Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613
Underworld is divided into eleven parts: six narrative sections, a prologue, an epilogue, and three sections narrated from the perspective of Manx Martin. Each section is marked by nonchronological shifts among times and locales, beginning with the onset of the Cold War and culminating in the post-Cold War 1990’s. DeLillo links the Soviet Union’s first detonation of an atomic device, on October 3, 1951, with the famous Brooklyn Dodgers-New York Giants baseball playoff game that occurred on the same date. This connection between a sports game and a geopolitically dramatic weapons test—two “shots heard ’round the world,” in the parlance of the times—becomes the central reference point for the actions, conflicts, and intersections of characters in the novel.
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The novel is narrated from the points of view of all of its major characters, and it shifts intermittently between first-person and third-person narration. Underworld begins at the famous Dodgers-Giants playoff. DeLillo’s interconnection of both “shots heard ’round the world” is clear from the outset, because one of the celebrity spectators attending the game is Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover hears news from an aide of the atomic test just before Bobby Thomson comes to bat. Moments later, as outfield fans scuffle for the game-winning home-run ball, Hoover considers the possibilities of the new age just inaugurated by the Soviet test. Hoover’s historically documented disdain for governmental authority dominates the narration as streamers fly, crowds pour into the streets, and the United States and Soviet Union accelerate the Cold War.
Thomson’s home-run ball is caught by Cotter Martin, who skipped school that day to attend the game. Cotter’s father, Manx Martin, looking for a fast buck to pay surmounting debts, eventually steals the ball from his son and searches for a buyer. The location of the ball never can be fully verified after Manx’s theft. From there on, the novel’s trajectory is as discontinuous as that of the ball. Each new section of the novel is framed by the unpredictable, fragmented history of where the ball landed in the world of sports-souvenir hawkers. It is revealed early in the narration that Nick paid more than thirty thousand dollars for the ball to a New York collector, Marvin Moser, who spent his life researching the ball’s whereabouts. As meticulous as Moser’s research is, he admits he cannot account for all of the links in the chain of owners. Thus, even Nick’s eventual ownership is in dispute.
The subjective, unverifiable history of the ball becomes a microcosm for the fragmented histories and identities of the persons and nations in Underworld. The primary narrative voices of the novel reappear in the epilogue, collapsed into endlessly hyperlinked information on Internet sites. The placement of these voices inside cyberspace but outside of the human cities that have defined them is not dystopian, despite the novel’s move away from the human and toward the technological. Nevertheless, the ending is less than comforting. This epilogue, entitled “Das Kapital” after Karl Marx’s famous work, dramatizes the overwhelmingly consumerist emphasis of post-Cold War American life. The novel culminates in one final word that could articulate the end of the human struggle of the Cold War and inaugurate something new for the post-Cold War era; this final word is “Peace.” Yet peace is unsettling, because the novel traces the rise of what Dwight D. Eisenhower called the “military-industrial complex” and its transformation into something of a consumer-industrial complex. The peace achieved at the end of the novel is uneasy, and it comes at the price of a culture that has absorbed human individuality and choice into consumerist commodities.