Underworld by Don DeLillo

I love reading James Wood on the novel. For me he’s up there with Virginia Woolf as a critic who genuinely enriches the experience of reading the novel. Even though he often denigrates authors I love. Don Delillo for example. Underworld for Wood was gratuitously obsessed with paranoia as if this was a concern peculiar to only Delillo. But one could say paranoia was a state of mind invented by America. Did it even exist in the 19th century? The Cold War saw the invention of paranoia as a mass media tool for manipulating public opinion. Delillo’s fascination with it was not only entirely legitimate but incredibly eye-opening in tracing the changing psyche of post 1950 America. I don’t have Wood’s book with me here but to my recollection he wrote brilliantly about Underworld without getting it.

Underworld doesn’t have much in the way of plot. It’s like the literary equivalent of a musician jamming on a theme. As if DeLillo has submitted wholly to the tides of inspiration and allowed himself to be taken wherever they lead him. It reminded me, in form, of a web page full of hyperlinks. DeLillo is fascinated by the ghost paths of connections and the panoramic grids they form; the secret lives of objects and the far reaching stories they tell.

He wanted an object that would provide a surreptitious link to fifty years of American history and chose the baseball that won the 1951 World Series, during which – here’s one of the hyperlinks – the Russians tested their first atomic bomb. The ball is initially pocketed by a young black kid who has jumped the turnstile without paying. From the game itself, seen through the eyes of various celebrities, we enter the life of an impoverished black family in Harlem. The first intimately observed narrative begins.

There’s so much in this novel it’s inevitable some “storylines” will appeal more than others. Ultimately, it’s the clairvoyant power and beautiful urban lyricism of the prose which makes this a masterpiece in my eyes. DeLillo is like a soothsayer of the technological consumerist age. He takes you behind the glossy surfaces of contemporary life, excavates for deeper meaning in the newsreel footage. The novel’s central character is employed by the waste industry which perhaps epitomises perfectly the buried volatile poisoning underworld of our culture. delillo_nyt_1998

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