Big novels can generate big interest: Vikram Seth’s 1,349- page A Suitable Boy (1993); Thomas Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon (1997), a mere 773 pages but twenty years in the making; and now Don DeLillo’s Underworld, 827 pages in just five years from conception to auction. The million dollars Scribner paid for the right to publish Underworld is admittedly small potatoes compared to the seventeen million dollars Stephen King demands but is still surprising given DeLillo’s reputation as a serious writer of brilliant but hardly mainstream fiction. Even a million dollars, however, has its price in the quid pro quo world of modern publishing: The usually self-effacing DeLillo has had to do his part to publicize his book. DeLillo bashers, whose numbers are legion among the politically and aesthetically conservative, may find some irony here, some not so subtle connection among auction price, publicity hype, and the blinding speed with which Underworld was nominated for the National Book Award (it lost) and (like Mason and Dixon) became, very briefly, a best-seller. Has the novelist appreciated by many and dismissed by some for his sardonic critiques of American consumer culture perhaps sold out? Or is it that Underworld demonstrates all too well the consumer culture’s ability to absorb and turn a profit on anything, its own critics included? Thankfully, even a dark late-capitalist cloud may have its silver post-Marxist lining, generating interest in, as well as royalties for, one of the very few American novelists who has something interesting to say about modern American life.
Underworld is DeLillo’s biggest book, but is it also his best? No, but only because all of his last four novels have been, for all their differences, equally good, and both collectively and individually better than just about anything else published during the same period (1985 to 1997) by any other American writer. Louise Erdrich comes close, but only Philip Roth, in the wildly inventive work he has published from The Counterlife (1987) through American Pastoral (1997), has produced anything as consistently interesting, intelligent, and inventive as White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Mao II (1991), and Underworld. Although not DeLillo’s best novel, Underworld is surely his most ambitious, an 827-page “damage check” on the effects of the Cold War. The novel began to take shape shortly after DeLillo saw a news item on the fortieth anniversary of Bobby Thompson’s game-winning home run in the final game of the playoff series between the (then) New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. As DeLillo learned at the local library, “the shot heard round the world,” as the New York Daily News called it, occurred on the same day that the Soviets conducted their second atomic bomb test; indeed, the two stories appeared side by side on the front page of The New York Times. Playing on that coincidence and surreal journalistic juxtaposition, the novel’s fifty-page prologue starts the narrative ball rolling: the home run ball that is part holy grail and part fool’s gold but mainly a MacGuffin, a plot device. Like the bomb, it offers opportunities for paranoid plots to hatch and develop, worming their way through Underworld while at the same time offering temporary relief from Cold War fears and uncertainty.
“Is this when history turned into fiction?” one character asks. Making much the same point in 1960, Philip Roth wondered whether American novelists could any longer compete with an American reality that had become more fantastic than anything the writer could imagine. Novels as different as Portnoy’s Complaint (1969), Operation Shylock (1993), and Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977) provide one kind of answer, Underworld quite another. There is nothing outrageous or grotesque about Underworld, other than its size and scope. Indeed, DeLillo seems to be up to nothing more, and nothing less, than what Giants sportscaster Russ Hodges recalls having done early in his career in working up radio re-creations of big league games: “Somebody hands you a piece of paper filled with letters and numbers and you have to make a ball game out of it.” Letters and numbers on a sheet of paper become players on the field and the crowd in the stands, right down to the kid with the cowlick—or, in DeLillo’s case, a black kid named Cotter Martin who skips school, jumps the gate, and ends up with the home run ball. Part of the understated brilliance of this richly detailed and intricately plotted novel derives from the way DeLillo pans back and forth between history and fiction, players and crowd, and the public and personal, not just in the prologue (at the game) but throughout the novel. His postmodern version of the 1950’s television show The Big Picture continually shreds and frays into a series of fitful glimpses before recomposing itself into a panoramic long shot. Not surprisingly, films (and paintings) figure prominently, including the premiere of a long-lost film by the great Russian director Sergei Eisenstein (or rather by DeLillo, playing fast and loose with history), of course titled Underworld.
“We can’t see the world clearly,” one character contends, “until we see how nature is organized.” The same may be said of Underworld. From its beginning at the Polo Grounds on that serendipitous day that two shots are heard round the world (and a reproduction of Brueghel’s painting The Triumph of Death torn from Life magazine floats down into the hands of FBI Director J....
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