Delillo's Underworld

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Underworld: Review/Response
– May 31, 2016

A note after the fact: After writing this I immediately read The Body Artist straight through. As regards Underworld itself my thoughts are mostly unchanged. However, my estimation of Delillo is greatly raised. More detail offered in a footnote on The Body Artist, below.


Delillo has been subject of or made appearances in a handful of discussions recently, enough so to prompt me to return to Underworld after having put it down unfinished a few years ago. I read then the opening foray, the (apparently) well known prologue on the pennant clinching, 1951 Dodgers-Giants game, which I enjoyed greatly but which left me with questions as to whether I wanted to continue, questions which were answered to the negative by the pages that followed.

I tend to be a slow reader, I tend to read books that demand (and merit) being read slowly, and as such I don't like wasting my time on books that I don't find profitable or highly enjoyable, and don't generally read books just for the sake of having read them.

Yes, as regards its technical character, that opening chapter is worth the reading. It is a well crafted narrative. But so also is the opening salvo of Saving Private Ryan technically a marvel, and worth the viewing and reviewing for grasping what it does so well. However, the rest of Saving Private Ryan is a shallow narrative woven mostly of conventions, contrivances, and cheap manipulations. But that one word there applies also to the opening: shallow. While it may be a bravura technical performance, the extended sequence is wholly and only narrative; there is no ideational depth to it, no ideational development. It is visual prose, if very well crafted prose, at its most prosaic.

Which is the same take-a-way that I had with the opening of Underworld: technically interesting, but for the most part a shallow – and occasionally conventional or contrived – narrative; and, it seemed that it was during its attempts to move beyond empty, prosaic narrative into intelligent prose that it most turned to contrivance (as with the closing sequences concerning the struggle for and possession of the baseball).

As such, even as the praise of being a "technical marvel" becomes qualified. For example, consider the side story of the foursome in the audience of Gleason, Sinatra, Shor, and Hoover. Do they add ideational depth and energies to the text, or are they merely a part of the brute narrative. If the latter, even if they exist to serve the technical function of giving a different point of view to the game, something off which the narrative line of the announcer can bounce, the demands on technical ability will be less than if the foursome because of an outward generating, ideational core, wherein the writer had to deal not only with the surface narrative but also unifying the whole into an ideational field that was not centered upon the narrative. For example, in The Thin Red Line, the cinematic polar opposite to Saving Private Ryan, the major characters are all in dialogue with each other by way of their own being in the film, all addressing the nature of conflict and war as though beings on an Olympus, all simultaneously part of a unity but individual within that unity. In Underworld, I never sensed such unity: it stayed, like the prologue to Saving Private Ryan, in surface narrative, in realist depiction, never generating a field of ideational resonance. Thus why at the end I had little true inertia carrying me forward into the rest of the book, however exciting the narrative of the game, and why after reading a little farther into the book I lost all desire to continue.

A number of years ago, I believe it was on the David Letterman show, I saw what I remember to be a actor/comedian talking (with Letterman) about a recent film, I believe a Woody Allen film, though whether it was is really irrelevant. What is relevant is that the question asked concerned his judgment as to the quality and intelligence of the film, and of the director's films in general. The specifics of his response I forget, but the general idea behind it struck me at the time, and has stayed with me these many years.[FN] Different people, he described, consider different films "great" films, depending on their level of cultural sophistication. You have the people of high school or state college sophistication (and I am pretty much filling the holes in my memory here, myself) who see Spielberg as the greatest director of the time; then you have those of private college sophistication who think Woody Allen is the height of film-making; and then you have graduate, Masters level sophistication who praise, whatever next filmmaker, say Goddard, and up the ladder, across smaller and smaller bodies of people. Being a comedian he was making jabs along the way, but his point was sincere: a film can legitimately be perceived as great film-making by a body of people; and, within that context, it is great film-making. (Here I begin to flush out the discussion beyond the initial presentation.) But people of greater – or lesser – sophistication may not, and likely will not, see it as such also. Also, it is only as you climb the ladder – or pyramid – that you can see the hows and whys, and begin to accept the idea that so-and-so film-maker is a greater film-maker even if you cannot presently see it in their films for yourself.

[FN] That moment was, likely, the first time I heard this idea presented, which would be why the moment has stayed with me, even if imperfectly remembered. Since then, I have encountered it many times in many forms, (one of the more potent being Cardinal Newman's exhortation that religion should be taught to the level of understanding, this in a class on Victorian Literature, fertile ground for the thought), and it has become a central idea to my own understanding of literature and thought.

I've only read one other book by Delillo: White Noise, which I read for a class.[FN] My response to it was one primarily of disappointment. I had been pitched by the prof a book that was a philosophical exploration of contemporary times, pitched Delillo as a great novelist of the age, but found a book whose philosophical aspects were located but on the surface of the narrative. As an ideational work I found it remarkably shallow and undeveloped. To give a counter example, take D.H. Lawrence's The Rainbow, a book I choose simply because I finished reading it for the first time a few weeks ago. The philosophical explorations in the work – and perhaps they should be also or rather called mythical, or spiritual explorations – imbue the work, indeed are the grounding of the work: the events of the narrative are not used to explicate the arguments; rather, the arguments create the narrative. The energies of the text begin in the mythic and move outward to the narrative. That is the opposite of what I found in White Noise, a book I read as wholly narrative, wholly surface, lacking the deep sources of ideational energy.


[FN] In effort to transparency, the subject matter of Delillo's books are not generally something that would pull me his way to begin with. As said, I do not have the time to read books simply to read books. I do have The Body Artist, which at this time I have only barely started. Though, very quickly I have gotten the feeling that it's prose is a bad impersonation of Robbe-Grillet's Jealousy. When I finish the book I will update this footnote.

Update Apr 1, 2016: So I ended up reading The Body Artist straight through the afternoon/evening after posting this: it's not long, barely a novelette. And, it is everything Underworld is not: tight, controlled, ideational, clever, not fettered by realism, even mythic (as I use the term). Perhaps not quite perfect – I have issue with the sudden use of the second person in the first chapter – but nothing is. All highly meritable literature is an experiment in the unknown. Reading it immediately after what I read of Underworld, however, brings the latter in stark contrast: where Body Artist may have a flaw, Underworld is dragged down by flaws, is more defined by its problems than not. For this, my response of Underworld changes to that of a failed novel; and, I am made to wonder how much the publication of Infinite Jest one year prior influenced its response by reviewers, if not also its writing or publication. (The first 150 pages reads to me as though all the energies were spent with the baseball prologue, and what follows is mostly flaccid writing.) What is also changed is my estimation of Delillo: I would never buy another book by Delillo if all I had read of him was Underworld; my experience with White Noise left me questioning but willing to try. But The Body Artist sells me on Delillo's ability. It's a magnificent little work.


It is the same that I find with Underworld. The work to me comes off entirely as surface narrative, if narrative littered with technical tricks and games. (I should be clear in saying game in my using is rarely a pejorative, and is not one here.) Never in what I read of the book, both including the prologue and beyond, did I ever get the feeling that the story was informed by a deeper ideation. Never did I escape the feeling that what happened next in the text – whether that be the narrative or the presentation thereof – was little more than what happened next.

Consider this paragraph from Chapter 1 (page 74 in my edition):

Albert was Klara's husband when I knew them both. He was science teacher in my high school. Mr Bronzini. Years after I'd seen him for the last time I found myself thinking of him unexpectedly and often. You know how certain places grow powerful in the mind with passing time. In those early morning dreams when I come back to bed after a sleepy pee and fall quickly into the narrow end of the night, there is one set of streets I keep returning to, one dim mist of railroad rooms, and certain figured reappear, borderline ghosts. Albert and Klara among them. He was the husband, she was the wife, a detail I barely thought about at the time.

The sentence

You know how certain places grow powerful in the mind with passing time.

Is is a rhetorical convention, a technical means to get to the digression that follows. There is no purpose for it within the ideation of the text. Indeed, it is absolutely mundane even in its presentation. The sentence would be right at home in the most banal, best-seller list fiction. Indeed, there is really no reason either locally or broadly for the digression that follows. As with so much of what I read of Underworld, my response to the digression was that it was a waste of my time. What purpose did it serve? Why did I need to read this digression about peeing? Why did it exist in the text except for that it happened to be, in the nature of pop fiction, what was written next?

Consider also the technical flourishes that mark the book, like Chapter 6, which consists primarily of a list of excerpts, of no apparent order, here and there changed in the writing, from Chapters 2-5. It is a technical event, yes. And it is not for naught that it is precisely this kind of technical event that gets Delillo labeled as a "postmodern" writer, and Underworld as one of the great postmodern books. Though, I have never seen nor read any argument for a "postmodern" literature that did not boil down to identifying "postmodern fiction" as a pop genre, boil down to pointing only to common surface conventions.[FN]

[FN] Brian McHale's Postmodernist Fiction is a prime example. I have always found it deciding how arguments for a postmodernist literature tend to be greatly opposed to arguments in description of Modernist literature in how the former have always been (to my experience) arguments of how the group is defined by surface events, while the latter is generally defined as to how the surface events are really emanations of underlying, ideational explorations.

Thus Chapter Six: a technical event that serves little purpose ideationally, and can only serve little purpose ideationally because there was no true, ideational energies underlying and generating what came before. When what leads up is only surface narrative, repetition of what leads up can only be repetition, at best a technical stunt, but ideationally nothing more than the re-presentation of what had come before – a surface only re-presentation of a surface only presentation – coupled with the repetition of the postmodern genre-convention of the listing of fragments.

Chapter 6 was really as far as I needed to go with Underworld,and I only went a little farther. I stopped reading at the end of Part 1, and have no desire to read onward, as I feel like I am reading something of no greater ideational depth than Harry Potter; no greater literary demand than James Patterson.

Besides, not only is Underworld seemingly defined mostly by its generic technical gimmicks (a term which may be opposed to games), it also has its share of clunkers. Indeed, the third sentence of chapter one, coming off the prologue:

Not a spot of mortal sweat except, okay, for the guys who drive the product out of the plant ‐ allow a little moisture where they grip the wheel.

Not only does that sentence read as awkwardly constructed, but it reads as though that awkwardness exists because of the attempt to make the sentence sound like postmodern lit, to make it sound like "something Delillo would write." In possibly for me the worst insult imaginable in literature, it sounds like something you'd hear in a workshop.

Even the technical flourishes sometimes fail. For example, the small patch of dialog that begins on page 140 ("She says, 'I saw that man who preaches [. . .]".) is quite clumsy, and reads to me again like Delillo was more interested in preforming a stunt than in tight, controlled writing.

Granted, there are also moments in The Rainbow that don't work. But, there they don't work generally because Lawrence was a master of prose experimenting with writing and at that point the experiment did not work . In Underworld, however, the poor writing comes off to me as Delillo either not bothering to pay close attention or reaching the limits of his abilities. (It is actually curious how much of what I did read of Underworld felt like reading contemporary verse, particularly that verse that claims importance by being "postmodern": full of sound and technical play but signifying nothing . . . . . and more often than not looking like shallow and occasionally clumsy writing once you look at the work as a whole and stop reading it moment by moment.)

Am I curious as to what remains within my unread majority of Underworld? A bit. The recent conversations and articles in which Delillo or Underworld has appeared has prompted such curiosity. That is why I returned to the book in the first place. But will I read the rest? No. I've read enough to know what I will find. I have no expectation from what I've read – and you should be able to get a solid opinion of a book after 150 pages – that I will find anything different.