Opinions, or so the bookish corner of the web tells me, are divided on whether or not Underworld is DeLillo’s masterpiece, or an appalling waste of time. English critic James Wood seems to be leading the charge against DeLillo. I can’t actually link to (ore even read) his article in The New Republic because it doesn’t seem to be online, but I can link to this article from The Boston Globe by Christopher Shea, about Wood and his current role in American letters, and I can certainly link to Garth Risk Hallberg’s rebuttal. From what I can gather, the gist of Wood’s argument against DeLillo, and Underworld specifically, is an excessive concern with paranoia, which Wood sees as incompatible with great literature. Wood also (apparently; I’m working with second-hand interpretive readings here) doesn’t believe there to be any real human beings in the novel, only… well, I don’t know what. Not archetypes or cardboard cutouts, but certainly not genuine people. Hallberg’s claim is that Wood simply doesn’t understand what’s going on, and is letting his own preoccupations ruin his reading of the novel. (I was going to do a big long thing tracing his arguments against Wood, but this books frankly isn’t worth all the trouble, so I’m just going to say that you should read the two articles I just linked to, and then come back here and remember that my statements are informed by them.)
I’m going to have to agree with Wood here, on some pretty important points. First of all, this novel is incredibly overrated. The backward-looking structure doesn’t seem to help, as it very much appears that DeLillo didn’t quite think it through. While, like life, the focus of people’s lives changes from time period to time period, DeLillo skips the transitions, so instead of experiencing the sense of Nick Shay trying to understand himself, we get a half-assed, barely there character who is wildly inconsistent in his behaviour and his mental state with very little explanation as to why. I’m left adrift wondering whether Nick is a single character traced through time, or an amalgam of impressions that the author simply stuck a label on for the sake of convention. I suppose if DeLillo had been more explicit, and hadn’t made many of his characters so similar (in the murky past), this would have been easier to work through. There were times when I would read a section, twenty pages or so, and not know which characters were involved, because no names would be mentioned and the style, setting, and actions could have referred to five or six different people, given what was already known. This was a hugely frustrating experience. The first hundred or so pages were solid, well-written, entertaining, and though I didn’t always know what was going on or why, I felt like there was a purpose behind it. The last hundred or so pages were much the same. It was the six hundred and fifty pages in the middle that ruined it for me.
I actually don’t blame Wood for focusing so much on the paranoia. With so much vague nonsense, half-formed characters (Hoover and Sinatra were better drawn and made for more interesting reading than either Nick Shay or Klara Sax, as was sister Edgar and any number of the peripheral characters) and directionless meandering through the ethics and philosphy of trash, the paranoia is the one consistent, oppressive force in the novel. It connects the characters far more than proximity, the passage of time, or that damned baseball, which somehow seems to always come just shy of being a meaningful symbol. Paranoia is something to hold on to, to make one feel like the two months spent reading this book weren’t entirely wasted.
I need to say some things about Klara Sax. She is supposed to be an artist. Articles about the book, characters in the book, even the back of the book itself, have all made much of the fact that she is an artist. Except that she isn’t. It doesn’t help that DeLillo can’t write worth a damn about art (baseball, yes, but art? A.S. Byatt he ain’t), coming across like a half-literate tourist trying to explain the poster selection in the gift shop at the Louvre, but Klara Sax is just flat out not an artist. People around her make art, and in one memorable seen she is being interviewed about her art, while others around her that she pays are actually going about the business of making it. But we never really see her making art, or doing much thinking about it at all. At least, not thinking about her own work. She is not dedicated, has no drive or obsession or commitment. I felt more like DeLillo wanted to feature an unmarried woman of a certain class, but didn’t want to have to bother about giving her a job.
I suppose that’s all. I started writing this, several weeks ago actually, with many, many things to say, but no real organizing principle to my thoughts. Having written, re-written, thrown away, and re-thought it all over the last several weeks, my thoughts have become less coherent and my desire to rant and rave about having wasted so much of my time on this colossal mess of a novel has become almost too strong to resist. So I’m just going to stop.
Next: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, by J.K. Rowling.