Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Review: Underworld

Don DiLillo’s Underworld is an atmospheric pastiche of nuclear age anxiety. After an interminable Prologue in which the Giants beat the Dodgers for the 1952 National League pennant, the book generally traces two stories – the story of the winning homerun baseball and the story of Nick Shay. The ball passes from the kid who nabbed it at the game to a series of collectors. Shay grows from a Bronx hooligan to an executive for a large waste management company in Phoenix.

What could be an engaging story – how a juvenile crime changed the trajectory of Shay’s life – is attenuated and addled by laying out the narrative backwards. The story starts in 1992, then moves back in time in chunks until 1952. This means that events in the beginning of the book only make sense later, and characters met early on fall into place later. This is a needlessly confusing and self conscious format. It is like looking at a scrapbook backwards, figuring out how the people and events fit together.

And, of course, a backwards timeline cannot really work if there is to be any resolution of the story, because “how the story ends” would have to come at the very beginning. That would make for a boring book. So the first section raises dramatic issues that hang there through the entire book, until they are wrapped up in a lengthy Epilogue set in 1992 again.

Also confusing are the myriad characters who are all linked, but some only tangentially. Many of the connections are artificial, mere excuses for elaborate digressions. The unifying theme of waste – particularly nuclear waste and destruction – further ties these side stories together, but not in any way enjoyable. DiLillo lingers over descriptions and rumors of disfigurement and deformity caused by nuclear testing, as well as other descriptions of wasted lives.

This book is too long, too self-righteous, too slow, too dark, too garbled, and simply too trying. DiLillo has his fans, but I am not one of them.


If you would like your review of this or any other DiLillo book listed here, please leave a comment with a link and I will list it here.


  1. I have not read DeLillo yet, but I plan to. I'm thinking I won't start here though. :-)


  2. I haven't read DeLillo either, but will skip this one. Picked up Falling Man at a library book sale, so I guess that'll be first.

  3. I've only read two DeLillo books, this one and Cosmopolis, which even his fans didn't seem to like. It was also fractured, crowded, and overly stylistic. I'm pretty reluctant to try another.

  4. I would recommend either White Noise or The Names. I have had Underworld on my shelf forever, but could never bring myself to take it on. Now I don't feel like I need to. Thanks for an insightful review.

  5. Rachelle -- I'm glad to hear you liked White Noise. That one is on my TBR shelf. It will be quite a while before I am willing to try another DeLillo book, but I won't be entirely reluctant now.

  6. I can't think of any book I've read that actually goes backwards in time. Ones that skip around, yes, but not backwards. How do you feel about ones that are not in chronological order but don't go backwards linearly?

  7. I have been reading your reviews for awhile and lurking. I have a site where I review what I read.

  8. JT, I can't think offhand of any other novels that go backwards in time, either, but Harold Pinter did it in the theater with "Betrayal." The play opens with the breakup of a marriage and traces the relationship back in time to the very beginning, when the two lovers meet. It works, I think, because you know the "ending" from the start -- the couple breaks up -- but you don't know why until you strip away the layers of time and incident to find out where things went wrong and how it began. So it becomes a detective story, and an adventure: Why did this happen? What is the source? And of course Pinter, with his open elliptical language, gives the actors huge amounts of space to flesh the thing out and explore it for themselves.

  9. Betrayal! Good example of backward narrative done right. I only saw the movie version with Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsly, but it did the same thing.

    Which exposes the weakness, I thought, in Underworld -- it didn't truly go backwards. It set up the conflicts in the first 1992 section, but unlike Betrayal, did not give the complete "end" to the story. The story ends in the last section, which takes place in 1992 again.

    I don't have a general rule about jumping back and forth in time. It depends on the story and the writing, for me.

    In one of those strange book coincidences, I went from Underworld to Shalimar the Clown by Salman Rushdie and it also has a backward narrative. Al least in the first third of the book, it has gone steadily backwards from modern day Los Angeles, to just before modern day L.A., to 1960s Kashmir, to WWII France. I suspect that it is going to go forward again after this section.

    PS: Rob -- thanks for visiting! And for signing up to follow Rose City Reader!

  10. Sorry Rod! I meant Rod, not Rob. Typed too fast.


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