Don DeLillo’s Underworld explores American culture and psyche throughout–and immediately after–the Cold War era. The book centers loosely on waste management exec Nick Shay, but diverges in constant achronological loops, employing dozens of different voices and viewpoints in order to handle a variety of themes and subjects that are, frankly, too massive to get a grip on. At all times though, Underworld seems aware of this inability to document its subject’s vastness, but, like Ishmael in Moby-Dick who attempts to systemize the unknowable whales, the characters in Underworld nevertheless try and try again to find order and meaning in a paranoid and increasingly disconnected world. The real center of the book is a baseball, the ball pitched by Brooklyn Dodger Ralph Branca to New York Giant Bobby Thomson, who won the game in a hit known as “The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” However, this ball, this center, is repeatedly transferred, deferred, shifted, and even characters who claim to own the “real” ball understand that the validity or “realness” of the home run ball is always under question. DeLillo seems to suggest that finding fixed, stable meaning is an illusion; the best that people can hope for is to find solace in their family and friends in open, honest relationships.
By the time DeLillo had published Underworld in 1997, he had already established himself as a canonized saint of the American postmodern literary tradition, yet Underworld, in its massive size and scope (it weighs in at over 800 pages) seems primed to be the author’s “big book,” destined to fit neatly in the new canon of large and long American postmodern novels next to John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. Underworld utilizes nearly every postmodernist trope, including a nonlinear plot, myriad, discursive voices, and a willingness to engage historical figures. The novel also manages to contain a bulk of themes and devices DeLillo has employed throughout his body of work: find here the paranoid alienation of The Names, the shadow of assassination-as-spectacle from Libra, the intersection of art, violence, economics, and politics of Mao II, and the exploration of the new American religion, consumerism, that underpinned White Noise.
Ultimately, all of Underworld‘s themes–garbage, art, war, insulation, paranoia, drugs, death, secrets, baseball, identity, etc.–threaten to crush the narrative under their sheer weight. Unlike Pynchon, Barth, Coover, and DFW, DeLillo is rarely playful or even fun; most of the humor here serves to alienate rather than connect the reader to the characters. The book is masterfully written, and any number of the little vignettes, like the sad life of the Texas Highway Killer, or the Space-Age compartmentalization of a 1950s suburban family, expertly delineate DeLillo’s handling of concepts and motifs. However, the book’s prologue, “The Triumph of Death” (the title alludes to Bruegel’s painting), an account of the 1951 Dodgers-Giants pennant game is easily the most passionate, intense, and engaging moment of the novel. This assessment isn’t meant to suggest that the remaining 700 pages or so of Underworld aren’t as rewarding, they just aren’t as fun. Underworld is probably a work of genius, and the sum of its many, many parts do add up to more than the corpus, only that sum will probably leave a lot of readers feeling cold.