The curious thing about the Big Books of serious American fiction is the sense of dutiful obeisance they inspire. They stare down from sagging bookshelves, admired but unread, dusty bookmarks usually stalled around page 300. Their titles are 10-pound barbells, weighing on the guilty conscience of the self-styled literate class: The Sot Weed Factor, Gravity's Rainbow, The Recognitions. The novels one really should have read, but couldn't bring oneself to lug to the easy chair.
Conventional wisdom would predict shorter books, given the supposed case of attention deficit disorder the culture has suffered since the advent of the motion picture. But the Big Books keep coming. Last year, David Foster Wallace's 1100-page Infinite Jest leaped into middle-high-brow popular consciousness so quickly that its author was invited to television's morning chat shows. This spring, Thomas Pynchon's 700-page Mason & Dixon also appeared briefly on the lower rungs of the best-seller lists, only to lose its grip and fall into the remainder bins.
The latest contender for the heavyweight title, Don DeLillo's 827-page-long Underworld, is well on its way to all the right bookshelves. For one thing, DeLillo's reputation already comes with the right aura. Fans sometimes call him America's "most dangerous" writer--a mantle the author courts with his low public profile and grim, cryptic treatises on the writer's outcast status in society. The 60-year-old's past novels (White Noise, Libra, Mao II) explore hip themes--conspiracy theories, mass culture and technology--so he already comes out of the chute as the sentimental favorite of the younger generation of readers. But Underworld is a different kind of book for DeLillo. The tone is gentler and less apocalyptic, and his subject is more sweeping.
The prologue is already familiar to many readers as the novella "Pafko at the Wall," which appeared in Harper's in folio form some five years back. It's a lyrical piece of writing that re-creates the last contest of a three-game pennant playoff between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants in 1951, and the afternoon-long build-up to the Giants' game-winning "shot heard 'round the world." The unaffected beauty of the story is enough to make the reader want to memorize the starting line-up of the '47 Yankees--or whatever the classic teams of the era are supposed to be--not so much for the sake of knowing baseball but for the sake of somehow becoming a more authentic American. The story roams the stands, collecting the unrelated little moments that conspire to form a crowd: A poor kid from Harlem catches a free bag of peanuts; the scratchy-throated announcers cover their microphones to tell the one about Speedy Gonzalez, the fastest lover en Mayheeko; a bilious Jackie Gleason gets ready to lose his lunch on Sinatra's new shoes.
Writers usually stumble when they combine historical figures with regular people; they don't seem to belong on stage together, and the effect feels Disneyesque. But DeLillo pulls the trick off beautifully. Gleason, the ballplayers, and the other celebrities in the story are made of the same fabric as all the other fans. They are petty and easily distracted; they squabble over whether to leave the game early to beat the crowd. They can also be inadvertently honest. Sinatra presses J. Edgar Hoover to reveal which team he's rooting for, and Hoover can't help smiling:
"'I don't have a rooting interest. Whoever wins,' he says softly. 'That's my team.'"
Where the prologue succeeds, the rest of Underworld comes undone. It, too, is about little moments...800 pages of them. DeLillo hopscotches randomly through the lives of at least a dozen major characters, following no single arc of chronology or plot. The main trio consists of a waste-disposal expert named Nick, his egghead brother Matt, and a conceptual artist named Klara, whom Nick nicked back in high school. DeLillo doles out their personal histories in dribs and drabs, interrupting himself for a hundred pages at a time to follow unrelated characters. The conceit here is that most of these people are in some way connected--sometimes by N degrees of separation--to the search for the home-run ball that won the 1951 National League pennant.
Underworldis advertised--and advertises itself--as a book about the Cold War as experienced on the level of the mundane. To DeLillo's credit, this approach is far more palatable than some of the alternatives. Better this than the cartoonish vision of history we get from someone like director Robert Zemeckis (whom the New York Times has recently--and bizarrely--mistaken for an intellectual, especially on matters of baby-boomer history).
In Zemeckis's Gumpian world, recent history is a series of emblematic, made-for-TV events--Woodstock, the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and the day Kennedy was shot--and regular people wander into the frame long enough to take in the big picture, then move on. DeLillo's characters, on the other hand, almost make a point of avoiding Historical Moments, choosing instead to experience their time as a kind of changing texture: the action between the sprocket holes in the film stock, which never see the light of the screen.
Unfortunately, all this texture eventually gets dull. So DeLillo tries to break things up with the occasional profound pronouncement. Every now and then, a character will speak up and remind the reader that there's historical meaning present in all this mundanity. At one point, this exchange breaks out in the middle of a conversation about baseball:
"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?"
"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.