The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

DeLillo’s novel portrays its characters as products of their place and era, instead of independent individuals outside of conflicts of history. Nick Shay’s life is central to all events and conflicts in Underworld. Young Nick swaggers and speaks a post-World War II Italian-American Bronx vernacular, yet in Arizona, some thirty years later, Nick is almost contrite; his sentences, like the desert landscape itself, are ordered, reflective, sparse. In Kazakhstan, where he confronts Brian Glassic about his affair with Nick’s wife, Marian, and where his waste company engages in black-market commerce, Nick’s language reverts to his Bronx days. Here, like the dark, cold landscape of this black-market transaction and confrontation with Brian, Nick’s actions and words are clipped, aggressive, and grammatically unstructured.

Klara Sax is an experimental artist whose development in the novel from middle-class urban housewife to avant-garde icon is central to the novel’s focus on how the Cold War era loosed human possibility at the same time that it sought to constrain it. In the 1950’s, Klara is Albert’s dutiful housewife, caring for an apartment and daughter while Albert teaches school and tutors chessplayers after school. Her paintings are a serious hobby, but she does not seek an audience outside of her circle of friends. As American life becomes less structured and less rigid for women in the 1960’s, Klara’s life, too, opens up. She...

(The entire section is 582 words.)