By Don DeLillo
When people today use the word “epic” to describe a literary work they are usually just referring to length. Others might add that an epic is a summative work, one that offers a comprehensive vision and interpretation of a people and a time.
On either count Don DeLillo’s Underworld is an epic, and one of the strongest American novels in years.
DeLillo is often categorized with Thomas Pynchon as one of America’s most celebrated and reclusive writers. Both are coming off poor last novels, but both have written hefty tomes this year that show they are back on top of their game.
The subject of Underworld is America since the 1950s. Its plot revolves around Nick Shay, and his relation to the baseball that Bobby Thomson hit out of the Polo Grounds in 1951 to clinch the pennant for the New York Giants. But of course “everything connects” in the Underworld, and before long we are listening to the real and imagined voices of J. Edgar Hoover, Lenny Bruce, Klara Sax, the Texas Highway Killer, Frank Sinatra, and a host of others.
There is history here, and a secret history too.
As his faithful readers know, DeLillo loves a good conspiracy theory. One character in this book even questions whether Greenland exists (“Do you know anyone who’s ever been there?”, “What color is it? Is it green?”). But behind the self-conscious absurdity there is a real intelligence at work in the novel’s analysis of paranoia. DeLillo breaks paranoia down into its essential components: fear and ignorance, secrecy and helplessness. The paranoid even has a genealogy, traceable from a common grandparent – technology – through the Cold War and Vietnam to AIDS and cyberspace.
Underworld shows us a society that has become dependent on the idea of culture as nature. The only good nature, the only safe nature, is on the tube. Whether in the midst of a winter storm in the Northeast or on a camping trip in the Southwest, the people we meet are terrified of “the whole hard physical thing, the snowstorms and open spaces, the reality of a land called North America.”
Their response is to cocoon, to go underground, to seek shelter in multi-media envelopes. In this Underworld, our world, nothing has any value and nobody has any idea what is real. Civilization is a closed system overrun with waste – a metaphor that includes excrement, plutonium, art, and sperm.
This is bad enough, but it gets worse. DeLillo’s central insight as a novelist, and one fully developed here, is that culture has not only supplanted nature “out there” but our inner nature as well: the subconscious world of dreams and the imagination. The heart of darkness in the soul is only a supermarket full of junk.
Underworld‘s epic quest is to show how such a debased history and culture can be redeemed. As part of this project DeLillo responds to several different concerns: How can isolated individuals living in a virtual space form a community? Is there a human under-image somewhere beneath the monolithic media environment? And, last but far from least, How will we get rid of all our garbage?
The answer to all these questions comes in a blinding flash.
This isn’t a perfect book. Only the first half is consistently excellent. But for sheer ambitiousness, vision, sophistication, and style Underworld stands in select company as a chronicle of our time.
Review first published October 4, 1997.