Underworld by Don DeLillo

Reviewed by Ted Gioia

When The New York Times surveyed 124 writers and critics to
determine the best work of American fiction during the last twenty-
five years, Don DeLillo's
Underworld finished in second place with
eleven votes.  Only Toni Morrison's
Beloved, which received fifteen
votes, ranked ahead of DeLillo's massive 1997 novel.

Almost a half-century of history is crammed into
Underworld, and the constant interaction of the
diverging plot lines with pop culture events and
socio-political milestones adds to the piquant
flavor of this rambling novel.  
 Underworld starts
with a famous 1951 baseball game, when Giant
Bobby Thomson hits a game-winning home run,
the so-called “shot heard ‘round the world.”
The book wraps up 827 pages later in cyberspace,
where “everything is connected.  All human
knowledge gathered and linked, hyper-linked. . . .
World without end, amen.”

DeLillo, for his part, steers clear of obvious links and hyperlinks in this
massive work.  Instead he jumps freely, and without warning, from
vignette to vignette, character to character, decade to decade.
DeLillo's approach is essentially cinematic, based on masterfully
conceiving and executing discrete scenes and making generous use of
flashbacks.  This large novel defies our expectations of linear narrative
flow, and is instead built carefully, lovingly out of these isolated
tableaus, each one possessing a drive and vitality of its own.  DeLillo
creates a unified whole through juxtaposition and contrast.  To some
extent, the chronology reverses the typical future-directed timeline of
most fiction, and DeLillo himself has likened the structure of the book
to the countdown to zero that precedes a missile or rocket launch

Occasionally DeLillo will hold on to a setting and situation at length, as
in the opening ballgame narrative, which unfolds leisurely over sixty
pages, and involves a wide cast of characters.  But more often DeLillo
presents brief, potent interludes of only a few pages, which he sets up
and delivers with a sure touch, and quickly abandons for the next stop
on our itinerary.  DeLillo is the master of discontinuity, and the
moment you start to settle into the narrative flow is just when you can
count on a change in scenery.

But the cinematic quality of DeLillo's writing is especially evident in his
dialogue.  No modern writer constructs more engaging conversations
than Don DeLillo, and one would need to look to the film industry
(Quentin Tarantino comes to mind) to find someone in his league.  It's
not just clever repartee – heaven knows we hear enough of that on TV
in mind-numbing thirty minute and sixty minute chunks.  Rather it's
DeLillo's rare ability to capture that strange moment when two people
are communicating, but really aren't;  when they are talking past each
other, engaging in conversations that are almost simultaneous
soliloquies.

Yet DeLillo can also present old fashioned descriptive writing of the
highest order.  It may sound surprising, but my favorite passage in this
book is several pages devoted to a description of the different
components that make up a shoe.  This section does little to advance
the plot, but as you have probably picked up by now, this author is not
overly concerned with pushing ahead a linear story line.  Here DeLillo
pauses from his other themes to demonstrate how a great writer can
observe a wealth of details in something so banal that the rest of us
would just ignore it.  If I were picking assigned reading for creative
writing students, this account of how to look at a shoe would be toward
the top of the syllabus.  (Philip Roth offers us a similarly brilliant
interlude on the construction of gloves in
American Pastoral.  If I
could find a few more of these I would consider compiling a whole
wardrobe anthology.)

However, no DeLillo novel would is complete without the opportunity
for target practice, for satire and irony aimed at an appealing bulls-
eye.  This author is the expert at picking subjects that almost satirize
themselves.  Do you remember the Hitler Studies professor in
White
Noise
who couldn't speak German? Well, we have more obvious
targets in
Underworld.  DeLillo's technique is to take the matter and
anti-matter of culture and force them together to see what happens.  In
Underworld we have J. Edgar Hoover (that name, once full of sturm
und drang
, slowly becoming consigned to the world of comedy)
obsessed with a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.  We have a
former juvenile delinquent growing up to be a successful executive in
the field of garbage.  We have acres of decommissioned military
aircraft taken over by a tribe of avant garde painters, who hope to
transform bombers into works of art.  DeLillo delights in sharp,
ridiculous contrasts, and they have become a trademark of his books.

Yet I am more impressed by the moments when DeLillo abandons his
irony and authorial distance, and enters deeply into the emotional
heart of an interlude.   In
Underworld he presents a moving sub-plot
involving a young abandoned girl trying to survive in the projects, and
the social workers who hope to rescue her.  This account is so raw and
seemingly unfiltered, that it is hard to believe that it came from the pen
of this quintessentially post-modern author.

Along the way DeLillo tosses in a bevy of real-life figures and historical
events.  In addition to J. Edgar Hoover and Bobby Thomson, we
encounter Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason, Lenny Bruce, Toots Shor,
the nuclear arms race, and an assortment of various other bits of
contemporary history and popular culture.  If
Underworld were a
shelf in your home, it would be covered with bric-a-brac, cheap
mementos from past vacations, and a few important sentimental items
almost hidden by the clutter.

Underworld, despite the claims made on its behalf, may not quite
deserve enshrinement as the Great American Novel. I might even steer
readers unfamiliar with this writer first to
White Noise before urging
them to tackle this big book.  But if you are serious about taking the
temperature of contemporary fiction you will eventually need to come
to terms with
Underworld. A lot of America has found its way into this
massive work, and it is the author’s most ambitious novel. Much like
Bobby Thomson does at the start of
Underworld, Don DeLillo has
shown that he too is a Giant who can hit a home run that will long be
heard 'round the world.
The New Canon focuses on
great works of fiction
published since 1985.  These
books represent the finest
literature of the current era,
and are gaining recognition as
the new classics of our time.
In this installment of
The
New Canon
, Ted Gioia
reviews
Underworld by Don
DeLillo.
The New Canon
The Best in Fiction Since 1985
The New Canon

Home Page

Gabriel García Márquez:
Love in the Time of Cholera

David Foster Wallace:
Infinite Jest

Margaret Atwood:
The Handmaid's Tale

Toni Morrison:
Beloved

Jonathan Franzen:
The Corrections

Don DeLillo:
Underworld

Zadie Smith:
White Teeth

Roberto Bolaño:
2666

Mark Z. Danielewski:
House of Leaves

Cormac McCarthy:
Blood Meridian

Philip Roth:
American Pastoral

Jonathan Lethem:
The Fortress of S0litude

Haruki Murakami:
Kafka on the Shore

Edward P. Jones:
The Known  World

Ian McEwan:
Atonement

Michael Chabon:
The Amazing Adventures of
Kavalier & Clay

Philip Roth:
The Human Stain

Mario Vargas Llosa:
The Feast of the Goat

Marilynne Robinson:
Gilead

David Mitchell:
Cloud Atlas

José Saramago:
Blindness

Jennifer Egan:
A Visit from the Good Sqad

W. G. Sebald:
Austerlitz

Donna Tartt:
The Secret History

Michael Ondaatje:
The English Patient

Saul Bellow:
Ravelstein

A.S. Byatt:
Possession

Umberto Eco:
Foucault's Pendulum

Cormac McCarthy:
The Road

David Foster Wallace:
The Pale King

J.K. Rowling:
Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone

Arundhati Roy:
The God of Small Things

Roberto Bolaño:
The Savage Detectives

Paul Auster:
The New York Trilogy

Per Petterson:
Out Stealing Horses

Ann Patchett:
Bel Canto

Ben Okri:
The Famished Road

Joseph O'Neill:
Netherland

Haruki Murakami:
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Marisha Pessl:
Special Topics in Calamity
Physics

Jonathan Franzen:
Freedom

Colm Tóibín:
The Master

Denis Johnson:
Tree of Smoke

Richard Russo:
Empire Falls

Alice Munro:
Runaway

Martin Amis:
London Fields

Mark Haddon:
The Curious Incident of the
Dog in the Night-Time

John Banville:
The Sea

Chuck Palahniuk
Fight Club

Jeffrey Eugenides:
Middlesex

Junot Diaz:
The Brief Wondrous Life of
Oscar Wao

Aravind Adiga:
The White Tiger

Tim O'Brien:
The Things They Carried

Tobias Wolff:
Old School

Tim Winton:
Cloudstreet

David Foster Wallace:
Oblivion

More to come


Recommended Links:

Great Books Guide
Conceptual Fiction
Postmodern Mystery
Ted Gioia's personal web site

American Fiction Notes
The Big Read
Critical Mass
The Elegant Variation
Dana Gioia
The Millions
The Misread City
Paper Cuts
Joseph Peschel

Disclosure note: Writers on this site and its
sister sites may receive promotional copies of
works under review.