Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Delillo's Underworld -- a Review/Response

A note after the fat: After writing this I immediately read The Body Artist straight through. As regards Underworld itself my thoughts are mostly unchanged. However, my estimation of Delillo is greatly raised. More detail offered in a footnote on The Body Artist, below.


Delillo has been subject of or made appearances in a handful of discussions recently, enough so to prompt me to return to Underworld after having put it down unfinished a few years ago. I read then the opening foray, the (apparently) well known prologue on the pennant clinching, 1951 Dodgers-Giants game, which I enjoyed greatly but which left me with questions as to whether I wanted to continue, questions which were answered to the negative by the pages that followed.

I tend to be a slow reader, I tend to read books that demand (and merit) being read slowly, and as such I don't like wasting my time on books that I don't find profitable or highly enjoyable, and don't generally read books just for the sake of having read them.

Yes, as regards its technical character, that opening chapter is worth the reading. It is a well crafted narrative. But so also is the opening salvo of Saving Private Ryan technically a marvel, and worth the viewing and reviewing for grasping what it does so well. However, the rest of Saving Private Ryan is a shallow narrative woven mostly of conventions, contrivances, and cheap manipulations. But that one word there applies also to the opening: shallow. While it may be a bravura technical performance, the extended sequence is wholly and only narrative; there is no ideational depth to it, no ideational development. It is visual prose, if very well crafted prose, at its most prosaic.

Which is the same take-a-way that I had with the opening of Underworld: technically interesting, but for the most part a shallow – and occasionally conventional or contrived – narrative; and, it seemed that it was during its attempts to move beyond empty, prosaic narrative into intelligent prose that it most turned to contrivance (as with the closing sequences concerning the struggle for and possession of the baseball).

As such, even as the praise of being a "technical marvel" becomes qualified. For example, consider the side story of the foursome in the audience of Gleason, Sinatra, Shor, and Hoover. Do they add ideational depth and energies to the text, or are they merely a part of the brute narrative. If the latter, even if they exist to serve the technical function of giving a different point of view to the game, something off which the narrative line of the announcer can bounce, the demands on technical ability will be less than if the foursome because of an outward generating, ideational core, wherein the writer had to deal not only with the surface narrative but also unifying the whole into an ideational field that was not centered upon the narrative. For example, in The Thin Red Line, the cinematic polar opposite to Saving Private Ryan, the major characters are all in dialogue with each other by way of their own being in the film, all addressing the nature of conflict and war as though beings on an Olympus, all simultaneously part of a unity but individual within that unity. In Underworld, I never sensed such unity: it stayed, like the prologue to Saving Private Ryan, in surface narrative, in realist depiction, never generating a field of ideational resonance. Thus why at the end I had little true inertia carrying me forward into the rest of the book, however exciting the narrative of the game, and why after reading a little farther into the book I lost all desire to continue.