"Underworld" can refer to many different facets of this book, such as the labyrinthine subways that wind beneath New York City, or the underground art scenes frequented by Klara and her friends. But it also alludes to the "underworld" that lives within each of us, the fusing of our memories, emotions, and personal histories that make us who we are. Do you agree with the prison psychiatrist who tells young Nick Shay that "we all have a history we are responsible to?" Discuss other "underworld" themes in the book.
As Underworld's cover photo represents, there are many "twin forces" explored in this book. Identify these themes of duality and discuss how they're rendered by DeLillo.
Few books boast a more brilliantly conceived Prologue than Underworld. Discuss your opinions of it: its construction, its language, its use of real-life in a tale of fiction. Why is the Prologue titled "The Triumph of Death?" How does its gritty, "you're-in-the-ballpark" tone compare to the tone of the first chapter? Do you think the Prologue could stand alone as a short story?
One of the most striking aspects of Underworld's narrative is its sprawling, nonlinear structure. By the end of the novel, we have gone full-circle; we start at the baseball game in 1951, fast-forward to the 1990s, and then work our way back to 1951 again. Why do you think DeLillo chose to structure his book this way? Is he saying that while we mark time in a linear fashion, time itself-and our memories-are not linear at all? What does this say about the interconnectedness of the present and the past? In what other ways does this story and its writing come full-circle?
Klara Sax says "many things are anchored to the balance of power...."(76) Do you agree that, without the Cold War, this balance is gone? Is there chaos because we don't have an element of danger hanging over our heads? Is life better or safer now that the Cold War is over? Or do we simply have new enemies?
Bobby Thomson's game-winning ball serves as the string that links Underworld's numerous characters, subplots, and themes. Is the ball a symbol of achievement or failure? Or, does that assessment depend simply upon who is holding it? Who do you think should have ended up owning the ball? To whom did it mean the most, and why?
When Cotter realizes that he will go home with the game-winning baseball, he feels like an important part of history. But does he truly realize the significance of the game he just witnessed? How often are we actually aware that we are witnessing history-in-the-making? What is it about a moment in time, or an event, that makes it obvious that it will go down in history?
Do you agree with Marvin Lundy when he states that "reality doesn't happen until you analyze the dots?" (182) What is more reliable: our own personal perception of an event as it happens, or our memories of it years later, after we have had time to think about it, process it, and be influenced by other's opinions and recollections?
How have video cameras changed our lives? Do mundane moments become elevated simply because they are caught on tape? Does the repeated viewing of an event (such as the Rodney King beating) make it more horrifying than it would be if only imagined? Or does seeing it over and over in some way make it less terrible? Discuss how the public surfacing of the Zapruder film in the 1970s changed the way Americans considered the Kennedy assassination. How does this compare with other historical moments (such as the Giants/Dodgers game of 1951) that were not filmed? Which is more powerful, and why?
Our country's largest man-made monument is the Fresh Kills garbage dump on Staten Island. Explore the irony that we, as a nation, have so much garbage that we have specialists like Nick Shay devoted to studying it. Why did Nick choose to enter such an unappealing field? At one point, he says that his choice of careers came at a point in his life when he was looking for a "faith to embrace." (282) Is his , "faith" 20th century American over-consumption?
Discuss Lenny Bruce's philosophies about life and our government, as expressed in his comedy routines. How did his routines change as the Cuban Missile Crisis ran its course? Do you think he was an alarmist, or was he playing up his fears to be funny? Do you think his rants accurately reflect the nation's feelings? How did his different audiences react to his performances?
Discuss the notion of art versus garbage, as explored in Underworld. How fine is the line between the two? if Klara turns everyday junk into art, can it be argued that the two are one and the same? Are painted planes in the middle of a desert really art? Is the Earth's landscape an appropriate background for art? Or is it perhaps more appropriate than any other? What do you think of the "garbologists" who collect Hoover's trash? Does putting it on display make it art?
In regard to Truman Capote's infamous Black and White Ball, DeLillo writes that "the factoidal data generated by the guests would surely bridge the narrowing gap between journalism and fiction." The blending of fact and fiction is a main element of Underworld, and it's precisely what Capote did with In Cold Blood, the first book to present true crime in a novel form. Do you think there should be a thicker line between fact and fiction? Under what circumstances do they become one and the same?
Discuss the unique way DeLillo writes dialogue. How do you feel about the way his characters often talk "over" each other? Is this a realistic rendering of the way we communicate? What do you think of the way his characters often let topics of conversation drop off, only to suddenly pick up where they left off at a later time? Does their ability to do this attest to the strong connections they have with one another?
In one memorable scene in the book, Marian recounts how she abandoned the trouble-making family dog, and then told her children that he ran away. Later, as she drove the children around "looking" for the dog, she almost came to believe the story she'd made up. Have you ever convinced yourself that a lie you told is true simply because you told it so many times? How often do You think this kind of "revisionist history" occurs in our daily lives? Within our government? Discuss other "secret manipulations of history" (495) explored in Underworld.
DeLillo is a highly expressive writer, penning characterizations that stick in the reader's mind. For example, he describes Jack Marshall as a man "on the perennial edge of dropping dead. You know these guys. They smoke and drink heavily and never sleep and have bad tickers and cough up storms of phlegm and the thrill of knowing them is guessing when they'll pitch into their soup." (391) Pick one of your favorite characterizations and discuss.
h2oetry, January 2, 2011 (view all comments by h2oetry)
Underworld (You might think it that vampire movie - it is absolutely NOT that movie) is such an evocative title for a novel, especially when coupled with its cover's depiction of the Twin Towers covered with clouds and a flying bird angled in an eerily airplane looking way(this book came out in 1997). Not to mention several passages regarding the Twin Towers that read with new resonance after 9/11. But that isn't really what the novel is about; it's an opportune accidental feeling carried throughout the book. I digress.
DeLillo begins Underworld with pages describing Bobby Thomson's walk-off homerun (afterward called The Shot Heard 'Round the World). DeLillo places the reader at this game in the crowd at the legendary Polo Grounds in New York; you needn't enjoy baseball to like this setting. Thomson's homerun, which clinched the 1951 National League pennant for the New York Giants, erupts an emotional fanbase into pandemonium. A young fan, Cotter Martin, sneaks in to watch the game, eventually snagging the incredibly historic homerun away from another fan he'd just befriended. DeLillo (and history) describes this game as the same day the Russians tested a nuclear bomb. The Cold War has commenced, and the baseball takes the reader through time (the years between 1951 and 1997), as it passes through the hands of various owners. The narrative explains the American experience of Russia vs. America while mingling fictional characters with various heroes of cultural history (Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, Lenny Bruce among others). Underworld covers the conflict in close detail and from a street level perspective. It's definitely a novel for anyone fascinated in global politics, media and culture.
Klara and Nick, the main characters, meet up in an Arizona desert in the 1990s and meander back in time as the story jumps chronologically through them and others until the early 1950s. Big events play out on the national stage, and each character's motivations and circumstances are shown, hinting that each life story shares synchronicity; the snapshots of the characters slowly intertwine into each others' lives.
The baseball is viewed by many of the characters as an object with a history; by simply owning the ball they feel they'll also get the history that comes along with it. A preacher in the book discusses how history's found in the most common of places -- only that it's hidden where few think to look. By learning the history of objects the characters become more in focus with themselves and society. Some characters deal in various types of waste: human waste, nuclear waste, garbage, etc. Every product, package, wrapper or explosion has a consequence. This is the core of Underworld -- it is the waste that humankind feverishly tries to hide away like a secret. But it's always there, and eventually we're forced to confront the waste we create and the fears that we hide behind, holding us back from true desires.
Sure, the chronology is a bit jumbled, but it all ties together in the end. The rewards of persevering through this dizzying novel are endless. The dialogue driven narrative means that good listeners will enjoy this book. Reading another DeLillo novel before Underworld will help an intimidated reader, but is not a necessity. In brevity, Underworld finds roots of today in the small moments of the past.
Postscript: DeLillo has said that the inspiration for Underworld was the October 4, 1951 front page of The New York Times. Essential reading: the Lenny Bruce comedy routines about the Cuban Missile Crisis in the novel. If, AND ONLY IF you can't make it through the entire book, read the first section about the baseball game, and then the Lenny Bruce routines which are found on pages 504-9, 544-8, 580-6, 590-5, and 623-33. They are remarkable in context of the novel, but are able to be read independently of the story with great results. Upon finishing the novel, these were the areas that I shuffled back to immediately.
Was this comment helpful? | Yes | No (1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)
Scribner Book Company -
by Kirkus Reviews,
"Working at the top of his form, DeLillo draws on his previous novels in shaping his most ambitious work yet...a brainy, streetwise, and lyrical underground history of our times, full of menace and miracles, and humming with the bop and crackle of postmodern life....He kicks the rock of reality, teases out the connectedness of things, and leaves us in awe."
by Library Journal,
"There are some marvelously drawn characters...and thought-provoking ideas....But somehow the various parts of the story seem more satisfying than the whole. DeLillo is one of our most gifted contemporary authors...yet one suspects that his truly 'great' novel is yet to come."
by Melvin Jules Bukiet, Chicago Tribune,
"Utterly extraordinary....In its epic ambition and accomplishment, Underworld calls out for comparison with works...that have defined the consciousness of their age."
by Donna Seaman, Booklist,
"DeLillo always writes large, but here he has reached new dimensions....[A] stylistically magnificent, many-voiced, and soulful novel....Like novelists E. L. Doctorow and Thomas Pynchon, DeLillo uses historical figures to great effect, but DeLillo is a far more emotive and spiritual writer, and Underworld is a ravishingly beautiful symphony of a novel."
by Michael Dirda, The Washington Post,
"Read and rejoice....Formidable characters, themes, language....Underworld delivers on every count."
by Michael Ondaatje,
"DeLillo offers us another history of ourselves, the unofficial underground moments....This book is an aria and a wolf whistle of our half-century."
by Salman Rushdie,
"Underworld is a magnificent book by an American master."
by Gay Talese,
"Astonishing....DeLillo has raised literary standards to new highs here, and yet the book is a page-turner, a scene-stealer, a triumph of language that takes us everywhere we've never been."
by Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times,
"DeLillo's most affecting novel yet...a dazzling, phosphorescent work of art."
In Underworld, Don DeLillo has written a gloriously fused history of the past 50 years that offers a key to understanding American culture — our preoccupations and obsessions, our fears, our loves, our lives — as well as a chance to reexperience it. Moving through this country's most diverse landscapes, DeLillo gradually reveals his two central protagonists, Nick Shay, now a "waste analyst," and Klara Sax, a renowned artist, who had a brief affair in the Bronx in 1952 when she was thirty-two and he, seventeen.
A finalist for the National Book Award, Don DeLillo’s most powerful and riveting novel—“a great American novel, a masterpiece, a thrilling page-turner” (San Francisco Chronicle)—Underworld is about the second half of the twentieth century in America and about two people, an artist and an executive, whose lives intertwine in New York in the fifties and again in the nineties. With cameo appearances by Lenny Bruce, J. Edgar Hoover, Bobby Thompson, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and Toots Shor, “this is DeLillo’s most affecting novel…a dazzling, phosphorescent work of art” (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times).
“DeLillo’s most affecting novel yet...A dazzling, phosphorescent work of art.”—Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
“The clearest vision yet of what it felt like to live through that day.” —Malcolm Jones, Newsweek
“A metaphysical ghost story about a woman alone…intimate, spare, exquisite.” —Adam Begley, The New York Times Book Review
“A brilliant new novel....Don DeLillo continues to think about the modern world in language and images as quizzically beautiful as any writer.” — San Francisco Chronicle
Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and eBooks — here at Powells.com.