2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Underworld - overrated.,
This review is from: Underworld (Paperback)
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.