Scribner, 1997, 827 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-684-84269-6
Reading around the web for critical commentary about Don DeLillo’s Underworld, I find teachers, students, readers, fans and commentators all anxious to fit the novel in their own vision of late-twentieth-century America. I see numerous allusion to Underworld as a Great American Novel. I see everyone extracting meaning from the book as others press orange pulp for juice. So why not do the same? Why not assign great meaning to the book? Why not make it fit in my own theories about life, universe and everything?
Why not, indeed, use Underworld as a prism by which to study the differences between literature and genre fiction, if indeed there is one? Underworld is usually discussed in hushed tones implying that it is the very achievement of literature, the pure concentrate of fine writing. Isn’t it possible, then, to see it as a quintessential manifestation of modern fiction? To oppose it against an entire corpus of so-called “lesser” genre fiction? If we bounce off particles of science-fiction, fantasy, thrillers or mysteries off of Underworld at ludicrously high velocities, what flashes of insight can we get?
Our first order of business is to determine what Underworld is about, if indeed it is about anything. Certainly, even a careful reading of the text can leave anyone unsure: it’s about baseball, crime, waste, the cold war, the atom bomb, modern art, serial killing, religion, miracles, the Cuba Crisis, Lenny Bruce, Edgar J. Hoover, Vietnam, New York, affairs, marriages and so on… It themes are too restrictive, maybe a given period is the answer: Doesn’t Underworld span nearly half a decade, from 1951 to (roughly) 1997? If it’s not about something, is it about the entirely of the American experience from then to now?
What it certainly isn’t about is a plot. While there are recurring threads here and there in those 862 pages, it’s not as if there is a single coherent drive to the narrative thrust. And that’s where we get the first hint of illumination regarding genre fiction: Regardless of style, characters or atmosphere, genre fiction is first and foremost a story being told, from point A to (roughly) point B. Underworld is a sprawling bag of knots: fascinating, difficult (and rewarding) to unravel, but certainly not a thread spooling from one axis to another.
That, in itself may be a clue to the meaning of Underworld. For this novel is unstuck in chronology: Save for its prologue and epilogue, classically set as far apart as the chronology will allow, the novel runs backward, section by section. 1992, 1980s, 1974, 1960s, 1951… As we regress in time, some character’s formative experiences are explained and revealed. Like peeling an onion. Like uncovering a present. Like taking apart a bomb. Some sections jumble up the chronology even within themselves, presenting further challenges. Reading Underworld as quickly as possible is not just a good idea; it may be just about the only way to keep up with the vast amount of discontinuous information thrown at the reader. Most things interconnect, but it’s all too easy to miss those nodes of meaning.
But ultimately, regardless of the complex structure of the novel, the way most things mesh with another, the rewarding feeling of accomplishment whenever one notices thematic resonance between very different areas of the novel, the question arises: Was it worth reading? Was it worth slogging though? Did it ultimately mean anything? Those are questions seldom, yet always asked of genre fiction, because the answers are more obvious: A good story is worth reading without questions, and doesn’t have to mean anything if it’s sufficiently entertaining. But as Underworld overwhelms with Americana and stylistic experiments, as it slows down to nearly a halt in Part 6, as it once again rehashes nuclear oblivion, the thought springs unbidden: Why bother? Why not wait for PBS’s “The Cold War” special series? What is so unique about Underworld?
For the genre readers, it’s even worse, for they know that the same points, the same anxieties, have been covered elsewhere in genre fiction, with more entertainment value and often more depth. Nuclear Holocaust? Been there, saw the mutants. Serial killers? Read that, caught the culprit. American underworld? Bought the T-Shirt, got the Philip K. Dick novel. And once again, genre readers are reminded why they seldom bother with the mainstream stuff: why suffer through 862 pages of meta-referential fine writing when you can get more in a 350-pages novel of compulsively readable entertainment? Aside from being able to title-drop, that is?