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Underworld (1997)

by Don DeLillo

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
7,11475954 (3.9)236
A 1950s teenage hood from New York is transformed by the Jesuits into a respectable man, managing hazardous waste. A portrait of the decade from the viewpoint of the garbage industry.
  1. 30
    The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño (chrisharpe)
    chrisharpe: Bolaño's novel is set mostly In Mexico City, rather than the US. He uses some similar techniques to DeLillo to produce a much more accomplished and interesting work. It will probably appeal to those who enjoyed Underworld.
  2. 20
    Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (BrandonSiguenza)
  3. 00
    The Weight of Numbers by Simon Ings (ShelfMonkey)
  4. 22
    Cannery Row by John Steinbeck (xtien)
  5. 12
    The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon (igorken)
  6. 01
    American Gods by Neil Gaiman (Hibou8)
    Hibou8: Profound, and profoundly american.
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» See also 236 mentions

English (67)  Italian (4)  Serbian (1)  Dutch (1)  Danish (1)  French (1)  All languages (75)
Showing 1-5 of 67 (next | show all)
Caused me to recall John Dos Passos' trilogy "U.S.A." which ended mid Twentieth Century. This book begins in 1951.
The writing is so good that it's not difficult to keep going. However, there's a perceivable lack in character development. The principal character "Nick Shay" is vague in portrayal and never develops as a presence. Not so the martinet nun, Sister Edgar who is stunned into spiritual awareness, working among the desperate and poor of the Bronx.
A difficult book to comment upon, yet an enjoyable read.
  ivanfranko | Apr 22, 2021 |
I read maybe half of Underworld nearly a decade ago and put it aside (I forget why). I've read the opening scene a few times since, and it's one of my favorite pieces of writing, so it's weird that I put the whole book aside. Maybe parts of it began to lag for me back then. I've meant ever since to pick the book back up, and I'm glad I did.

My main complaint with DeLillo's other work has been that although his writing is very fine (really, really admirable), the construction of his stories tends to leave me puzzled. Cosmopolis feels at times hackish, Mao II sort of goes off the rails, and Falling Man is just bad. But here DeLillo writes a very big thing composed of a couple of big stories that intersect in ways I find believable and appealing.

This is a book about finding lost things, getting back to origins, trying to grok complexity, grappling with betrayal, baseball, garbage, infidelity, war, and peace. It's lovely at the sentence level, and though at times it feels as if DeLillo might have left a story behind or made a misstep, I think he winds up getting it mostly right. It's worth a read and a reread. ( )
  dllh | Jan 6, 2021 |
Underworld is material, replete with what Hart Crane called “America’s plutonic ecstasies” – wastes nuclear, industrial, human… It also, however, misses a crucial trick by more or less accepting the standard model of material progress in the western world, and doing no more than flipping it for our delectation, presenting us with the opportunity to indulge in our bad faith, our consumer guilt. It is an inversion that lacks sophistication. Though the actual work itself is an achievement, the message is banal.

[More here: http://wetwiring.wordpress.com/2011/10/26/information-and-stuff-stephenson-and-d... ] ( )
  agtgibson | Jan 5, 2021 |
reveries for future garbage. ( )
  stravinsky | Dec 28, 2020 |
Voltaire is best known today for a novella and being a bit of a prick (in an enlightening way), but he also wrote a number of epic poems, including the first (?) epic poem in French, the Henriade. This was reprinted dozens of times during his life. The epic was the great literary genre of the eighteenth century, in theory. Now, of course, nobody gives a shit, because that stuff is utterly unreadable. Our 'epics' are long novels, and, like the Henriade, they get laurels aplenty, despite being all too often unreadable. Authors continue to churn them out, because critics adore a behemoth.

Sometimes, it's best to just admit defeat. There are a few things worth critically adoring in Underworld:

i) The fact that DeLillo was ballsy enough to tell the story backwards.
ii) Any scene with the nuns and priests in it.
iii) A few patented DeLillo symbol-objects, here, the painted planes in the desert and the giant ship carrying garbage/heroin/nuclear waste/who knows what.

These are undermined, though, by, e.g.,

ia) The fact that he doesn't have any story to tell, so telling it backwards adds nothing.
iia) There are too few scenes with the nuns, and too many with the very boring Nick Shay. How many men who've blown off another man's head with a shotgun (accidentally, but still), and had an affair with a super-hot modern artist who attracts disciples like black clothes attract dog hair, could be *this* boring? Only one, Nick Shay, and Delillo writes about him for hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages.
iiia) Those symbol-objects can carry books the length of, say, White Noise. This book is 827 pages long. Not even the painted planes in the desert can carry a book for that long.

So we're breaking even (I'm being generous). How about the ideas?

By far the most intelligent, and humorous, scene in the book comes in chapter 3 of part 4. We get to watch people watch an apocryphal Eisenstein film, called 'Underworld.' Some characters' reactions:

a) "The plot was hard to follow. There was no plot. Just loneliness."
b) Esther said, "I want to be rewarded for this ordeal."
c) "Admit it, you're bored."
d) "It was remote and fragmentary and made on the cheap, supposedly personal, and it had a kind of suspense even as it crawled along. How and when would it reveal itself?"
e) "What about the politics? She thought this film might be a protest against socialist realism... what was this murky film, this strange dark draggy set of images if not a statement of outrage and independence?"
f) "Do we have to stay for the rest of it?" "I want to see what happens." "What could happen?"
g) "The camp elements of the program... now tended to resemble sneak attacks on the dominant culture."
h) "All Eisenstein wants you to see, in the end, are the contradictions of being."

This is transparently about the novel, *Underworld*. There is no plot, it is an ordeal, it is boring, it is remote and fragmentary, you do kind of want to know if/when it will reveal itself or something will happen, it could easily be nothing more than a statement about the supposed 'contradictions of being'. And you can, if you like, read all of that as a giant protest against realism.

So, given that our author is aware of the book's flaws (you can protest against realism and be entertaining, by the way),how can we justify its existence? In its intellectual content? That content is ambiguous, in a good way: DeLillo asks us to consider the relationship between nostalgia (for, e.g., baseball) and history (i.e., things that will matter to mentally sound people who didn't live through them). It would be nice to think that this book treats reverence for baseball and various other, even more cheesy, mass cultural ways of extracting money from people ironically: of course it's fun to go watch baseball, but it's not particularly important.

I fear, however, there is no irony, and that Underworld is just a depressing, postmodern affirmation of 'everyday life,' that looks back with longing (somewhat paradoxically, given the aforementioned pomoness) to the Cold War, back when the Giants and Dodgers were still New York teams. I fear that Underworld's main point is to show how Capital-H History disposes of all the glorious little knick-knacks we nostalgize about, like, say, baseballs, and how we have to hang onto them and make sure we get to stay individuals and live authentically even though The Man doesn't want us to. Consider that the most memorable scene in the book, according to the internet I read, is when the priest tells Nick 'Boring' Shay that he's tired of educating teenagers in "abstract ideas" and would be better off educating them as to the names of particular concrete things like, e.g., the names of shoe-parts, which he then proceeds to name for a few pages. How poetic it is that he knows what to call the cuff, counter and vamp. What a lesson in "the depth and reach of the commonplace".

If a book is going to argue for the depth and reach and importance of the quotidian, and eschew any attempt to connect its various chunks, those chunks had better be glorious. That is not the case here. I just don't care about the moments that DeLillo chooses not to connect to each other.

Now, of course, that wouldn't matter too much if the writing was good, but, as other reviewers have cataloged, it is not. Who let the following phrase slop into existence? Because it couldn't have been Don DeLillo: "Matt drove west, deeper into the white parts of the map, where he would try to find a clue to his future." I'd love to say I've made it look worse, but the preceding clause involves the phrase 'soft dawn.'

Underworld is not funny, as some DeLillo books are. It is not as well written as many of them are. It is not intellectually interesting as a couple of them are. It neither asks, nor answers, important questions, as DeLillo is capable of doing. It is, however, long; it is ambitious; and it was published before everything in the U.S.A. went to poop thanks to financial speculation, war and incompetence. So people call it a Great American Novel, and pine for the time before Osama, Bush and the Great Recession, just like they pine for the good ol' days in the ballpark.

It is the Henriade of a very talented man, not his Candide. ( )
  stillatim | Oct 23, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 67 (next | show all)
'"Underworld" is a victim of its own ambition: by trying to cover such a wide range of characters and situations, DeLillo loses track of some of them' ... 'Despite its faults DeLillo has created an ambitious and powerful novel...'
added by GYKM | editSpike Magazine, Gary Marshall (Dec 1, 1998)
 
This "is his best novel and perhaps that most elusive of creatures, a great American novel."
 

» Add other authors (14 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
DeLillo, DonAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Mikulášková, LucieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Reinharez, IsabelleCollaboratrice à la traduction françaisesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Véron, MarianneTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Dedication
To the memory of my mother and father.
First words
He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful.
Parla la tua lingua, l'americano, e c'è una luce nel suo sguardo che è una mezza speranza.
Quotations
"How is it we did so much laughing? How is it people came over with their empty pockets and bad backs and not so good marriages and twenty minutes later we're all laughing?"
"Sometimes faith needs a sign. There are times when you want to stop working at faith and just be washed in a blowing wind that tells you everything."
Tutto è collegato, alla fine.
Il ciberspazio è una cosa dentro il mondo, o il contrario? Quale contiene quale e come si può esserne sicuri?
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Information from the French Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
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A 1950s teenage hood from New York is transformed by the Jesuits into a respectable man, managing hazardous waste. A portrait of the decade from the viewpoint of the garbage industry.

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