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3.4 out of 5 stars
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 10 January 2000
This is a big book! It starts with Bobby Thomson hitting the winning run for their new York Giants in October 1951 and so defeating the Dodgers. On the same day the Soviets detonated a bomb - yet it is the home run that is known as 'the shot that was heard from round the world' and the two events shared the front pages next morning. In a way the novel vindicates this as it is shaped around the impact of this game on people. The story is really of America as defined by the Cold War. I make it sound awful but its wonderful. The narrative is non linear but you always know where you are as the sections are dated. If there is a central character it's Nick, working in waste management and recycling with his family like it is a religious ritual that will keep them from harm. He's grown up in the Bronx and survived his father's disappearance by convincing himself that he was shot by the Mafia. Klara appears occasionally, an artist who lives in the desert creating a huge work out of abandoned planes. Or the wonderful Moonman a notorious graffiti artist who now runs an informal shelter for runaways, and the two Nuns who visit him, exchanging his access to people for information on where to find abandoned cars. All of these people are linked and their lives weave in and out. All of the fiction happens against a background of fact, the Cuban crisis is in there via Lenny Bruce's stage shows. The fears of a nations via news reports and mad men on street corners. Artefacts like a video, accidentally captured by a little girl of the highway killer, the Zapruder video of the Kennedy assassination. It's a job to capture this book, he seems to want us to learn about this along with the people in it but of course it's a book for Americans. If you believe that the USA is the whole world then all human life is there - however if you are like me and had to kind of translate the baseball game, fabulous set piece that it is, into an FA cup final between local rivals, then it will have to fall short of being THE great novel that it wants to be. You have to be grateful though to a writer who is willing to leave an ending so open, who lets you choose whether to live in fear or believe in miracles and DeLillo does that with style.
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on 20 November 2015
This was recommended by someone whose judgement I trust, but unfortunately it just wasn't for me. I read the first hundred pages, and then about another hundred pages after that in 20-page or so chunks throughout the book. The author has an annoying habit of repeating phrases two or more times within a few paragraphs, which makes for tiresome reading. The first time I just assumed it was bad editing but then it became apparent it's just a "feature" of this particular work. The beginning of the book isn't all that bad but my interest waned as the story [stories?] wore on.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 1 April 1999
This is a real treat for DeLillo fans - and, as far as i can gather, a bit of an ordeal for those who don't like to work too hard at their reading matter (see the reviews on It's probably fair to say it's a bit of a bloke's book - it is huge in scale, time span, ambition - you name it - and its prose style is very 'muscular'. Its themes are massive too, from the effect of the Cold War on American consciousness to the role of sport in society. What makes the book such a success is DeLillo's extraordinary openness to the varieties of lived experience. Essentially this book, like most of his novels, is about the incredibly intricate weave of alternative belief systems that is society - and how they complement or conflict with each other. There are parts which are a bit of a slog (around the third quarter of the book), but it's worth persevering because the last 100 pages or so are full of poetry and emotion. At the time of reading it (last year) I said to myself "This is the late C20 Ulysses." I still hold by that. It's a great book and i have driven my girlfriend completely round the twist by talking about it at every possible opportunity. Read it and find out why!
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3 of 4 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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on 25 May 2011
I brought Underworld after reading White Noise which I also think is superb. Once again I was astounded by DeLillo's beautiful style & language creating such detailed scenes which just show how well he understands people and their motivations. It's an eye-opening book leaving you with a lot to think about. I'd recommend it to anyone but it's hard work! But then all the best things are.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 27 January 2014
I, like many who came to this book under their own steam, was attracted to it by the sheer amount of critical acclaim it had received. One quote claims that "The book is 827 pages long, and not one of them fails to engage." Others call it "a masterpiece." All this praise confuses me, I must confess. Having persevered and read the entire book, I cannot understand what makes it a masterpiece. It is quite long, I suppose, so maybe that qualifies it to be regarded as one? Let's delve deeper though, and see if we can find why anyone would consider it as such...

Opening with a famous baseball game, Underworld starts in fine fashion. The description of the atmosphere, the desperation of the young boy Cotter to get into the stadium to see the game, the shifting of viewpoints around the grounds - it all recounts a moment of history in a wonderfully engaging fashion. Following this prologue, the action shifts to an artistic project in the desert, which is also quite interesting. Unfortunately, the narrative at this point is set forty years on from the baseball game. Events that have already happened in the lives of the characters are referred to, effectively spoiling parts of their respective stories for the reader. The rest of the narrative turns into a fill-in-the-blanks type affair in terms of character development, as every so often DeLillo will tell us something the characters have had happen to them, which we haven't read about yet. Presumably we aren't supposed to get particularly invested in them. The characters themselves are poorly drawn and irritating, some of them undergoing total seismic shifts in their personality with little to no explanation - DeLillo seems perfectly content to let the reader fill in huge blanks in their respective timelines to explain why they've totally changed the person they are. An inability to inject actual character into his characters means DeLillo shies away from showing how their relationships change as a result of their actions, instead choosing to take snapshot style looks at their lives after things have been resolved. The fragmentary nature of the narrative becomes particularly irritating towards the end of the book, with the comedian Lenny Bruce making a number of unfunny appearances.

The underlying theme of the novel is trash and decay - I'll avoid a cheap jibe here - and is levered in to many chapters relentlessly. Whilst it's awfully clever to use the theme of decay to emphasise the decay of societal and familial relationships in America during the cold war, this idea is crammed down the throat of the reader over and over again. If you didn't notice how clever he was being the first time, maybe you will the next! Or the next! Or the next... This constant need DeLillop seems to feel to show how cultured and clever he is really weighed down the book for me. I don't want to come across as having a chip on my shoulder or anything like that - I'm a reasonably educated person, and accept there are many people smarter and more sophisticated than I am - but DeLillo really seems like he has something to prove. Take part 4, chapter 3. One of the main characters goes to watch a silent film by Eisenstein, director of Battleship Potemkin. We are then "treated" to insights into Eisenstein, as well as an interminable description of the film the character is watching. Also during this chapter we encounter a graffiti artist, possibly included here just to liven things up slightly, or perhaps just to show the full breadth of DeLillo's impressive artistic appreciation skills. Later, a character is watching some men play cards, and, following an analysis of a word in dialect (which we aren't given an actual definition of in the end anyway), the character thinks to himself how "He wanted to be a dry wise soul (Heraclitus)." All of a sudden DeLillo has started quoting his sources, as if to show just how well read he is. Even if this is supposed to be representative of a thought this particular character has, it is still outstandingly pretentious. Of course, this particular character is quite irritating anyway, dawdling his way through the world staring at everything, so it would fit with the rest of his infuriating personality anyway.

The biggest obstacle to enjoyment I found with this book wasn't the length, not by any means. It was the feeling of stagnation and entropy throughout. Nothing really goes anywhere, nothing happens. I'm not expecting explosions and gunfights, obviously, but the events in the book are so run of the mill and depressing it's like reading plots for a daytime soap at points. This human interest side wouldn't be so bad if I felt even the slightest connection to any of the characters, but they all struck me as profoundly irritating and vaguely crafted vehicles for DeLillo's own artistic opinions and pretensions. I stuck with the book until the end, not wanting to review it without having finished it, desperately hoping that it would get better if I read it in longer stints. It didn't. The book starts well, coasts for a while, plummets during the Eisenstein chapter (around the halfway mark) and then picks up again slightly. I found myself counting down the pages, every chapter feeling like a punishment I was inflicting upon myself. The ending of the book goes oddly sci-fi too, quite awkwardly, as if DeLillo didn't know how to wrap everything up (which, to be fair, should really teach him a lesson about non-linear narratives). This book is not unapproachable, not by any means - it is just an extremely dull journey through the lives of several uninteresting people. Never have I read a book that takes so long to say so little.
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2 of 3 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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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 16 September 2009
This book only just holds together - it is a massive 827 pages long and has a large number of themes and situations, all credibly worked through and described, which makes it an achievement in itself. I have no problem with its ambition, which is huge. DeLillo tackles nuclear power, nuclear waste, human waste and redemption, not to mention superstition and the mysticism of the number 13. Human relationships, which might have been thought to be central in such an enormous novel about America and Americans, are, in the end, not really part of the deal except as exemplars.

There is bleakness at the heart of this book - an absence of the human desires and principles that save us from self-destruction. That said, there are some wonderful set pieces - notably Truman Capote's Black and White Ball in New York in the 70s and a baseball game, again in New York, in the 50s. A downtown Chicago riot is handled well but other experiences seem oddly tacked on - a visit to a detonation site in Kazakhstan, for instance.

There is the sense throughout of people moving through existence, lost and out of control but always yearning for more. It is not a life-affirming book - nor did I suppose it should be - but I wanted something from this book that it constantly withheld. It strikes me now that it was something that the writer wanted to offer but didn't know how. A sense of the sometimes episodic but transcendent moments of discovery about oneself and other people, perhaps? Everyone in this book is unhappy, all the time, but that can't be how life really feels. If we were all such miserable beings we wouldn't get much past our late twenties - we wouldn't have kids, or strive for anything, or even know what was worth striving for.

Perhaps that was part of the point of the book? Once you cancel love of life, what is left? In the end, though, the book is impressive for its range and drive, if not for the picture it paints of America.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 22 April 2007
Whoever said that a great novel had to be easy to digest? Sometimes it is rewarding to work hard at reading a novel, taking the time to absorb the beauty of the language- paying close attention to the actual words upon the page. This is no page turner, but it is incredibly rewarding if you are prepared to give it the time.

The book isn't about plot, morality, resolution or sentimentaliy- apsects of American literature that I so often find repellent- Delillo depicts humanity not emotional cliche. It goes way beyond cliche, painting an incredible and beautiful picture of the United States during the second half of the 20th Century. The interconnected nature of everything on our planet is demonstrated so effectively as to be overwhelming- it is not only what Delillo depicts that is overwhelming, but also the sheer ambition of the writer in attempting to encapsulate so many nuances of American culture in one novel.

I imagine those who have posted such dispariging reviews were expecting such a highly praised novel to a bit more of the work for them. It took a long time to get through and it's rarely easy going, but if you come to it with an open mind and can suspend your assumptions about what a novel is supposed to be, then you may find Underworld to be extrmely valuable and satisfying.
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5 of 7 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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