Quantcast

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

DeLillo's Underworld: "Everything is connected in the end."

Garbage is a de facto history of culture. The threat of nuclear warfare and baseball are inexorably connected because, each in its own way, is a source of nostalgia regarding the second half of the 20th century. And art is art, whether its avant-garde film or graffiti. There, I just summarized an 827-page novel in three sentences. You're. Welcome.

Okay, yeah — there's a bit more. It took me just shy of two months to plow through this behemoth. It's far from Gravity's Rainbow-level difficult. But it's not something you'll want to take to the beach. The novel jumps back and forth in time throughout the second half of the 20th century. We see different characters in different phases of their lives, and constantly meet new ones. It's a huge cast — from chess gurus to 1950s gangsters, from bored businessmen adulterers to graffiti artists to nuns.

But nuclear weapons and baseball are really the two most common themes of the novel, and they bob and weave past each other throughout the strains of stories, often connecting, often in surprising ways. For instance, the prologue of the novel — which is 60 pages of sheer, unadulterated genius — chronicles the last game of the baseball season in 1951 in which Bobby Thompson hit the famous "shot heard around the world" and the Giants won the pennant. J. Edgar Hoover is at the game, and is informed that the Russians have just test-detonated a nuclear device.

From there, through various strains of story, we follow the baseball Thompson hit through the years into the mid-1990s, as characters come in contact with it, including a memorabiliast named Marvin who has made it his life's work to authenticate the ball. If there is a main character in Underworld, it's Nick Shay, who works for a waste management company in Phoenix, and now owns the ball (if it is, indeed, the real ball). Immediately after the prologue, we see Nick driving through the West Texas desert to visit an art installation by a woman named Klara, who is painting decommissioned war planes. A guy named Charlie, who bought the Thompson baseball from the kid's father back in 1951, flew in one of these planes. And, also, Nick and Klara had had a brief affair back in 1950s New York.

You see how complicated this can get? DeLillo makes you hold a lot in your head at once. But the thrill of this novel is when you discover a connection, whether thematically or as a part of the story he's slowly building. At one point, in 1951, after the baseball game DeLillo tells us about in the prologue, two men are talking, and one asks if the other saw the newspaper. The man says, "They're calling it The Shot Heard Round The World." The other man, thinking he means the story about the Russians' nuclear test, wonders how we detected evidence of the blast. The other guy says "No no no no. We're speaking about the home run. Bobby Thompson's heroic shot. The tabloids have dubbed it for posterity." I loved this scene! And there are many, many like it. (Much earlier, one character tells another "...because when they make an atomic bomb, listen to this, they make the radioactive core the exact same size as a baseball.")

I mean, there's just so much here: Lenny Bruce screaming "We're all gonna die" during his act during the Cuban Missile Crisis. A set piece about the New York City blackout in 1965. A serial killer who shoots people in their cars on Texas highways. And a scene where J. Edgar Hoover and his assistant go to a party in Manhattan, and Hoover might be gay.

It's just a massive amount of story. If you generally like this kind of thing, yes, Underworld is for you. I loved it...mostly. I hate to be as cliché as this, but Underworld really is a giant puzzle that rewards you as you figure out how each piece falls into place. And if even if you can't puzzle out the connections, often, DeLillo's prose is enough to keep you going. I thought often while reading that I wasn't going to remember this sentence or that metaphor, but it was enough to know that I'd enjoyed it immensely in that moment.

9 comments:

  1. I love DeLillo. White Noise and End Zone are particularly great. I could take or leave some of the newer stuff (I'm thinking Cosmopolis in particular). I've read the first 200 pages of Underworld twice and have yet to finish it. I don't know why. I even took it on a backpacking trip and didn't guilt myself into reading it if only because it made my pack five pounds heavier. One day...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ha - yeah, it's not a small book. End Zone is good, eh? I'll have to check that out. I haven't tried his new, new stuff - Cosmopolis (which is now a Robert Pattinson movie. *head desk*) or Point Omega. Sounds like you're suggesting a skip...

      Delete
    2. I haven't read Point Omega. I would skip Cosmopolis (and the movie, which is kind of unbearable and pretentious, although interesting for that reason). Body Artist is also pretty meh, although it had redeeming qualities. End Zone is really good, one of those sports books that is and isn't about sports.

      Delete
  2. You finished! I have a total love/hate relationship with that book. I love that I'm done and love, to put it simply, his ability, but man did I hate it looming over me for years. I can't wait to tackle some of his shorter works.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know exactly what you mean. I must've had that on my shelf for a solid eight years before I read it. And even while reading, sometimes it was just too intimidating to pick up again and continue (hence, two months). The only others of his I've read are White Noise and Falling Man, and while I really liked Underworld, I LOVED both of those. So maybe his shorter stuff is where it's at...

      Delete
  3. That seems like a fastball I can hit. I love the puzzles.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Seems like right up your alley, fella. Give 'er a go!

      Delete
  4. Weird. I may have to check this book out.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Just discovered DeLillo this summer after reading and loving White Noise. I am reading Cosmopolis now (it's very short and I like Cronenberg) and pretentious is an excellent way to describe it. Not nearly as good as White Noise. Good to know I should stick with the earlier works.

    ReplyDelete