Christopher's Reviews > Underworld

Underworld by Don DeLillo
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What we excrete comes back to consume us.

When I finish a big, dense, postmodern book like this, the first thing I ask myself is what was that? What was it about? And with books like this, that's often the hardest question to answer intelligently.

It's easy to say what happened in it. It starts out with a riveting account of the Shot Heard Round the World, which is contrasted with the Soviet Union's successful test of an atom bomb. And there's Nick Shay the ex-con waste consultant and his brother Matt the chess prodigy-slash-reluctant nuclear scientist. Klara Sax is a postmodern artist who paints aircraft in the desert. Sister Edgar is a nun who's devoted her life to helping troubled youth. There are plenty of real-life characters that make cameos: J. Edgar Hoover, Lenny Bruce, Jayne Mansfield, Jackie Gleason, Frank Sinatra.

But to summarize what the book is really about... it's not something I'm prepared to do intelligently, but the quote at the top is as close as I can get. What we excrete comes back to consume us. We can manage our waste, but we can't get rid of it, at least not without destroying ourselves in the process.

At the end of the book, Nick Shay visits Kazakhstan, where a company takes the most dangerous waste the world has produced, and vaporizes it underground in a nuclear explosion. Poof, gone. Then he visits a nearby hospital and sees children born with one eyeball in the center of their head, or their head growing out of their shoulder, or one arm or six fingers. These are the ones who survived birth.

Not since Gravity's Rainbow has a book so fetishized the nuclear age. A boy masturbates into a condom because he thinks it looks modern and sleek like a rocket. A baseball is the same size as the uranium core of a nuclear bomb. Cars, moulded Jello, Jayne Mansfield's breasts... they're all bombs.

Is it a good book? Did I enjoy it? Yes and yes. (And, I believe, those are two very different questions. There are some very good books that I do not enjoy, and there are some bad books that I enjoy immensely.) Delillo is a forceful writer who is both very visceral and cerebral. His descriptions are vivid and lifelike. His writing can be both beautiful and very disturbing. It's long, but unlike most long books I've read, I can't think of a single moment I was bored.

Does it fit in with the other "big" postmodern novels, like Gravity's Rainbow, The Recognitions, Infinite Jest? I think so, or at least it's close. Time will tell if it, at least in my opinion, lives up to those others, because what defines Pynchon and Gaddis and Wallace to me is that my mind continually returns to them because they feel like books that contain the entire universe, or at least their own universe. Underworld feels a bit smaller than those. It feels more contained, possibly because it more closely resembles the actual world. Gravity's Rainbow and Underworld are both ostensibly historical fiction, but while Gravity's Rainbow feels like a world unto itself, Underworld feels like a piece of another world, i.e. the world. Underworld is a more or less realist novel, so I suspect in may fade in my memory into the rest of the "real" world more than those other books.

That said, it's a very good book and I recommend it, probably even more than I would recommend reading any of the other big postmodern classics. Out of the books I've mentioned in this review, this is by far the easiest to read. There's nothing tough about the prose itself, and while there are a lot of characters and plots, they're all pretty easy to keep track of; Delillo doesn't make things more complicated than they need to be, unlike some of the others.
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Reading Progress

February 7, 2012 – Shelved
February 7, 2012 – Shelved as: fiction
February 7, 2012 – Shelved as: 500-pages-or-more
February 13, 2012 – Shelved as: modern-classics
March 7, 2012 – Shelved as: american
October 11, 2017 – Started Reading
October 11, 2017 – Shelved as: 20th-century
October 16, 2017 –
page 137
16.57% "Then he remembers his books and goes back down the stairs because you can’t come home from school without your schoolbooks, fool."
November 4, 2017 –
page 275
33.25% "Part 3: The Cloud of Unknowing, Spring 1978"
December 28, 2017 –
page 509
61.55% "It was a gesture without a history. You hefted the weapon and pointed it and saw an interested smile fall across his face."
January 7, 2018 –
page 661
79.93% "Bronzing thought that walking was an art."
January 10, 2018 – Shelved as: postmodern
January 10, 2018 – Shelved as: national-book-award
January 10, 2018 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Dax (new)

Dax Great review. Slowly working my way through Delillo's portfolio. I was planning on saving this, his supposed magnum opus, for last but maybe I should move it up.

Christopher Thanks. What's your favorite of his so far?

message 3: by Dax (new)

Dax Christopher wrote: "Thanks. What's your favorite of his so far?"

I've only read three so far, but Libra is easily my favorite. Just read it a week or so ago and loved the character studies. Delillo did a great job with Oswald and his complicated, conflicted personality.

Zero K seems to get the cold shoulder from a lot of his fans but I thought it was very good. So much of that novel takes place within the protagonist's mind, which was an unusual reading experience for me.

message 4: by Liz M (new) - added it

Liz M Excellent review, btw.

Christopher Thanks, Liz!

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