When I read Underworld in 2000, I absolutely hated it. I thought it was just some meaningless ramble with a couple of old pop culture references just to make DeLillo sound cool. I’ve also read Falling Man and White Noise, which I didn’t really warm to.
Ten years later and I decide to re-read the book again and I LOVED it!
It seems that every decade there is an American author who writes a huge book which criticises the world today. In the ’00’s it was Jonathan Franzen with ‘The Corrections’ and in the 90’s it’s Underworld.
Now it is very difficult to actually summarise Underworld as it is a chunky novel which has many reoccurring themes. Yet these themes are spread out though the last fifty years of American history. To confuse matters more this is told backwards (with the exception of the prologue and epilogue). That’s right the book’s first part starts off in 1998 and ends in 1951.
As you can see I still haven’t really mentioned the plot. As there are many narratives but the main one deals with an Italian/American called Nick Shay and how his life revolves around contemporary society. There are threads, Nick’s brother Matt, his one time fling with the artist Klara Sax, his dealings with a baseball memorabilia collector called Marvin Lundy. This is just the surface, there’s a lot going on but this forms part of the main plot.
Not to mention the themes that dominate Underworld. Waste and garbage, baseball (make sure you read that prologue, it’s the key to understanding the book) Stand Up comedy, Graffiti, the Cuban Missile Crises and more. The thing is DeLillo weaves all these themes together and traces them to Nick Shay. By the time you read the epilogue all loose ends are tied and you have a feeling of satisfaction when you close the book.
Underworld is a breathtaking and intelligent novel, but unfortunately there is one flaw : It has a weak midsection ( I know that sounds weird but you get what I mean) It does not drag but after reading an exhilarating 400 pages or so, you do feel disappointed that the middle does not live up to the high standards of the beginning. It does pick up again, and very smoothly. Don’t let this put you off the book. Underworld is a truly essential novel and a prophetic one (you’ll see what I mean) at that!