more chance. I haven't read any of his short fiction, so I'm looking forward to The Angel Esmeralda, which, from the title, I'm guessing has some connections to Underworld. Hopefully his short stories will grab me in a way his novels have failed to do.
One of those books that is intelligent and well-written and has a lot to say, but is actually also really boring. I think I¿ve resigned myself to the fact that I will never be a Don DeLillo fan.
Not only was this book a bestseller, you can find superlatives among the blurbs like "great American novel" and "thrilling page-turner." This book was runner-up in a 2006 New York Times survey of eminent authors and critics for best American novel in the last 25 years. All I can say is I felt about this novel the way I do about many a purported masterpiece hung in the Museum of Modern Art. Good God, why? By the end of a short section after Part One, 150 pages in of 827, I knew this book wasn't for me and stopped reading things through. (I did skim through the rest though.) I read even that far because the novel was on a list of literary fiction I'd been working through. I knew it was considered a difficult work and wanted to give it a fair chance to win me over. Otherwise, I would have stopped at the second page of story.I not only don't find this is a great book and a "page-turner," I think it's badly written. Let me give you examples of why--examples right from the first two pages that I'm sure many a critic think are the very signs of genius and might let you know if this is a book you would find a keeper or would leave you cold:He has never done this before and he doesn't know any of the others and only two or three of them seem to know each other but they can't do this thing singly or in pairs so they have found one another by means of slidy looks that detect the fellow foolhard and here they stand, black kids and white kids up from the subways or off the local Harlem streets, lean shadows, bandido, fifteen in all, and according to topical legend maybe four will get through for every one that's caught.Ah yes, the beloved run-on endless-sentence-of-doom, which, like the very doorstop length of the book, is supposed to demonstrate profundity. Let's have another sentence shall we?The faces of the ticket sellers hung behind the windows like onions on strings.Somehow, unlike Virginia Woolf's description of flowers like fresh laundry in Mrs Dalloway, this doesn't do it for me. Forced metaphors like this abound. Here, have one more sentence that struck me as typically clumsy:Some are jumping, some are thinking about it, some need a haircut, some have girlfriends in woolly sweaters and the rest have landed in the ruck and are trying to get up and scatter.This is in reference to 15 boys jumping the turnstiles to see a baseball game without paying for a ticket. So how is needing a haircut or having girlfriends in woolly sweaters relevant or add to the narrative at this point? All these quotes are from the Prologue of 60 pages that was published separately as "Pafko at the Wall." Even some reviewers who counted Underworld a mess thought that section brilliant. So if you don't find that Prologue a work of genius I don't think you're going to be in love with the rest of the book. I think that Prologue does say a lot about Delillo. Both it and a great deal of the book hangs on baseball as a metaphor for American culture. The Prologue is about a legendary game between the Giants and Dodgers in 1951--through it we follow not just one of those turnstile jumpers but characters like J Edgar Hoover and Jackie Gleason--who is described vividly and repellingly as throwing up on Frank Sinatra. That turnstile jumper, who skipped school and slipped in without paying for a ticket, finds a seat and is befriended by a man who buys him a soda. At the end of the game he'll wrench this man's fingers to pry the home-run baseball out of his hand. So, if baseball is America, then the message is America is grasping, greedy, thieving, treacherous and repellent. (One thing about Delillo is there's nothing subtle about how he pounds out his themes.)The bulk of the book then deals with the man who ultimately bought that baseball--Nick Shay--who is in waste management. When we turn to him in Part One, the omniscience of the Prologue with touches of second person turns to first person for this part, but there are still
Great first chapter on "The shot heard round the world" baseball game.
(This has ended up as a bit of a waffling review sorry; in my defence it¿s a big book!)After being unimpressed by Falling Man I was a bit of a Don-sceptic, and remain so. I wanted to love this book: I love the ambition of it, the size of the themes (in a nutshell, American life in the second half of the 20th century) and the need to deal with them as a whole, the crunch in some of the writing, and much of the scattershot approach. One section, a collection of ¿fragments Public and Private in the 1950s and 1960s¿, I thought excellent, putting across a captivating picture of a time by magnifying scattered episodes in the various characters¿ lives. It was a condensed version of what I think the book as a whole hoped to achieve but, imho, generally didn¿t.I think there are some pretty big flaws in the book. The main one is that the characters are rarely, if ever, engaging. I didn¿t care where Nick Shay¿s father had gone, nor how he ended up in a juvenile detention centre (not spoilers btw, points brought in early on), or about any of the characters except the boy who grabs the baseball at the book¿s beginning, and his father, who recurs in three episodes. For a book over 800 pages long, this is a big deal ¿ losing the traditional linear narrative is fine, fitting even, but the reader losing empathy for the characters is fatal. Often they seemed too weighed down by the books¿ themes to breathe, and the knock-on effects in getting involved with them (and by extension those themes) becomes difficult. By the last hundred and fifty pages, I just wanted it to be over. Another beef is that a lot of themes and plot points are raised and then fall away, or come to nothing ¿ there is an irritating preoccupation with the number 13 that seems to go nowhere except to portray a vague sense of doom and weakness in the face of fate. A plotline about a highway murderer doesn¿t fulfill its promise; the media preoccupation with a movie of one of the killings echoes that surrounding the Zapruder film, which itself makes an appearance later in the text, but this display of a changing culture and the sources of its obsessions didn¿t feel very satisfying. I was never far away from thinking ¿Yes, I see. And your point?¿, and that ain¿t good.That¿s not to be totally disparaging, far from it; there¿s some superb writing throughout (even the bad bits are written well, and the good bits, particularly the baseball game and the scenes with Lenny Bruce¿s comedy routines, are brilliant), and it constantly seeks to challenge, which is a fine thing. I¿d say there¿s a lot to study here, and that¿s both a mark of respect and an alienating thing ¿ I can imagine someone writing a big essay on this book and taking more from it with further and deeper reading, but it¿s hard to imagine someone loving it. Personally I don¿t think I¿d want to go back to it, or that it will live particularly long in the memory. One last thought: I kept thinking, even at its best moments, that this is a book which will make no sense to anyone except cultural historians in fifty years¿ time; it¿s too locked into the time and place, with all the internal reference points which someone from the time will recognise but are bound to, in future, pass people by. Even for me (I was 7 when the Berlin Wall came down), being part of a new era made engaging with the text even harder than it would otherwise be. Again, that¿s not necessarily a huge flaw, but it does limit the audience who will really be able to appreciate the book.
Underworld by Don DeLillo is huge¿huge in the way that the United States is huge. This book, like our nation, is crowded with people, places, events and inexhaustible energy. It¿s got jazz, atomic testing, J. Edgar Hoover, flavored condoms, baseball, graffiti artists, inner city nuns, Jayne Mansfield, websites, Lenny Bruce, 50¿s doo-wop, chess and Mikhail Gorbachev¿s birthmark. And that¿s just for starters.The novel, which was nominated for the National Book Award in 1997, is a gargantuan undertaking by DeLillo (who also wrote Libra and The Names) and it is one of the most breathtaking volumes of literature you¿ll read in this or any century.Underworld covers a lot of territory and envelopes a cast of characters so diverse that DeLillo puts filmmaker Robert Altman to shame. But, just like Altman¿s classics Nashville and Short Cuts, everything gels just perfectly by the final page.The story opens at a baseball game. But not just any baseball game. It is Oct. 3, 1951 and the Dodgers are battling the Giants for the World Series pennant in the final game of the contest. J. Edgar is there, so are Jackie Gleason and Frank Sinatra, cheering and kvetching and downing ball park franks. Did it really happen this way? Were they really there at the game? Probably not. But I will say this as an aside: DeLillo¿s writing was so convincing that when J. Edgar Hoover picked up a discarded Life magazine and was attracted to a photo inside, I wrote to the editors at Life to see if I could get my hands on that back issue just to see what Hoover saw. That¿s how compelling DeLillo¿s writing is.Also attending the game is a young boy named Cotter who catches the game-winning home run smacked up into the stands. That one baseball, with its raised seams and tiny smudge of bat tar, resonates throughout the whole book as it passes from hand to hand over the next forty years.By starting Underworld in New York¿s Polo Ground with a crowd of 35,000, DeLillo describes a dizzying array of characters. His sentences¿nay, the very words¿tumble one after the other, panning from person to person like a restless camera. It¿s an incredible feat and it works so well for those first 60 pages that the rest of the novel almost feels a little drained. It¿s like putting the high-wire act before the rest of the circus. In fact, this opening prologue is so good, you could tear out the pages, put them behind glass in a museum and call it True Art. Here¿s the next-to-last line, coming after fifty-nine pages of atomic literary energy: "Shouts, bat-cracks, full bladders and stray yawns, the sand-grain manyness of things that can¿t be counted."DeLillo¿s prose is full of such "sand-grain manyness," moving effortlessly through place and time as it charts its cast of thousands. Central to the story are Nick Shay and Klara Sax who were briefly lovers back in the 1950s and who meet again in the 90s. Events ricochet off these two people, setting off a string of circumstances that, yes, eventually connect to the home-run baseball.If you like the writings of E.L. Doctorow, you¿ll love Underworld which mixes historic figures with fictional characters much like Doctorow¿s Ragtime. But DeLillo goes Doctorow one better by infusing these pages with a jazzy rhythm that¿s unique and invigorating. His words practically put bubbles in your blood.Open Underworld at random and you¿ll come across some great passages that will stand the test of time. Idly flipping through the pages, I found these two outstanding paragraphs in various locations:"A photograph is a universe of dots. The grain, the halide, the little silver things clumped in the emulsion. Once you get inside a dot, you gain access to hidden information, you slide inside the smallest event.""It was the time of Nixon¿s fall from office but she didn¿t enjoy it the way her friends did. Nixon made her think of her father, another man of frazzled mind, rehearsed in his very step, his physical address, bitter and distant at times, with a loser¿s
I'm convinced that no one who reads this damn thing remembers what it's about beyond the baseball story at the beginning -- and that was nothing special. DeLillo writes a flat, unemotional, uninvolving prose that I can only take in small doses. If Star Trek's Dr. Spock became a novelist, he'd sound like DeLillo.
He slide off her back and started going North. -Thanks.-