Sunday, August 23, 2015

Underworld (1997)

Although it was published very near the end of the 20th century, in 1997, Don DeLillo's Underworld has already earned outsize acclaim as one of the great novels of that century. It's big, it's mythic, it's—as Wikipedia puts it—"a non-linear narrative that has many intertwined themes": nuclear proliferation, baseball, the Bronx, and a general sense of desperation and despair. It might add up, but I thought it was too much work to confirm. In fact, its willfully counterintuitive strategy of isolated incidents recounted the wrong way in time too often annoyed. There are flashes of brilliance scattered everywhere—and that's not just a pun on the mushroom clouds populating it (or should that be depopulating it?). But nuclear anxiety under the shadow of twin towers of superpowers already feels like a painfully dated trope, and the constant resort to it here is reflexive and rote. (What's weird is the original cover design, which shows a church in the foreground behind which looms a World Trade Center tower with a small airplane approaching, but that's more likely a designer Scribner's hired than DeLillo, right?) Underworld swims the waters of Robert Coover and Thomas Pynchon, remote and befuddling. It reminds me most of Coover's The Public Burning, especially when historical figures such as J. Edgar Hoover start showing up and we are afforded speculative interior views. Lenny Bruce also appears in nightclub scenes that read as built off verbatim transcripts. I guess, with Libra alone, DeLillo has already shown this bent, which admittedly can be vivid and evocative, of setting documentary passages into "fictional" context. I will say, understanding it amounts to damning with faint praise, there's no denying DeLillo's ability to craft fine sentences, with a really nice ear for the gaps and strange leaps of intimate dialogue. So maybe that's a net plus overall because it's what kept me going, and make no mistake, it is a book of over 800 pages and it can be a slog. That's the level where he reminds me of Pynchon, another craftsman of wondrous sentences that unfortunately do little to elucidate the confusing action. Where Pynchon goes to slapstick and broad humor, DeLillo pretty much stays close to the paranoiac anxiety. There's a lot of everything here except narrative momentum, which I missed.

In case it's not at the library.

1 comment:

  1. I gave up long b/f you but liked that long opening section on baseball.