Don DeLillo: Underworld


The original edition of Underworld by Don DeLillo has one of the most ominous book covers in history. Underworld was first published in 1997, four years before the attacks of September 11. It is impossible to look at it now with innocent eyes.

Underworld opens with a magnificent near cinematic display of the historic baseball playoff in which the Giants beat the Dodgers. It’s October 3, 1951, the same day America learns the Soviet Union has exploded an atomic bomb. Two shots heard around the world. Two events that will resonate throughout the book. In Underworld as in several of his other novels Don DeLillo shows how the political and the global invade private lives and how individual events can shape world history. This is what in chaos theory is called sensitivity to small perturbations. We may also call it life.

Among the spectators at the baseball match are J. Edgar Hoover, a singer called Frank Sinatra, Cotter Martin, a young boy who has skipped school to go to the game and goes home with the winning ball, and Nick Shay, the novel’s protagonist, at the time a wandering adolescent. Many years later he will buy the alleged game-winning ball, which to him has become a symbol of his life.

But Nick Shay is not the only person in the novel who has become obsessed with the ball and has made it into his life’s goal to find it. But of course after Cotter Martin none of the persons who thinks he owns it will ever know for sure whether it really is THE ball. Through a strange twist of fate this running theme would be overtaken by reality in 1998, when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa competed for the record number of homeruns. But this time around all balls were numbered.

Underworld is a caleidoscope of major and minor storylines. Its constant shift of focus between minute detail and panoramic overview, another DeLillo trademark, creates an astounding patchwork of the second half of the 20th century.

We meet Nick Shay, who grew up in the Bronx, and whose father disappeared mysteriously when he was a boy. At 50 he works with a company called Waste Containment. He is an expert in the excrements of society and the fall out from the Cold War: nuclear waste and chemical waste.

We meet Klara Sax with whom Nick Shay had an affair when he was seventeen and she a married woman and mother to a child. She is an artist who in 1992 paints discarded bombers, remnants of a war that never happened, that are stalled in the middle of the desert.

We meet Sister Edgar, who, in the mid 90’s, fights a lost war against the decay of the Bronx. We meet a notorious graffiti artist who roams the underground of New York and who’s got a pregnant girlfriend. We meet a highway serial killer and we meet Charles and Jerry and countless other characters.

The novel seems to be drenched in a sense of nostalgia, but without the longing for a lost past. "And this was the other thing they shared, the sadness and clarity of time, time mourned in music - how the sound, the shaped vibrations made by hammers striking wire strings made them feel an odd sorrow not for particular things but for time itself, the material feel of a year or an age, the textures of unmeasured time that were lost to them now, and she turned away, looking past her lifted hand into some transparent thing he thought he could call her life."

There’s much in Underworld and the work of Don DeLillo as a whole that I like, because it resonates with my own life, work and interests. "Klara conducted dialogues with her body, reminding herself before she got out of a chair where it was she wanted to go, to the kitchen maybe for a spoon, and exactly how she would have to get there. She needed to locate her body in a situation, tell herself where she was, sometimes looking back as if she might still be sitting in the chair."

As in his other novels DeLillo shines when he creates sprawling panoramas of crowds.

"Coming home, landing at Sky Harbor, I used to wonder how people disperse so quickly from airports, any airport – how you are crowded into seats three across or five across and crowded in the aisle after touchdown when the captain turns off the seat belt sign and you get your belongings from the overhead and stand in the aisle waiting for the hatch to open and the crowd to shuffle forward, and there are more crowds when you exit the gate, people disembarking and others waiting for them and greater crowds in the baggage areas and the concourse, the crossover roars of echoing voices and flight announcements and revving engines and crowds moving through it all, people with their separate and unique belongings, the microhistory of toilet articles and intimate garments, the medicines and aspirines and lotions and powders and gels, so incredibly many people intersecting on some hot dry day at the edge of the desert, used underwear fistballed in their bags, and I wondered where they were going, and why, and who are they, and how do they all disperse so quickly and mysteriously, how does a vast crowd scatter and vanish in minutes, bags dragging on the shiny floors."

Category: Books