Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Underworld (Don DeLillo)

A friend and I once had a lengthy late-night argument—as only heavily inebriated college-age people can—about what meaningful distinction there was between liking something, and actually thinking it’s good. Playing devil’s advocate, I was arguing that it’s absurd for someone to say, “I don’t like X, but I think it’s good”—that this was a straight cop-out. “No, I didn’t really like 2001, but I thought it was good.” By not liking it, don’t you really think, deep down, that 2001 was bad in some basic way, even if you can’t articulate it? Or, similarly, if you claim to like something while simultaneously admitting it’s bad, doesn’t that mean that you secretly think it’s good?

Which is a roundabout way of getting to the book I was slogging through before our Great Cross-Country About-Face: Don DeLillo’s Underworld. Because here’s the thing about DeLillo: He’s very good. Very, very, very good. And I just don’t like his books at all.

Granted, I’ve only read one other: White Noise, seven or eight years ago. At the time I was on in a postmodernist phase, reading a lot of Donald Barthelme and John Barth and Robert Coover and Jorge Luis Borges and Italo Calvino and so on, and DeLillo’s name popped up from time to time in a similar context, so I figured I’d try him out.

What I remember (vaguely) was thinking that White Noise felt far too anesthetized—the atmosphere, the characters, everything had this sort of cold fluorescence about it, drained of blood and emotion. Given the book’s subject, I don’t doubt that this was intentional. I didn’t even really think it was a bad book. In fact, it was undoubtedly a very good book.

But I didn’t like it. I didn’t particularly care what happened in it, or what happened to the characters. At the time, I was willing to put up with a lot from books where caring about the characters wasn’t really the point. But I find that lately that’s become much more of a deal-breaker for me. (Although Barthelme can still hook me with his sentences alone, and with his gonzo, Dr. Seuss-ish logic.)

I had the same reaction to Underworld as I did to White Noise. It’s obviously very, very good. Great writing. Highly accomplished. But when I had to return it to the library a few days before we moved, 350+ pages in, I didn’t feel any real need to finish it. I just didn’t care about any of these people. In spite of whatever ostensible passions they had, or longings, or betrayals, there was something robotic about them. One of them was having an affair: Didn’t care. One of them was tracking a baseball: Cared a little bit, but not a lot. And so on.

You get the impression that DeLillo himself doesn’t particularly care for his characters—that rather than involving himself with them, or approaching them with empathy or understanding, he’s critiquing them. Or using them as a vehicle to critique “society” or “modern America” or some similar abstraction. And I find that I’m just not interested in reading an 800-page critique these days, even one as well crafted as this. If I’m going to live with these people, I want to care about them. I want to care what happens to them, and I want to care about what they care about.*

I should make two caveats. First, of course, is that I obviously didn’t finish the book. It could be that DeLillo weaves everything together marvelously in the second half, and that had I finished it, I would’ve ended up liking it. But somehow I doubt it.

The second is that the long prologue, originally published separately as a novella titled Pafko at the Wall, is phenomenal. Loved it. Fully worth reading on its own. I had read it before as part of an anthology, and it was actually because I had liked that novella, and because Roger Kahn kept mentioning Andy Pafko, that I started reading Underworld in the first place. Set at the 1951 Giants-Dodgers game when Bobby Thomson hit his famous pennant-winning home run for the Giants, it starts with a bunch of kids leaping the turnstiles to get into the game and then wends its way around the stadium, picking up Russ Hodges in the radio booth, Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason and J. Edgar Hoover in their box seats, the players themselves, and one of those turnstile-leaping kids who first befriends the man sitting next to him and then ends up fighting with him over the game-winning ball.

The ball is one of the centerpieces of Underworld—the kid takes it home and, unable to resist, shows it off to his father, who steals it later that night with the intention of selling it. The book then jumps forward into the 1990s and works its way backward, with the ball popping up now and then with different characters, one of whom is trying to track its lineage of ownership back to the game itself, to prove that the ball is really the ball. Finishing the prologue was, unfortunately, the high point for me for the next couple hundred pages. The original theft of the ball was resonant in all sorts of ways, and involving in a way the rest of the book was not, maybe because the kid’s complicated attitude toward it—as a prize, as a talisman of power, as a bit of luck in a down-and-out sort of life, and then as an embodiment of the naïve trust he had in his father and his own need to impress him—had a genuine emotional heft to it that everything else lacked. I wouldn’t be surprised, again, if that were intentional, and if DeLillo was making some point about how America had changed since then, how nobody cares about anything anymore the way people cared about that game, and that kid cared about that ball. But that made it awfully hard to care about the book, too.

But enough of that. Next up, the book I read instead of going back to Underworld, which I both liked and thought was good: Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union.

* This is a very different thing, and much harder, from making characters “likable.”


Lee Anne said...

Thanks for this review -- I've had Underworld on my shelf for years. I haven't even cracked it. I loved White Noise -- My late adolescent self related to the daughter who volunteered for the emergency exercise. But, you're right, there's an odd disconnect with the characters. I'll at least give it a try before I put it in the donate pile during the next move.

I studied White Noise in the same class I read Denis Johnson's Fiskadoro. He now has another book Tree of Smoke; about Vietnam (CIA, like Graham Greene), possibly timely. I wonder... Another review...

Jim Duncan said...

If you liked White Noise, definitely give Underworld a go.

I remember liking Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son pretty well. But he also had this 50-page story in the 2003 O. Henry Awards collection called "Train Dreams" that was just mind-blowing. When I finished I literally stared into space for about 30 seconds, then turned back to the beginning and read it straight through again.

Man, that was a good story. One of the few things making me now regret having sold off all my O. Henrys two moves back.

GeoX said...

Very on-target review. Delillo's smart, if self-indulgent, but his work is emotionally sterile. In lieu of showing emotion, characters engage in detached conversations that are a lot less profound than I think he thinks they are. It's sort of like a Godard film, except I LIKE Godard.

Anonymous said...

I quit on "Underworld" in frustration around page 600, even though I enjoy tearing through big, fat challenging books now and then. DeLillo's abrupt changes in setting, characters and time frames repeatedly yanked me away from engaging with his story and its people. To me, "Underworld" feels like a number of short stories in which the effort to combine them into one nearly ruins their individual brilliance.

firebrand said...

I agree DeLillo's Underworld is a swirling mass of a book and digs and junkdives from one character and rivulet of situation to another. I also see the confluence of "reviews" from so many who didn't actually read the book. It's like reading a review of a resaurent from someone who has only seen a picture of one of it's menu items. Underworld swivels and turns faster than our individual junkheap tonage of life and memory. Most of us can't conjure up just how big it all is. DeLillo does. I suggest to those who's opinions outweigh their ability to finish a novel go to Cliff's Notes. Always. Faster and so to the point. Then you have more time in Starbucks to go online and have a publishable opinion.