Some novels are easy reads – the pages roll past in a blur, the events have a pace and unity that keep you turning the page, but the reader sometimes feel a bit of a passenger, riding the tide of the novel without having to do any work. Chapters are as short as the reader’s attention span, and when the novel is put down at night it can be picked up again at any time without the need to remind oneself where one left off. ‘Underworld’ is the precise opposite of that kind of novel. It is complex, dense, extremely long (832 pages), and peopled with a large cast of characters. The narrative voice is evasive, jumping from character to character, and often it is not until well into a paragraph that there is any clue as to who the “I” is – and the very next paragraph it could change once again. The Underworldlanguage Delillo uses is fractured and often very poetic; his characters usually speak in incomplete sentences, and there is often no indication who is speaking. The time structure of the novel is equally fragmented, and the jumps in time are mirrored by jumps around the globe. This all adds up to a challenging novel, from many different aspects – but the question is, was it worth it?

Undoubtedly, yes. In fact I think ‘Underworld’ is magisterial, and quite possibly a masterpiece. I am going to try to explain why. I’d like to start with a quote from one of the novel’s reviewers (“a customer”) on Amazon:

“When you have read it, pick it up again and open it at random and read the page before you like a poem – or see the photographs which rise from the text. Let the black-and-white images flicker back and forth and see the movie. All these on-going lives, all the frames, all this reality which combines into imagery and poetry – and back again.”

I’ve gone out of my way to mock some of the review on Amazon in the past, but this is spot on. I followed this advice with some hesitation – after all, finishing was an achievement, but going back again? But it works – there isn’t a spare line or word, and the prose is vivid and intense. There’s no way I can convey that in a few short quotes – but I am going to try: First, his choice of imagery echoes Chandler at his best: (and for the avoidance of any doubt that is the highest praise I can offer):

“Maybe it was the hip-sprung way she moved, high-assed and shiny, alert to surfaces, like a character in a B movie soaked in alimony and gin.” Or

“The cheesecake was smooth and lush, with the personality of a warm and well-to-do uncle who knows a hundred dirty jokes and will die of sexual exertions in the arms of his mistress.”

“On the floor the guests were doing the twist with all the articulated pantomime of the unfrozen dead come back for a day”

I don’t think I’ve read better prose in a near contemporary novel in a very long time – only Martin Amis can approach this in terms of its richness and lusciousness.

It’s not just Delillo’s ability to craft a phrase that makes ‘Underworld’ stand out, both form its contemporaries, and most of the other novels I have reviewed recently. He has an astonishing power to evoke time and place, sensation, atmosphere, feeling:

Years after I’d seen him for the last time I found myself thinking of him unexpectedly and often. You know how certain places grow powerful in the mind with passing time. In those early morning dreams when I come back to bed after a sleepy pee and fall quickly into the narrow end of the night, there is one set of streets I keep returning to, one dim mist of railroad rooms and certain figures reappear, borderline ghosts.”

“He drove into the spewing smoke of acres of burning truck tires and the planes descended and the transit cranes stood in rows at the marine terminal and he saw billboards for Hertz and Avis and Chevy Blazer, for Marlboro, Continental and Goodyear, and he realized that all the things around him, the planes taking off and landing, the streaking cars, the tires on the cars, the cigarettes that the drivers of the cars were dousing in their ashtrays–all these were on the billboards around him, systematically linked in some self-referring relationship that had a kind of neurotic tightness, an inescapability, as if the billboards were generating reality…”

Which all begs the question, what is the novel about? It opens with a description of a famous baseball game from 1951, and the fate of the baseball from which the winning runs were scored crops up at various points in the story. This opening chapter was originally published as a separate short story, and some reviewers have claimed it is the strongest part of the novel. If you don’t have time for the whole of ‘Underworld’ you could do a lot worse than just sample this chapter. Thereafter ‘Underworld’ follows numerous characters across several decades in the second half of twentieth century America. If there is a central figure it is Nick Shay, a waste management executive. Several real historical events, including the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy assassination, the civil rights movement, race riots, and McCarthyism intrude into and form a backdrop to the novel’s multiple plot lines. Underlying all the small stories is the backdrop of the Cold War, which cast a shadow over daily life in America during this period.

Helpfully, ‘Underworld’ includes several metaphors for the novel itself, guides or explanations as to how the novel should be read. Modern authors often do this – sometimes it is to anticipate expected criticism, to undercut it, and at other times it is to help the reader, guiding him or her to an understanding of what the author is trying to do. To offer a couple of examples, although there are several, when some characters are watching a film by the Russian director Eisenstein, the narrator records their reactions thus:

“Of course the film was strange at first, elusive in its reference and filled with baroque apparitions and hard to adapt to – you wouldn’t want it any other way.” (429)

Replace “film” with “novel” and you have an explanation as to how to approach this novel. If a stronger hint is required the film in question is called, you got it, ‘Underworld’. Later, a series of performances by Lenny Bruce, the controversial stand up 1960’s comedian, play the same role – understand Bruce’s performance structure, or lack thereof, his anarchic but at the same time symphonic routines, and you come closer to understanding what Delillo is doing in his performance:

“And even those in the audience who were familiar with Lenny’s habitual scat, the vocal apparatus with its endless shifts and modulations and assumed identities, the release of underground words and tensions – they felt a small medicinal jolt at the pitch of the decorator’s voice”.

This absence of conventional structure, fragmented and sometimes random, makes ‘Underworld’ more like a jazz piece than a traditional novel. Once you come to terms with this difference – and I shouldn’t overstate this, the novel still contains stories and characters after all – and accept it for what it is, the works brilliantly.

I wanted to end with some thoughts on the novel’s cover illustrations. The Picador edition I read this in has a black and red cover showing a baseball as a globe. However, the novel’s original cover showed a church in the foreground, with the twin towers covered by fog in the background. This is haunting – the cross on the top of the church and the bird in the underworld_scribner_1998sky both bring to mind the planes that were to bring down the towers – even though the book was published four years before 9/11. The towers are referenced several times in the novel, not least when Nick visits the Fresh Kills landfill site just outside New York on Staten Island, where the rubble from the towers was eventually to be sent. Delillo draws an explicit link between the two sites “The towers of the World Trade Center were visible in the distance, and he sensed a poetic balance between that idea and this one” (“this one” being the landfill.) This is obviously just a coincidence, but a chilling one at that.