I grudgingly gave this three stars, just as I grudgingly gave White Noise two. For me a begrudged star almost always indicates a lack of enjoyability, usually in the face of some detectable higher quality of literature. In both books I somewhat admire what DeLillo is doing, yet I require more than a cold intellectual exercise out of my literature. In other words, I still don’t see the point of displeasurable pleasure reading.
This book is significantly better than White Noise but equally flawed, although in different ways. In fact, Underworld had practically the opposite problem as White Noise, since the latter suffered from intentional superficiality and the former suffers primarily from inaccessibility. Perhaps ironically, the titles of each book are excellent signals of the problems that await each respective reader.
I won’t get too much into the plot besides to say that there is not a traditional narrative, just around twenty characters that we follow over the course of five decades and 800 pages. If that sounds like it would be difficult for an author to pull off, it is, and DeLillo didn’t. I guess it’s redundant to say it’s too long since I already mentioned the 800 pages. Here’s an example:
The cheesecake was smooth and lush, with the personality of a warm and well-to-do uncle who knows a hundred dirty jokes and will die of sexual exertions in the arms of his mistress (180).
Now, this sentence is interesting, funny, and also completely useless. Too many times DeLillo takes his eye off the prize in favor of these masturbatory asides. It’s the same Tom Robbins-y tendency that bothered me in White Noise.
It is somewhat entertaining to think about the book post-fact, and to analyze how he weaved all of these minor subplots and various characters into his overall theme of the dirty underside of what we call normal life. He does it with subtlety and artistry, yet the book’s disjointed nature — randomly hopping between characters and years/decades — makes it difficult to stay engaged. Additionally, the book’s length means it took several weeks to read, and by the end the events from the beginning of the novel lost any impact just because I couldn’t really remember them. There are many powerful moments and scenes that could have been woven into a highly impactful novel with stricter editing and perhaps more conventional narration.
Maybe I missed the part where the postmodern classic no longer needs to be enjoyable, but for my postmodern dollars I’ll take Cormac McCarthy or Jose Saramago every time. This book reminds me of Sophie’s Choice in that I thought the tremendous adulation each book received was overblown.
Here are some choice cuts that demonstrate DeLillo’s skill, despite his questionable narrative/structural choices:
(Discussing video of the Texas Highway Killer, the last sentence here is just beautiful.)
Seeing someone at the moment he dies, dying unexpectedly. This is reason alone to stay fixed to the screen. It is instructional, watching a man shot dead as he drives along on a sunny day. It demonstrates an elemental truth, that every breath you take has two possible endings. And that’s another thing. There’s a joke locked away here, a note of cruel slapstick that you are willing to appreciate even if it makes you feel a little guilty. Maybe the victim’s a chump, a sort of silent-movie dupe, classically unlucky. He had it coming in a sense, for letting himself be caught on camera. Because once the tape starts rolling it can only end one way. This is what the context requires. . . . The more you watch the tape, the deader and colder and more relentless it becomes. The tape sucks the air right out of your chest but you watch it every time (159-160).
Ismael stood their coughing and Edgar moved back against the far wall. She knew she ought to be more sympathetic to the man. But she was not sentimental about fatal diseases. Dying was just an extended version of Ash Wednesday. She intended to meet her own end with senses intact, grasp it, know it finally, open herself to the mystery that others mistake for something freakish and unspeakable (245).
He’s very good at conveying a feeling and sense, without using the precise language to explain exactly what he means. And I love this one because it makes me think of 100 times when I’ve experienced it myself:
They laugh and stop and laugh again. It’s one of those jokes that reverberates for ten or twenty seconds, bouncing around the premises, one meaning echoing into another. . . (651)
A bit of DeLillo’s stream of consciousness characterization:
In the stronger light down here he could see that Marvin Lundy’s hair was a swatch of loomed synthetic, ash-brown, combed sleekly forward, and it made Brian think of Las Vegas and pinky rings and prostate cancer (169).
They shook hands and exchanged the wry smile of adversaries who are enjoined from mauling each other by some inconvenience of context (195).