Friday, June 13, 2008

Don De Lillo's "Underworld": Book Review

This took me two weeks, and I wondered if it'd be worth the effort. The heft of the book had discouraged me before, but the beginning bravura panorama of the Polo Grounds game and the closing pages with a less ostentatious, but surprisingly thought-provoking scene also in a New York where crowds gather for another miracle does manage to bookend this massive work satisfactorily. The challenges lie in what comes between, seven hundred pages of characters who you constantly shuffle among, unsure often who they might be for a few pages, or how they fit into the larger plot.

De Lillo does not satisfy the reader wanting as in some Dickens novel all the characters to match up and align by the end. It's messier, and truer to life if not fictional craft of what we expect in a neat narrative. I liked this. The scope narrows and expands without warning, but by the last 100 pages, the vistas begin to enlarge and contract both. De Lillo takes on, by the conclusion, big questions, but he does not reduce them to pat answers. I almost forgot about more than one character, so attenuated might be the lapse before their earlier and later turns on stage. I wish the book came prefaced with a dramatis personae! Let the book continue, don't resist the occasionally puzzling dead end, and move on. Not all the subplots will find resolution anyway. You come away both humbled and puzzled by his conclusion, one I certainly never saw coming.

Elements never quite fit, and the baseball's trajectory into the hands of various collectors does not align with the wanderings of the main figures as I'd anticipated. After a while, I learned to put up with the languid passages, and gained patience. The iconic baseball and the nuclear core represent the key symbols, but they are not as easily pegged down or pinned for a reader's facile understanding. This is a clever, haranguing, and frustrating story, for it's both hyper-aware in its jittery prose and smarter than the usual entertaining fare.

It's serious, if with lots of clever put-downs thanks to the Italian American one-upsmanship, and while you may find certain characters that you glom onto with affection, others will bore you. Like life, their permanence in the plot as you get to know them will differ, and without warning, people drop in and out of the vast events. De Lillo alternates Nick Shay's first-person voice with many other ones, and while I wish the omniscient recorder of this diverse cast sometimes registered more emphatically the necessary accents, moods, and personalities, even those (like Klara and Sister Edgar) who bored me early on turned out to be worthwhile, albeit many many chapters later. Don't give up on anybody you encounter early on in these dense pages.

The waste theme, the FBI-Hoover surveillance, the wanderings through deserts and suburbs, apocalyptic tension, and childhood wonder all emerge and overlap, again in a nearly imperceptible form for much of the time. The contrast of Nick's Italian neighborhood then vs. the Bronx today gradually assumes its symbolic significance, but very glacially. The pace has to slow often, so while the energy ebbs and flows, stick with the plot's byways and asides. The prose shimmers at times, yet more or less does not call as much attention to itself. Dependably intelligent, this book takes on enormous themes. I'm not convinced that De Lillo can not top this book. It recalls Roth, Dos Passos, Kesey, Hemingway, Updike, Mailer, Vonnegut, Heller, and Barth, to name a few American peers and predecessors. He's at the top of his game here, but I think he's capable of yet another turn or two at bat that might match or surpass this game.

(Posted to Amazon today, with 335 others before me!)

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