Themes and Meanings
Underworld follows the lives of several main characters attempting to forge peace and order within surrounding threats of conflict and destruction. DeLillo’s overriding metaphors of waste and consumption are central to his characters’ desire for peace. Nick’s company works in waste management; garbage is central to their business, as is consumption, because consumption breeds waste. According to Nick, he and his coworkers are “cosmologists of waste.” Indeed, Underworld explores waste and rubbish with cosmological seriousness rather than simply literally as garbage. Nick’s job is a microcosm in the novel for late-Cold War and post-Cold War American social relations. Prosperity leads to consumption, which leads to waste. In such a culture, political leaders such as Hoover are corrupt; random violence is on the rise; and even the company designated to manage waste conducts black-market deals in nuclear waste. Thus, even those whose job it is to contain waste are blurring the boundaries between consumption (black-market purchasing) and waste (nuclear residue). Although the novel ends with an assertion of “peace,” this assertion is always under stress by the possibility that even the imagination has gone to waste in the world of the novel.
In Underworld, the city is the center of human contact and the center of social and political relations. As much as cities produce more waste—and less management of waste—than do rural and suburban areas, the novel locates imaginative activity and acts of human compassion in urban areas: the mingling of different races, ethnicities, and social backgrounds after the 1951 playoff game; Bronzini’s chess lessons and his caretaking of elderly neighbors; and Nick’s richly imaginative Bronx childhood and teenage years. DeLillo takes the reality of urban decay in the 1990’s and recasts this decay in terms of the productive possibilities of human imagination. The city, then, becomes the locale of both ruin and millennial hope in the novel.