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Underworld

August 11, 2008

After spending the bulk of my summer (the time I could afford to read more for pleasure than for class) working through the book, I’ve finally finished Underworld by Don DeLillo. I only say ‘finally’ because the book weighs in at 827 pages and lasted longer than I may have wanted it to. Turns out it was worth the time I put into it. Published in 1997, this novel is considered by many to be his magnum opus and it reads like a US cultural history from the 1950s through the mid-90s.

The novel opens with a boy named Cotter Martin hopping the fence to sneak into the 1951 NLCS game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers (interestingly, both teams have moved to California. New York is, apparently, an awful place to be). The center of the book is the ball that was struck during the Shot Heard ‘Round the World to end the game. The primary character is Nick Shay–a waste management executive living in Phoenix–and the authorial voice constantly vacillates from first to third person never allowing the reader a comfortable sense of the narrator. Along with Nick, a character of fiction, DeLillo employs actual historical figures such as J. Edgar Hoover, Truman Capote, and Lenny Bruce.

DeLillo says that he got the idea to call his novel Underworld when thinking about buried plutonium which got him thinking about Pluto, the god of the underworld. Though the fascination of Hoover, DeLillo uses the painting The Triumph of Death by Bruegel to introduce his constant theme that all plots lead to death. DeLillo first posits this notion in his novel Libra (his take on the JKF assassination) and it plays a major role in the bulk of his later fiction. Much of his work from the mid-80s on explores what effect death (not only dealing with the death of others, but the effect the fear of death has on the living) has on his characters.

I won’t much go into plot points in fear of giving away spoilers so I’ll just say that it is most definitely worth reading.

I do want to tough on DeLillo’s style. Whether he is considered postmodern, Romantic, or anything else, he’s a great writer. His style is slightly varied from novel to novel but it always remains true to what you expect from DeLillo. His characters, despite a consistent lack of description, remain vibrant and rarely flat. He’s occasionally difficult to follow but one can always find a way back in to his world.

I really need to end this unabashed author-crush I have on DeLillo before I begin writing my thesis.

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