Rhys Thomas's Reviews > Underworld

Underworld by Don DeLillo
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Feb 14, 2012

it was amazing
Read in February, 2012

Don DeLillo’s Underworld opens with a baseball game at the Polo Grounds in the 1950s. The Dodgers are playing the Giants and we’re introduced to the stadium through a black kid jumping the turnstiles and watching the game. In this opening salvo the point of view then switches from Cotter, the kid, to Frank Sinatra to Jackie Gleason to J Edgar Hoover. The game is a classic in American baseball history that saw batter Bobby Thomson hit a ball into the stands deep in the final innings to take the Giants to victory. It just so happens that on this day, October 3, 1951, the Soviets conduct a test nuclear explosion, and so begins two of the three intertwining themes of the novel: the journey of the baseball after Cotter manages to grab it in a scuffle, and the nuclear story that took place over the second half of the Twentieth Century. The final theme is that of civilisation’s garbage; how we control and dispose of the rubbish we generate. There are other themes, art and media, religion and information, but the three mentioned above come back time and time again.

It’s an incredible book, the most impressive I’ve ever read, if not the most enjoyable. Some parts are sublimely good. After the baseball game, for example, we are told the story of the Texas Highway Killer, a man who assassinates people by shooting them from a moving vehicle going the other way down an expressway. And there is the section where the novel’s lead character, Nick Shay (if the novel has a lead character then he is it), visits a garbage site that stretches as far as the eye can see and where he tells us about a ship floating around the world’s oceans that no country will allow to dock because the stuff on board, secret stuff, is so toxic that even letting it come near the shore is considered too risky by most nation states. When reading these sections your eyes fly across the pages, the prose picks you up an sings you through fifty pages without your even realising it.

There are more difficult sections as well but you never get the sense that you’re reading anything less than a masterpiece, which is what this is. It’s a book that is there to paint impressionistically the idea of America in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Italian immigrants struggle from working to middle classes, artists try to find street punks painting incredible frescos on the sides of trains, marital infidelities are discovered and forgiven and always there is the shadow of nuclear war.

For me, the book is at its best when DeLillo is dealing with the three main themes. The baseball crops up in the most intriguing plotlines and you get a sense of silent things moving through history, the sections about human waste are stunningly grim and the bits about the bomb, from test bombers flying over blasts holding pillows over their faces and still seeing the bones in their hands to Nick’s brother trying to justify working on the bomb technology are unputdownable.

The book jumps around from story to story, like a roving camera moving across the country and the narrative goes backwards in time, starting in the 1990’s (after the prologue) back to 1951 when Nick is a teenager in the Bronx. This jumping is confusing if you’re looking for a traditional story but if you forget that and try to think of Underworld as soaking up an experience then it works beautifully.

The real star of the show is, of course, the prose. The way he writes is hypnotic. You start reading and it’s difficult but after while you fall into the rhythm, the repeating motifs that recycle throughout certain sections, the long sentences, and those little details of humanity that make total sense.

Make no bones about it, Underworld is a dense and difficult read. It’s a book for the head more than the heart. When it’s good it’s near perfect but there are bits that are slow. Over the eight hundred plus pages it pushes what is possible from fiction right to the edge and, given that it was completed in 1997, it is almost prescient, hinting as it does to Islamic terror and the total ubiquity of the internet. But if you love words and language you can’t really beat this. In the New York times it was voted 2nd in a list of best American books of the past 25 years and you can totally see why.
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