I wanted so much to like this novel, because it was given to me at a special time (see ‘A Literary Wedding‘) and it looked like a special book.
Hopeful anticipation is always in danger of disappointment. I want to consider carefully why it didn’t really live up to my expectations.
It begins with a prologue, set at an epic baseball game in the 1950s. Characters include Frank Sinatra, J. Edgar Hoover, a radio commentator and a boy playing truant to attend.
Next setting is an art installation in the middle of nowhere, at which redundant aircraft are being painted by volunteers. We meet Nick Shay and start to discover his life; it appears he might be the first-person protagonist of the novel. Themes from the baseball game start to reappear, and I feel I’m getting a grip on it, just. Then Mr de Lillo drops in a chapter where every paragraph is a different part of Nick’s life, and I start to find it wearying.
We encounter the civil rights movement, student protest, nuclear bombs and the Cold War, comedian Lenny Bruce, the baseball from the epic game, The Highway Killer, another possible murder, Jesuits, adultery, chess and a miraculous apparition. Among others. Viewpoints, settings and chronology vary wildly.
It’s a book of epic length, 827 pages in the paperback edition, and soon I started making notes. I’ve done this with Dickens and Tolstoy, to keep track of the characters. With ‘Underworld’ I did it to keep track of the plot.
There is some beautiful writing in it: “They’re all back there in the railroad rooms at the narrow end of the night.” The speech of Italian/ Americans is evocatively written. There are some superb set-piece descriptions, for example of the enormous art intstallation of painted aircraft.
I am very aware that I’m not a literary reader; I am primarily plot-driven. I can’t grasp the overall narrative arc (or do I mean plot?) of the story. Is it centred on nuclear warfare? The baseball? A murder? A life- Nick’s? I’ve briefly looked at reviews, which seem universally good, and have seen the novel described as “cinematic”; but this is clearly not plot-driven mainstream cinema. I searched in my mental cultural database for a suitable comparison, and could only come up with the Beatles track ‘Revolution Number 9’, which has a similar repetition of themes, only perhaps without the closer ties of the narrative themes in ‘Underworld’. I am however reminded of other variations of chronological narrative structure, such as ‘Cloud Atlas’ by David Mitchell as well as books by Martin Amis and Sebastian Faulks. I can’t at the moment think of any that are particularly satisfying. (William Gibson tends to write in trios of chapters, each centered on a particular protagonist, but brings them all together eventually; and there are of course flashbacks in all sorts of novels. I am not familiar with more experiment work; I am not going to attempt James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’. As I have remarked before, I am over reading books because I think they will be good for me.)
In the end, I just wanted to get to the end, which is not to say I didn’t enjoy the book.
Oh, and it’s too big, at least for a paperback. It makes my wrist ache. This is a good reason for Kindles.