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Underworld: A Novel by Don DeLillo
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Underworld: A Novel (original 1997; edition 2003)

by Don DeLillo (Author)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
6,98671941 (3.9)233
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.
Member:shabay3
Title:Underworld: A Novel
Authors:Don DeLillo (Author)
Info:Scribner (1998), Edition: First Edition, 848 pages
Collections:Your library
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Underworld by Don DeLillo (1997)

  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 & Clay by Michael Chabon (igorken)
  6. 01
    American Gods by Neil Gaiman (Hibou8)
    Hibou8: Profound, and profoundly american.
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» See also 233 mentions

English (63)  Italian (4)  Serbian (1)  Dutch (1)  Danish (1)  French (1)  All languages (71)
Showing 1-5 of 63 (next | show all)
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 |
DeLillo's epic story is a eulogy to post-WWII 'free' America. Some brilliant passages, and some forgettable ones. The story winds and weaves through different characters in the US (mainly New York) between the 1950s and 1980s, dabbling in popular culture (Sinatra and Lenny Bruce), politics (J Edgar Hoover) and TV-fed sensationalism. The strength of the story is sometimes lost in the use of popular characters, and the impact of the writing never hits home, possibly because other books have dealt with the dynamics of Cold War politics and post-Reaganomics in a more jarring way (such as Infinite Jest), but the strong sections are often phenomenal. ( )
  ephemeral_future | Aug 20, 2020 |
An excellent book, it was quite different than what I expected. I enjoyed the reverse chronological structure of the story and the characters were believable and it was interesting to see how they unmatured through the telling of the book. This is the first DeLillo novel I’ve read and definitely would be interested to read some of his other books. My only negative feedback is this book could probably have been shortened quite a bit and still kept its significance. ( )
  briandarvell | Aug 7, 2020 |
it was chill
  theodoram | Apr 7, 2020 |
No plot at all other than a few vague ideas. 'twas nicely written but not in any way beautiful - though it is, kinda, an art piece.

Got through half of it (400 of 800!) pages before coming to my senses and abandoning it. ( )
  GirlMeetsTractor | Mar 22, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 63 (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 (19 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Don DeLilloprimary authorall editionscalculated
Mikulášková, LucieTranslatorsecondary 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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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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