Like all DeLillo’s work, the novel focuses on the heroism and madness that occurs when the individual is placed in both congruity and conflict with the crowd. Like Libra (1988), DeLillo’s fictionalized treatment of Lee Harvey Oswald and the John F. Kennedy assassination, Underworld attempts to assert the individual onto the collective history. In Underworld, DeLillo explores how nationalism, war, and peace ultimately trickle down into the private lives and conflicts of ordinary people, and how the lives and conflicts of these people produce a collective history.
As a postmodern novel, Underworld blurs the boundary between individuals and multitudes. By asserting that the consistent frame of reference in a novel is fragmented rather than solid, as it otherwise would be in a realist novel, a postmodern novelist aims to portray characters and conflicts in a state of orderly chaos. Moreover, the postmodern novelist aims to enact this chaos in the experience of reading a postmodern novel. The danger in such an approach, especially as manifested in Underworld, is that identification with characters and conflicts becomes difficult for readers when the chaos of a novel’s subject matter is enacted in the experience of reading. DeLillo’s past work demonstrates that he is comfortable in this arena of fragmentation and orderly chaos. In Underworld, he keeps the danger of fragmentation in the offing as he explores moments in history that defy the easy rationalizations that a solid, solitary narrator would offer. Thus, solitary action is never fully noble in Underworld; those who manage waste also work the black market, and the truly religious, such as Sister Edgar, perceive the world through paranoid eyes.