Our lives, our half century. Nick Shay and Klara Sax knew each other once, intimately, and they meet again in the American desert. He is trying to outdistance the crucial events of his early life, haunted by the hard logic of loss and by the echo of a gunshot in a basement room. She is an artist who has made a blood struggle for independence. Don DeLillo's mesmerizing novel opens with a legendary baseball game played in New York in 1951. The glorious outcome -- the home run that wins the game is called the Shot Heard Round the World -- shades into the grim news that the Soviet Union has just tested an atomic bomb. The baseball itself, fought over and scuffed, generates the narrative that follows. It takes the reader deeply into the lives of Nick and Klara and into modern memory and the soul of American culture -- from Bronx tenements to grand ballrooms to a B-52 bombing raid over Vietnam. A generation's master spirits come and go. Lennny Bruce cracking desperate jokes, Mick Jagger with his devil strut, J. Edgar Hoover in a sexy leather mask. And flashing in the margins of ordinary life are the curiously connectecd materials of the culture. Condoms, bombs, Chevy Bel Airs and miracle sites on the Web. Underworld is a story of men and women together and apart, seen in deep clear detail and in stadium-sized panoramas, shadowed throughout by the overarching conflict of the Cold War. It is a novel that accepts every challenge of these extraordinary times -- Don DeLillo's greatest and most powerful work of fiction.
Swing. Try and connect with it if you can. You're sure to get a piece. Whistling vortexes grabbing at this globe's seams. It ducks towards the life of Nick Shay, son of a small time bookie, who is trying to deal with his father's disappearance. It dodges toward Klara Sax, a woman struggling to find her identity as an artist. It hops around Nick's family and neighborhood, and dashes into the future, and the past. And when you swing at it, it turns into the smiling face of Lenny Bruce, shrieking "We're all gonna die" and then into the Mona Lisa smile of an obscure junkie, who IS about to die. And, oh, it turns into Bobby Thomson's home run ball, bouncing through bleacher seats, about to change into a holy grail, provenance unkown.
The novel's structure is like a shuffled deck made of cards from its characters lives. The narrative, at one point, swirls past that famous monument to found art - the Watts Tower and takes on its magic, dazzling the reader as bits and pieces of multiple characters' pasts and futures come together and suggest grander themes concerning ...the environment? ...capitalism?...the human comedy?
The best parts of Underworld (the very best were the Lenny Bruce monologues) reminded me of the lyricism of The Great Gatsby and On the Road. Boats being beat back by the current; the land stretching away beyond New Jersey... and God as Pooh Bear.
Our earth, the paradox, still spinning, still circling and yet - and it takes an artist like DeLillo to tell this part - "Going... going...gone!"
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 a lot of the hallmarks of the prose style of the Prologue. We get this long rambling scene in this part about condoms. The first person narrative is more accessible, but still at times disjointed, and we're headed to another extended metaphor: American culture as trash.
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 6 parts until you hit the epilogue set in the near future. After Part One, the point of view will shift again between first and third person. Nothing about this book is straightforward--not the prose, point-of-view, narrative, characters or the very thin plot.
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 a fan of "post-modern literature" with disjointed narratives and turgid, abstruse prose that revels in showing us the tawdriness of American life, by all means, go pick up a copy.
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.
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...
There is no question for me that the writing in this book is 5 star, all the way. Though the lengthy baseball stadium scene at the beginning, packed with American cliches and the slapstick team of Hoover and Gleason, started me off decisively thinking I was not at all going to like this book, it won me over with its amazing presentation and acute powers of observation. To my amazement I found myself eventually able to see the baseball game (and fans) from a whole other perspective than I thought possible. This is 5 star stuff. And it just keeps going, and going, and going...
And yet, honestly, the book is extremely American, and as much as I'm dazzled by the writing and observations, the characters and content just don't speak to me personally very much. Hence, for me, though the writing is top notch, I can't get much beyond "liked it" (3 stars).
So, seeking enlightenment, I naturally read a bunch of reviews here to get a sense of how others have evaluated this work. There's very little middle ground. There's a blanket of 4 and 5 stars, peppered with shotgun blasts of of 1 star holes.
The 1 star hits are, without a doubt, the more substantial (sadly) and fun to read. I guess the 5 star reviewers are just too in awe and humbled to attempt to write anything insightful after completing the masterpiece? What more is there to say?
I am in entire sympathy with most of the 1 star reviews I read. Yes, the book really feels long. Yes, what "plot" there is, there hardly is. Yes, Delillo is brutally long winded. Yes, it can't help but drag on probably even the most ardent fan in places. Yes, it's really hard to hang on to the thread, and not drift off into the aether of words.
I am in sympathy with those who "did not like", for these reasons. They are justified in this perspective. And yet I am also sad. They seem to have missed so much. I feel, when confronted with such a sweeping, complexly structured, and yet minutely detailed work as this, that the lack is in us the readers rather than in the text. This is a work we really do need to expand ourselves and apply ourselves to connect with, as lovers of literature, lovers of observation, and lovers of life.
And so, slightly ironically, it was the delightful and painful one star reviews that pushed me from the middle of the road into the extremely starry expanse. This book deserves the stars, even if I don't entirely feel them.
I still like White Noise more (the only other Delillo I've thus far read) -- though it has less stars from me.
I hope this explanation of my here aberrant rating is satisfactory (to me).
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.
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.
I'm a big fan of DeLilo, so I'm used to the eliptical choppiness of his writing. Much of DeLilo's writing can be viewed as pastiche, with deliberate mixing of styles. Deadpan depressive passages brush up easily against patches of black humor. White Noise, for example, has chapters of beautiful descriptive weight, followed by pure bathos, undercutting what has gone before. The deliberate disjunctions of Great Jones Street and The Names (two of my favorite DeLilo books) represent an attempt to approach a single subject from multiple perspectives, and are effective because the books are short enough for the reader to remember, contain, and make the connections which DeLilo leaves out. But in Underworld there are parts which just don't seem to fit in at all. This problem, coupled with the sheer length of the book, makes it hard to contain the story, such as it is, and makes me think that the book would have been better had it been edited down. It's a compendium of too much.
Underworld starts off with a lengthy Prologue, telling the story of the famous 1951 World Series baseball game which culminated in the home run by Bobby Thompson, famously dubbed “The Shot Heard Round the World”. Present at the game are J. Edgar Hoover, Jackie Gleason, and Frank Sinatra, sitting together. While at the game Hoover gets news of another shot from the other side of the world, the first test firing of an atomic bomb in the Soviet Union. Both “shots” serve as plot structures in Underworld. The fate of the baseball as it lands in the stands and is fought over and changes hands is one thread leading out. The other thread is the nuclear theme. After the home run spectators shower the field with paper. A large page from Life magazine lands on Hoover. It is a double page spread of Hieronomous Bosch's grotesque painting, “The Triumph of Death.” Hoover is mesmerized by the scene. Much later, in the book's Epilogue, Nick (the main narrator) visits a present day nuclear waste facility in Kazakhstan and is shown a facility which houses the actual freak show of deformed patients which Hoover saw in the Bosch painting. Nick, of course, is unconnected to Hoover, apart from his owning what might be the actual baseball from the actual World Series game. Such are the tenuous plot connections.
As in Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, waste is a dominant theme in Underworld. Nick's job is in waste management, and much of the book is a meditation on the byproducts of consumer culture. Another theme which DeLilo shares with Pynchon in Underworld is that of betrayal, a theme which Pynchon explores so well in Vineland. The first betrayal in Underworld is by a father who sells the famous world series baseball which his son fought over and brought home. Other betrayals between husband and wife resonate throughout the book. None of the book is chronological, jumping around from early fifties to the mid nineties in freewheeling style. Elements of theme are eked out slowly, and the plot follows a backward trajectory.
Along the way Lenny Bruce's routines feature heavily. Hoover is also a key player, and we are allowed to see inside his psyche with such well crafted sentences as this:
“In the endless estuarial mingling of paranoia and control, the dossier was an essential device. Edgar had many enemies-for-life and the way to deal with such people was to compile massive dossiers.” (p. 559)
DeLilo has always been good at describing landscape in such a way as to infuse it with the innermost musings and fears of his characters. Arroyos, hinterlands, desert wastes, unmapped areas and estuarial minglings are powerful metaphorical repositories of experience, as are rooftops, waste lots and heavily peopled Bronx neighborhoods.
In the end the payoff is not as great as the effort. Underworld is contained finally, in the same way that a twist tie contains a garbage sack. There are tremendous passages of sustained brilliance, done in DeLilo's patented lapidary style, but overall the sum of the parts doesn't quite add up to a well fashioned whole.
To put this giving-up in context, this book is the only - the ONLY - book I haven't completed once it got onto my list. I don't know what it says about me that I will waste my time reading complete crap even after I realize the completeness of it crappiness, but it definitely says something about this book that even I will not waste any more of my time on it. Don DeLillo, you should be ashamed of yourself.
Extraordinary, and truly unique. Its power comes from the layering of seemingly disparate story lines and characters back and forth in time and place. The cumulative effect is ultimately staggering.
My wife asked, "What's it about?" and I didn't know where to begin. A baseball? The Cold War? Garbage? Family? Technology? Government and corporate intrusiveness? Marriage and relationships? Crime and punishment and rehabilitation? Art? Race? Celebrity culture? New York City? America? History and memory?
Whatever. It doesn't matter. It's an exhilarating and unforgettable joyride.
Pair this novel with Jonathan Franzen's "The Corrections" and "Freedom" and you won't get a much better sense of America since World War II -- how we live and the world we live in.
If this book is any indication, there's no questioning DeLillo's place among the great living literary legends. He is an expert manipulator of the English language and he managed to make it easy to keep track of dozens of characters. The fact that this book centered around a baseball game didn't hurt either.
I did enjoy reading this book but it also felt so massive, so serious and so “Very Important”, that I felt overwhelmed by it, and found myself needing to put it down and pick up another book, for days at a time. I've felt this way about books before, but with other books it's been a case of being emotionally exhausted by an extremely intense narrative. In this case, I just got tired of listening to him wax philosophical.
In summation : It was an excellent book, though I've seen it listed a few times as one of the top 5 American novels of all time, and with that I have to disagree. I would recommend it to someone who wants to become totally immersed in a long tale, and someone who likes non-linear plots, as it does jump around constantly, from one decade to another.
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 bent frame, all head and hands."
As we close out the last days of this century, I can think of no better book to recommend than Underworld for the way it captures the American character of the past 50 years. DeLillo’s scope is big and breathy and almost, but not quite, stretches itself to the limit. You can practically hear the plausibility twanging like an overstretched rubber band. Even if you can’t quite grasp it all, you know for certain that you’re in the hands of a master.
And the "shot heard 'round the world" part is pretty incredible too. Further opinions forthcoming on a pending reread, but I read it 7-8 years ago and those are the parts that have stuck with me.
I have read this novel twice so far, but I would have to read it many more times to understand the rich layers of symbolism. Fortunately, it is so fascinating that I look forward to such a process.
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.