The Dustbin of History

Despite its massive cast, hefty page count, and outsized ambitions, Don DeLillo's Underworld manages to underwhelm.

"Reality doesn't happen until you analyze the dots..."

"And when the Cold War goes out of business, you won't be able to look at some woman in the street and have a what-do-you-call-it kind of fantasy the way you do today."

"Erotic. But what's the connection?"

"You don't know the connection? You don't know that every privilege in your life and every thought in your mind depends on the ability of the two great powers to hang a threat over the planet?"

"That's an amazing thing to say."

"And you don't know that once this threat begins to fade?"

"What?"

"You're the lost man of history."

The Lost Man of History. DeLillo wants it both ways: He wants just-folks characters who also happen to be acutely aware of their moment in history--and are then willing to discuss the situation in the terms of freshman philosophy while watching the game on TV.

Like its characters, this novel tries too hard to be about something. A DeLillo defender might point out that all novels try to be about something. True enough; but the best novels are a little subtler. They wrap their meaning in a few layers of story, tuck it away so the lit-crit types can have their day too. DeLillo parks his meaning on your face. He's like one of the characters, Klara the Conceptual Artist, who recruits a bunch of Gen-Xers to paint funky colors on decommissioned B-52 bombers to commemorate the end of the Cold War. Apparently, Klara finds the end of the Cold War disquieting, an insight she's kind enough to spell out:

"Now that power is in shatters or tatters and now that those Soviet borders don't exist in the same way, I think we understand, we look back, we see ourselves more clearly, and them as well. Power meant something thirty, forty years ago. It was stable, it was focused, it was a tangible thing. It was greatness, danger, terror, all those things. And it held us together, the Soviets and us."

Even ideas as commonplace as these might have been the foundation of a good story, had DeLillo shown us the real difference the Cold War made in his characters' lives. Instead, with only a few exceptions, they just do the usual, bomb or no bomb: They cheat on a wife here, accidentally shoot somebody there, and stop every once in a while in the middle of casual conversation to point out how strange it is to live in these nuclear times.

Perhaps the most annoying thing about Underworld is how much good writing DeLillo leaves strewn around. The frequent good stretches resemble found art, shiny baubles picked up in the street and stuck haphazardly to a piece of plywood to satisfy the terms of a grant. The book's indifferent disorder tempts the reader to hop around, as the author seems to do, dipping in for occasional samples. That kind of reading might be the most rewarding way to approach Underworld; like other recent Big Books, it will probably end up widely admired and sparsely read. Great, but unreadable.

Some reader will stick it out and plow straight through, in hopes the whole will gel into something greater than its parts. But patience goes unrewarded. And DeLillo accomplishes the not-unremarkable feat of making 778 pages feel tacked on to a 49-page prologue.

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