Underworld by Don DeLillo

You can’t help but be impressed by the scope and ambition of this book: it sets itself up as a (the?) Great American Novel of the second half of the 20th Century, starting with a famous 1951 baseball game* and trying to say loads of big things about the half-century since (though most of what he is interested in is in the earlier decades – Kennedy, Cuba Crisis, cold war paranoia, ’60s protests, Vietnam). Its structure is complex, a mechano skeleton of struts and connections – and this brings me onto why I didn’t like it all that much.

I don’t mind a demanding tale, and this jumps around across time periods and locales and subjects, with lots of characters, some real (Lenny Bruce, J. Edgar Hoover) among the fictional. DeLillo puts together a brilliantly calculated set of linking motifs and themes and events. He writes magnificently too, strong and bright sentences throughout. Some of what he has to say is intelligent and interesting (though I did find myself thinking “Yes yes, we know, get on with it” at times). However, that mechano analogy is deliberate: in over 800 pages there wasn’t a character I was interested in. All of the best sequences – especially the immensely compelling opening baseball match, running to 50 pages, but also some Lenny Bruce shows and movie viewings – are about spectators. The characters, if they are present in more than a notional way, don’t speak or do anything, they just watch an event DeLillo describes (sometimes we get their reactions and thoughts, sometimes not). These parts are mostly terrific, but the rest fell flat for me. He writes some good dialogue, but his characters entirely lack the spark and vitality of his prose. Frankly, he could have carried me through just on spectating scenes, but far too much of it was just dull people talking about waste disposal and the like.

* This was the game that generated the phrase “The shot heard round the world” about its winning home run, and the thing that struck me about that was the assumption of American centrality, when the fact is there are only a few countries much interested in the sport. I hoped he would use this (it’s surely a strong and valuable theme, given his subject), but actually the whole book fundamentally carries the same assumption – the Soviet Union/communism was only interesting in how it affected/reflected the US, and so on.