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3.3 out of 5 stars
Underworld
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20 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on 12 December 1998
It took a big effort to read this - carrying around that extra weight to and from work and in planes, and having to search for the concentration to draw together the myriad threads of the storylines in the midst of the rest of my life. But I have to say that it was well worth the effort.
It is not just the length that daunts. This is not a "page-turner" in the normal sense. Whilst some sections draw you through, the majority of the text, for me, cried out to be read lovingly and for meaning - which meant that I had to slow right down to make sense of it all.
If you have the time, and energy, (and are prepared to read something almost wholly American) you should read this book. It is surely of the highest quality.
True - there were the odd fifty pages here or there which I struggled with. But that was counterbalanced with some moments of such emotion (the argument over which brother should look after the aging mother; the description of flying through the blast; the scenes of infidelity; the scene with the shotgun to name only a few) to make up for this many times over.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 31 October 2011
This is undoubtedly one of the truly great novels. Not just of the second half of the twentieth century, but of all time.

It is not perfect. It perhaps a little too long. One or two of the characters, such as Klara, aren't completely resolved, and perhaps he doesn't make the art scene matter to us quite enough either. And yes, there were times when I wasn't sure who I was reading about.

But despite this, I'm not aware of much in life or in art that comes closer to perfection than this. Where it succeeds, it does so magnificently. Its exquisite language, its artistic imagination, its breadth of character, its ability to summon up not only events but the entire sense of experience, its exploration of other people's identities, all these things are so beautifully and grippingly executed.

Masterful, brave, beautiful. I can't praise it highly enough.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 14 February 2012
Don DeLillo's Underworld opens with a baseball game at the Polo Grounds in the 1950s. The Dodgers are playing the Giants and we're introduced to the stadium through a black kid jumping the turnstiles and watching the game. In this opening salvo the point of view then switches from Cotter, the kid, to Frank Sinatra to Jackie Gleason to J Edgar Hoover. The game is a classic in American baseball history that saw batter Bobby Thomson hit a ball into the stands deep in the final innings to take the Giants to victory. It just so happens that on this day, October 3, 1951, the Soviets conduct a test nuclear explosion, and so begins two of the three intertwining themes of the novel: the journey of the baseball after Cotter manages to grab it in a scuffle, and the nuclear story that took place over the second half of the Twentieth Century. The final theme is that of civilisation's garbage; how we control and dispose of the rubbish we generate. There are other themes, art and media, religion and information, but the three mentioned above come back time and time again.

It's an incredible book, the most impressive I've ever read, if not the most enjoyable. Some parts are sublimely good. After the baseball game, for example, we are told the story of the Texas Highway Killer, a man who assassinates people by shooting them from a moving vehicle going the other way down an expressway. And there is the section where the novel's lead character, Nick Shay (if the novel has a lead character then he is it), visits a garbage site that stretches as far as the eye can see and where he tells us about a ship floating around the world's oceans that no country will allow to dock because the stuff on board, secret stuff, is so toxic that even letting it come near the shore is considered too risky by most nation states. When reading these sections your eyes fly across the pages, the prose picks you up an sings you through fifty pages without your even realising it.

There are more difficult sections as well but you never get the sense that you're reading anything less than a masterpiece, which is what this is. It's a book that is there to paint impressionistically the idea of America in the second half of the Twentieth Century. Italian immigrants struggle from working to middle classes, artists try to find street punks painting incredible frescos on the sides of trains, marital infidelities are discovered and forgiven and always there is the shadow of nuclear war.

For me, the book is at its best when DeLillo is dealing with the three main themes. The baseball crops up in the most intriguing plotlines and you get a sense of silent things moving through history, the sections about human waste are stunningly grim and the bits about the bomb, from test bombers flying over blasts holding pillows over their faces and still seeing the bones in their hands to Nick's brother trying to justify working on the bomb technology are unputdownable.

The book jumps around from story to story, like a roving camera moving across the country and the narrative goes backwards in time, starting in the 1990's (after the prologue) back to 1951 when Nick is a teenager in the Bronx. This jumping is confusing if you're looking for a traditional story but if you forget that and try to think of Underworld as soaking up an experience then it works beautifully.

The real star of the show is, of course, the prose. The way he writes is hypnotic. You start reading and it's difficult but after while you fall into the rhythm, the repeating motifs that recycle throughout certain sections, the long sentences, and those little details of humanity that make total sense.

Make no bones about it, Underworld is a dense and difficult read. It's a book for the head more than the heart. When it's good it's near perfect but there are bits that are slow. Over the eight hundred plus pages it pushes what is possible from fiction right to the edge and, given that it was completed in 1997, it is almost prescient, hinting as it does to Islamic terror and the total ubiquity of the internet. But if you love words and language you can't really beat this. In the New York times it was voted 2nd in a list of best American books of the past 25 years and you can totally see why.
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33 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on 9 April 2006
My advice: pick up this tome at your local bookshop and read the wonderfully evocative first 50-60 pages which describe a mythical baseball game at a pivotal moment in American history. Watch the game slowly unfold through the eyes of the youngster who vaults the turnstiles. Savour the descriptions of the stands going wild, the papers and programmes spiralling through the air and wonder on the fate of that coveted home run ball. And then replace your copy. For after this almighty beginning, Underworld's joys are but fleeting epiphanies. For me, De Lillo reads as if he is just trying too hard at times, and nowhere more so than in his constant reference to GenX assembly parts like linoleum and styrofoam in his descriptions. And it's such a shame because the set pieces are so huge in scale and ambition that you'd go with them, if the characters and situations didn't seem so studied, so plotted out. All the right tunes, but sadly minus the soul.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 23 November 2014
This is an epic book which opens with a bang, literally. The "shot heard around the world", a famous home run hit by Bobby Thomson. The description of the game, the scramble for the ball and the aftermath is a truly brilliant piece of writing.

Indeed, the book is full of great writing but unfortunately it doesn't add up to anything. The narrative jumps around between numerous characters and periods of time. It even skips around during mini-chapters with two or more different subjects being discussed or thought about simultaneously. It's likely that the author is building on the contradictory emotions that are frequently part of the human experience, as introduced in the first section of the book when the extraordinary joy felt by the fans of the winning team is contrasted with the creeping dread that comes with the discovery that the Soviets have tested an atom bomb on that very same day.

Sadly it is too disjointed for me to make much sense of. Doubtless it is possible to sit back and enjoy the author's obvious talent and I probably would have had the book not been so ruddy huge. As it was I couldn't wait to be done with it.

No sir, I did not like it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 16 March 2015
This magnificent book follows the progress of a baseball whacked into the crowd by Bobby Thomson in the 1951 National League Final and claimed - for a very short time only before it is stolen - by a lad who has bunked off school to sneak into the game without paying, the best opening to a novel I have ever read and certainly the best match report. In a way that ball keeps flying throughout the ensuing 830-odd pages as we explore the lives and neighbourhoods of those native New Yorkers who are around on the day of the winning hit, unfolding and evolving through time as all things do. Some find redemption; some become B52 pilots, casually dropping bombs on the Vietnamese, never imagining their fearsome craft will one day metamorphose into painted installations in a bizarre desert gallery; some become renowned artists; some fade into failure, as does the Bronx, a bustling, lively and multicultural neighbourhood in the 1950s, but a gang- and drug-ridden ghetto by the 1980s. Even here, though, people are working for salvation and an angel appears in the manner of a miracle. The Cold War is given a perceptive airing, with the power of atomic weapons vividly evoked, and mankind's never-ending struggle with our own waste is intelligently explored. All the superlatives bestowed on this novel by the professional critics are well-deserved and it easily reaches the heights of Dickens and Dostoyevsky (Raskolnikov and Nick Shay are not so far apart). And, yes, let there be peace.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 29 October 1997
In Underworld Delillo finally offers characters whose engagement with a devastated millenial landscape includes an emotional reckoning that exalts them to a more humane status. While it's easy to understand the point made by creating hollowed out characters in a universe of normalized paranoia, it's more effective for the author to plant real human beings into his environment, a point demonstrated over and over again by such great apocalyptic urban philosophical writers as Juan Carlos Onetti, and even recently by Rick Harsch, author of the remarkable and unfortunately overlooked The Driftless Zone. It seems that Delillo has finally brought all his talents to bear in this latest novel.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Thoroughly deserves its place amongst novels classified as the "Great American Novel" ,such as Moby Dick. Awesome and poetic at the same time, It achieves that perfect mixture of the personal with the epic. I can't really adequately begin to describe what its really about or what makes it so special - loosely it's a history of the US through the Cold War-era, told in a sort of reverse order flashback - but that description does it no justice. If you have the patience, try this. P.S. the name is perhaps a little misleading - it's not a 'gangster' novel, "Underworld" being more of a metaphor for the interconnectedness of things and those connections being obscure and hidden.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 12 February 1999
'Longing on a large scale' Delillo writes 'is what makes history', and 'Underworld' is very much a book about longing. About America's irresistible longing for meaning and validation, order and consequence, a collective consciousness of faith and ideal and the sub-culture, 'the lost country inside America' that is its discarded identity, its 'waste'. Delillo evokes the intensity of this longing with a vital, imagery-driven prose that is both unsettling and breath-taking. The burden of war, real and imagined and the squalor of urban decay, the casual brutality of sex and death and the vast outpouring of the Internet. I didn't feel it was overly long or ponderous. It was a joy to read as much for the richness of the language as for its sheer size and depth. Delillo's America often seems a very desolate place, a country of secrets and empty spaces, but also uncompromising and powerful. As a European I don't know if this is a book Americans identify with, whether or not Delillo genuinely captures the mood of recent history. But he does capture the fascinating extremes that the American culture represents to non-Americans, the glory and despair of ambition and, most importantly, the universal dangers of self-inflicted ignorance.
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on 31 October 2014
A novel of breathtaking scope, with an effortless epic style that captures the spirit of a country. Without spoiling the book, Underworld weaves together individual threads of lives into the rich tapestry of history. Nowhere is this scope, this sense of shared history, encapsulated more than in the opening lines of the novel:

""He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.

It’s a school day, sure, but he’s nowhere near the classroom. He wants to be here instead, standing in the shadow of this old rust-hulk of a structure, and it’s hard to blame him — this metropolis of steel and concrete and flaky paint and cropped grass and enormous Chesterfield packs aslant on the scoreboards, a couple of cigarettes jutting from each.

Longing on a large scale is what makes history. This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trains, people in narrow columns tramping over the swing bridge above the river, and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small day — men in fedoras and sailors on shore leave, the stray tumble of their thoughts, going to a game."
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