DiLillo’s Underworld is a baffling book for this reader. I’ve never read him before and have no information about him except I probably saw his name in the bookstore. I put off reading the giant tome figuring it would be a book written like a screenplay. If a book is purported to be a great novel by advertisement or by the back cover, then I expect something solid.
I avoided the book for months sensing I had a “Bronx Story” by a wise guy Intellectual Italian. I read the first chapter, which was excellent but I was confirmed it was a nostalgic meandering, which it turned out to be.
The author is very gifted, a craftsman, a wordsmith etc. but the entire book is a movie and a tedious documentary at that. The opening chapter about the Shot Heard ‘Round The World, the Bobby Thomson homer of ’52, is the best part of the book. In itself this could have been put on film extremely profitably or developed into it’s own novel. The remainder unfolds like a family story with other associates. I am 66% of the way through. It’s a slog. I read it like short stories, very slowly. The font is small on the paperback and I have to give up sometimes. I image the narrator as the famous Italian actor Paul Sorvino who mostly plays pious bad guys or neighborhood heroes. I picture the man. He’s unbelievable as a true villain but the act still registers. He could never rival DeNiro.
The writing is crisp, quick-paced and very detailed. It’s the kind of smooth dialogue one hears in the older movies, albeit updated, that override the old images, or competes with them literarily. Instead of going fast I have to deliberately slow to get all the atmosphere and intent. After a few pages I am fatigued. I decide to skim and I feel I’m cheating the author. It’s that kind of book for me. Unless the remainder provides as good an end as the beginning, I’ll be disappointed. In some ways his style reminds me of Bolano’s Detectives, although I’d be surprised if there was any connection.
I finally finished the book. I did the Wikipedia on DiLillo: considered solidly in the post-modern class of American writers like Wallace, and going all the way back to Pynchon. I believe it. The two latter authors simply drove me nuts with their extreme intelligence – so extreme their words became unintelligible. DiLillo’s softer and cosmopolitan act never confuses except by the question, Why is the man writing this book? His labor had to have been intense and his approach so thorough-comprehensive that I get he was trying to impress me by his long-term memory, a usual novelist’s aim, but in his case seemingly written at a cost-per-word basis with his publisher. Dom tells me the whole goddamn intricate story with flights of fancy so black and white gorgeous that I could have wished I was at his movie. He finally wears me to the point that the ending becomes an interior celebration, the end of a long marathon.
This tedious novel seems to me an affected attempt to approach notable fiction. Perhaps it succeeds at this level according to the popular tastes. Is Twenty weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List a stamp of quality? Do numerous awards do equate with greatness?
The man can write, lay down the word I call it. His voice is clear and distinctive but it is always his voice even in the female actors. The story could be made into a beautiful but costly TV series, PBS. Or an epic movie. The scenes are so vivid and over-described that a producer could read it precisely – no room for imagination. The themes are very ordinary: the Fifities, The Bomb, The Cold War, New York, New York, Environmental Art, Trash, The Absent Father long gone to a mafia hit, Lenny Bruce monologues, The Normal Irish Mother, class struggles, and the stereotypes of TV. Formulaic.
As a nostalgic review of events like an old Pathe News film combined with a tedious attention to detail characterize this writer. On that level, like watching The Hitler Channel, or over-viewing culture, or watching culture through a medium, the word. DeLillo excels, if one prefers that particular escape. The Shot Heard Round the World I really enjoyed. I found the remainder tedious. I’d rather the man tell short stories.
Underworld just runs out of words mercifully. 827 pages could have been cleverly edited into a better read. In sum, Underworld is a competent and clear novel but journalistically bent – all too conclusive, too graphic, too wrought of an old man’s guilt and his demons. The narrative has too many loose ends, odd imagined joining of characters in the afterlife of particle physics, and DiLillo’s inveterate Bronx Italianate style, which rarely rises above ground level.
I think we are too data dependent. I’ve written about this recently and offered a few poems too. Quantity is not necessarily quality. Was the book worth the price and time? Yes. It produced this fine review.