Underworld is a grand tome that is deservedly called a “Great American Novel,” a “Masterpiece,” or just “Very Long.” At 827 pages, DeLillo packs his dense novel full of fascinating characters, richly detailed locations, and enough emotional heft to carry at least five books. DeLillo, along with Cormac McCarthy, is rightly considered one of the titans of late twentieth century American literature. His prose is straightforward and unadorned, yet his language is so evocative and descriptive that you can feel everything he writes. His brilliance lies in his ability to probe the psyche of a person, a nation, an event, or even an object. A master of aesthetics, DeLillo is a pointillist painter with words.
While DeLillo can hone in on a moment and extrapolate reams of data to understand that moment from all angles, he still manages to paint a sweeping picture of Cold War America. Told in reverse-chronological order, Underworld begins in the modern day (which was then the late 90’s) and goes backwards through the decades until 1951. The prologue, practically a novella, focuses on a fateful day in 1951 when “the shot heard round the world” took place. The “shot” refers to a baseball home run during a playoff game between the New York Dodgers and Giants, which, coincidentally--amazingly--took place the same day the Soviet Union exploded their first atomic bomb. Truth is stranger than fiction, but DeLillo uses the day to capture the grandeur, paranoia, and interconnectedness that follows in the rest of the novel.
The home run baseball from that 1951 game connects most of the players in the novel. DeLillo retraces the baseball’s ownership through the decades, going from a local Bronx man to a memorabilia collector to one of the protagonists, a man named Nick Shay. Nick, originally from the Bronx, lives in Arizona where he works for a waste management company, specializing in storing nuclear waste. A soul adrift in the American West, Nick is burdened with a tragic past, much like his country. And like America, he is also burdened with an existential crisis, unsure of the future and unsure how to define himself in this new, modern age.
It’s nearly impossible to summarize the plot, not only because there are many subplots, but because doing so would take so much time that you’d be better off just reading the book. The novel is composed of vignettes, snapshots in time that, when stitched together, tell the story of its characters. Each chapter could work as its own short story, which, for me, made reading the long novel breezy and refreshing. Rather than being taxed with remembering who’s who and what’s what, I was able to enjoy each chapter as its own pearl. In fact, what’s important isn’t necessarily plot points, but the truths behind the stories. On practically every page you could find DeLillo’s thesis statement and also a universal truth (sometimes they’re one in the same). In 827 pages, you would hope that some sentences jump out at you, but in Underworld you get more than you anticipate, and each gem snaps your head back with its profound wisdom.
What general truths, then, does the novel espouse? It’s easy to forget that the 1990s were an innocent age. America, emerging victorious from the Cold War, was the lone superpower. There were little or no threats looming over our heads, and the fear of total annihilation suddenly disappeared overnight. America was in a bubble, a still limbo where we didn’t know our place in the world. We had time to reflect back on the past fifty years, when nuclear bombs were the norm. In the 90s, as in today, with enough time and distance, the thought of a nuclear warhead raining down on us, destroying civilization, seemed preposterous. It was mad. It was also very real. But, despite the fear of global meltdown, people went on living their lives.
Underworld examines those unsung heroes of the Cold War: the everyday people. The men and women who scraped by, trying to make sense of their own purpose while trying to make sense of the hectic, chaotic world around them.
Now, though, in a post-9/11 world, we’re thrown into a different “Us vs. Them” mentality. The world is again in chaos (is it ever not?), and we’re slowly (hopefully) emerging from the terrible shadow of fear. So, while the idea of Underworld may seem quaint and dated now, we can still appreciate its message. In fact, by reading the chapters that take place in the 90s we can see both a prescience and a timelessness in the way DeLillo imagines a nation as eerily paranoid about the future. And today, with the prospect of a nuclear Iran, the novel regains its immediacy.
While DeLillo easily paints a maco picture, he specializes in the micro moments. Interior thoughts, small conversations, quiet reveries, even the minute description of a work of art: these moments make up the underworld of our existence. DeLillo captures them effortlessly, almost stream-of-consciousness, which made the novel flow quickly.
Though I don’t know for sure, parts (especially later parts of the novel) felt autobiographical to me. DeLillo was born and raised in the Bronx, in an Italian-American family, much like Nick Shay. The later chapters that take place primarily in the 1950s Bronx felt a bit removed from the rest of the novel. It was a little too specific, a little too much of a departure from the grand scheme of the rest of the book. Too much time was focused on certain characters while we lost track of others during these chapters, but it’s hard to complain given that the writing and the characterization were still top notch.
DeLillo brings his story back to the present at the very end, and he tries to tie everything (technology included) together in a way that does work, but it actually feels a little quaint given the age we live in now.
There is, of course, a lot more that can be said about Underworld. It’s long, but well worth your time (and I’m not just saying that to make myself feel better about the time I spent on it). It’s a big book and a Big Book, one deserving of all of the praise heaped on it (in 2006, a group of prominent writers named it the number two book in the past 25 years, behind Toni Morrison’s Beloved).
If you see a ragged copy of Underworld in a used bookstore or see the book littering a for sale rack, pick up a copy. Or order a new one and keep it on hand. The small stories that get tucked away shouldn’t be lost forever. Sometimes, they’re the stories that really matter.
*In case you were wondering, this has nothing to do with the vampire vs. werewolf movies of the same name.