A finalist for the National Book Award, Don DeLillo’s most powerful and riveting novel—“a great American novel, a masterpiece, a thrilling page-turner” (San Francisco Chronicle)—Underworld is about the second half of the twentieth century in America and about two people, an artist and an executive, whose lives intertwine in New York in the fifties and again in the nineties.
With cameo appearances by Lenny Bruce, J. Edgar Hoover, Bobby Thompson, Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and Toots Shor, “this is DeLillo’s most affecting novel…a dazzling, phosphorescent work of art” (Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times).
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Reading Group Discussion Points
"Underworld" can refer to many different facets of this book, such as the labyrinthine subways that wind beneath New York City, or the underground art scenes frequented by Klara and her friends. But it also alludes to the "underworld" that lives within each of us, the fusing of our memories, emotions, and personal histories that make us who we are. Do you agree with the prison psychiatrist who tells young Nick Shay that "we all have a history we are responsible to?" Discuss other "underworld" themes in the book.
As Underworld's cover photo represents, there are many "twin forces" explored in this book. Identify these themes of duality and discuss how they're rendered by DeLillo.
Few books boast a more brilliantly conceived Prologue than Underworld. Discuss your opinions of it: its construction, its language, its use of real-life in a tale of fiction. Why is the Prologue titled "The Triumph of Death?" How does its gritty, "you're-in-the-ballpark" tone compare to the tone of the first chapter? Do you think the Prologue could stand alone as a short story?
One of the most striking aspects of Underworld's narrative is its sprawling, nonlinear structure. By the end of the novel, we have gone full-circle; we start at the baseball game in 1951, fast-forward to the 1990s, and then work our way back to 1951 again. Why do you think DeLillo chose to structure his book this way? Is he saying that while we mark time in a linear fashion, time itself-and our memories-are not linear at all? What does this say about the interconnectedness of the present and the past? In what other ways does this story and its writing come full-circle?
Klara Sax says "many things are anchored to the balance of power...."(76) Do you agree that, without the Cold War, this balance is gone? Is there chaos because we don't have an element of danger hanging over our heads? Is life better or safer now that the Cold War is over? Or do we simply have new enemies?
Bobby Thomson's game-winning ball serves as the string that links Underworld's numerous characters, subplots, and themes. Is the ball a symbol of achievement or failure? Or, does that assessment depend simply upon who is holding it? Who do you think should have ended up owning the ball? To whom did it mean the most, and why?
When Cotter realizes that he will go home with the game-winning baseball, he feels like an important part of history. But does he truly realize the significance of the game he just witnessed? How often are we actually aware that we are witnessing history-in-the-making? What is it about a moment in time, or an event, that makes it obvious that it will go down in history?
Do you agree with Marvin Lundy when he states that "reality doesn't happen until you analyze the dots?" (182) What is more reliable: our own personal perception of an event as it happens, or our memories of it years later, after we have had time to think about it, process it, and be influenced by other's opinions and recollections?
How have video cameras changed our lives? Do mundane moments become elevated simply because they are caught on tape? Does the repeated viewing of an event (such as the Rodney King beating) make it more horrifying than it would be if only imagined? Or does seeing it over and over in some way make it less terrible? Discuss how the public surfacing of the Zapruder film in the 1970s changed the way Americans considered the Kennedy assassination. How does this compare with other historical moments (such as the Giants/Dodgers game of 1951) that were not filmed? Which is more powerful, and why?
Our country's largest man-made monument is the Fresh Kills garbage dump on Staten Island. Explore the irony that we, as a nation, have so much garbage that we have specialists like Nick Shay devoted to studying it. Why did Nick choose to enter such an unappealing field? At one point, he says that his choice of careers came at a point in his life when he was looking for a "faith to embrace." (282) Is his , "faith" 20th century American over-consumption?
Discuss Lenny Bruce's philosophies about life and our government, as expressed in his comedy routines. How did his routines change as the Cuban Missile Crisis ran its course? Do you think he was an alarmist, or was he playing up his fears to be funny? Do you think his rants accurately reflect the nation's feelings? How did his different audiences react to his performances?
Discuss the notion of art versus garbage, as explored in Underworld. How fine is the line between the two? if Klara turns everyday junk into art, can it be argued that the two are one and the same? Are painted planes in the middle of a desert really art? Is the Earth's landscape an appropriate background for art? Or is it perhaps more appropriate than any other? What do you think of the "garbologists" who collect Hoover's trash? Does putting it on display make it art?
In regard to Truman Capote's infamous Black and White Ball, DeLillo writes that "the factoidal data generated by the guests would surely bridge the narrowing gap between journalism and fiction." The blending of fact and fiction is a main element of Underworld, and it's precisely what Capote did with In Cold Blood, the first book to present true crime in a novel form. Do you think there should be a thicker line between fact and fiction? Under what circumstances do they become one and the same?
Discuss the unique way DeLillo writes dialogue. How do you feel about the way his characters often talk "over" each other? Is this a realistic rendering of the way we communicate? What do you think of the way his characters often let topics of conversation drop off, only to suddenly pick up where they left off at a later time? Does their ability to do this attest to the strong connections they have with one another?
In one memorable scene in the book, Marian recounts how she abandoned the trouble-making family dog, and then told her children that he ran away. Later, as she drove the children around "looking" for the dog, she almost came to believe the story she'd made up. Have you ever convinced yourself that a lie you told is true simply because you told it so many times? How often do You think this kind of "revisionist history" occurs in our daily lives? Within our government? Discuss other "secret manipulations of history" (495) explored in Underworld.
DeLillo is a highly expressive writer, penning characterizations that stick in the reader's mind. For example, he describes Jack Marshall as a man "on the perennial edge of dropping dead. You know these guys. They smoke and drink heavily and never sleep and have bad tickers and cough up storms of phlegm and the thrill of knowing them is guessing when they'll pitch into their soup." (391) Pick one of your favorite characterizations and discuss.
Don DeLillo is the author of fifteen novels, including Zero K, Underworld, Falling Man, White Noise, and Libra. He has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the Jerusalem Prize for his complete body of work, and the William Dean Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2010, he was awarded the PEN/Saul Bellow Prize. His story collection The Angel Esmeralda was a finalist for the 2011 Story Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.
"There's pleasure on evey page of this pitch-perfect evocation of a half-century."
– Malcolm Jones, Newsweek
"Underworld is a page-turner and a masterwork, a sublime novel and a delight to read."
– Joan Mellen, The Baltimore Sun
"Masterpieces teach you how to read them, and Underworld is no exception....Anastonishing piece of prose and a benchmark of twentieth-century fiction, Underworld is stunnigly beautiful in its generous humanity, locating the true power of history not in tyranny, collective political movements of history books, but inside each of us."
– Greg Burkman, The Seattle Times
Underworld is a “dazzling and prescient novel…A decade after 9/11, it’s worth rereading Don DeLillo’s 1997 masterpiece to appreciate how uncannily the author not only captured the surreal weirdness of life in the second half of the 20th century but also anticipated America’s lurch into the terror and exigencies of the new millennium...A breathtaking set piece…the prologue is a bravura display of Mr. DeLillo's literary powers."
– Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
"Underworld is magnificent book by an American master."
– Salman Rushdie
"The book is an aria and a wolf-whistle of our half century. It contains multitudes."
– Michael Ondaatje
“His best novel and perhaps that most elusive of creatures, a great American novel . . . . a masterpiece in which the depth and reach of the commonplace are invested with universal scope and grandeur. Underworld is also a thrilling page-turner, propelling us along with realistic characters and those compelling details that make it impossible for them—or us—to escape the past.”
– David Wiegand, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review
“In Underworld, we have a mature and hugely accomplished novelist firing on all cylinders, at the sophisticated height of his multifarious powers. Reading the book is a charged and thrilling aesthetic experience and one remembers gratefully that this is what the novel can do, and indeed does, better than any other art form—it gets the human condition, it skewers and fixes it in all its richness and squalor unlike anything else. The novel is the ‘great book of life’ and as long as there are human beings who are readers it will survive and, with a little luck,even flourish. Don DeLillo’s Underworld is a formidably potent and hugely encouraging testimonial to this undeniable,indomitable and strangely consoling fact.”
– William Boyd, London Observer
“The most personal and contemplative of DeLillo’s novels . . . Underworld confirms that contemporary American fiction’s most promising movement involves novels on a large social and historical scale that stretch the norms of narrative and language.”
– Vince Passaro, Harper’s
“Underworld surges with magisterial confidence through time and through space.”
– Martin Amis, The New York Times Book Review
“This novel will make you feel lucky to be alive and reading.”
– Adam Begley, New York Observer
“Magnificent . . . a miracle.”
– John Leonard, The Nation
“Courageous, ingenious and demanding, Underworld is a book to be talked about . . . for years to come.”
– Tom LeClair, The Atlantic Monthly
“Underworld’s intellect, its view, its fabulous drama, its soul, its passion and compassion, and the beauty of the writing, just the size and generosity of it, are all of some spectacular high order. I can’t imagine any writer reading it without complete admiration and a kind of gratitude, because if a book like that can be written in a culture like this, it’s terrific for all of us.”
– Michael Herr
“Constantly pleasing not merely for the licked-finish illusionism with which he reproduces speech, or the camera eye he brings to bear on diverse contexts, but for the ways in which the renditions of those things will depart from the known or expected.”
– Luc Sante, The New York Review of Books
“Utterly extraordinary . . . in its epic ambition and accomplishment, Underworld calls out for comparison with works like those of Bely or Balzac that have defined the consciousness of their age.”
– Melvin Jules Bukiet, Chicago Tribune Books
“Astonishing. A sprawling and spectacular look at a half-century in American life as seen through a series of multiple visions that come flashing into our consciousness in ways that are endlessly enlightening and awesome in their insights. DeLillo has raised literary standards to new highs here, and yet the book is a page-turner, a scene-stealer, a triumph of language that takes us everywhere we’ve never been.”
– Gay Talese
“DeLillo understands the capacity of words to elevate us above the mundane, to establish a distance from things and a mastery over them, a power emerging from the capacity given to Adam, the ability to name.”
– Steven E. Alford, Houston Chronicle
“Majestic and playful . . . amazingly light and supple for so weighty and elegiac a construction, Underworld soars like a cathedral on the audacity of DeLillo’s connections.”
– J. Hoberman, Harper’s Bazaar
“Reading DeLillo’s books bolsters out belief in the art of fiction: He catches the drift of end-of-the-century life in words, one bright shining sentence after another.”
– Paul Elie, Elle
“The larger the canvas, the better DeLillo paints. He is a novelist of big themes . . . . Underworld is a tour de force.”
– Geoffrey Norman, Playboy
“Precise, stark, gorgeous—something perhaps more properly termed a metaphysics of language, rendering and reflecting the mysteries of consciousness, those elusive meanings he and his character so passionately seek.”
– James Held, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“DeLillo has written the first defining novel of what we are still calling the post-Cold War period.”
– Thomas Mallon, GQ
“In years to come, DeLillo’s novel will certainly be seen as a perfect document of our paranoid, teeming, deeply nostalgic age.”
– Adam Kirsch, The Boston Phoenix
“The profundity, the intricacy, the beauty of Underworld leaves me in a state of awe. It’s one of a handful of novels that will come to define our culture in this century.”
– Bradford Morrow
“DeLillo’s breathtaking prose transforms this otherwise bleak wastelandinto a thrilling, brilliantly illuminated landscape.”
– Arthur Salm, The San Diego Union-Tribune
“For those who love eloquent prose and powerful ideas, Underworld is an eight-course meal. . .. An eye-opener, a consciousness-raising treatise on modern America by a writerin love with the power of words and the country he calls his own.”
– Dorman T. Shindler, The Denver Post
“Underworld soars. Bigger andricher than anything Don DeLillo has done before, this multicharacter,time-leaping, sea-to-shining-sea dissection of Cold War American life isperilously good—so good, so strong, deep, knowing and funny, that you might betempted to read it and it alone, fanatically, the rest of your days.”
– Phil Hanrahan, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“One of America’s greatest contemporary fiction writers illuminates American Cold War life and its obsessions, weaving history and imagination into a huge and compelling tapestry.”
– Donn Fry, The Seattle Times/Post Intelligencer
“Anyone who wants to try to understand an appreciate the last half-century of life in these United States can do no better than read Don DeLillo’s magnificent, beautifully written and outrageously persuasive new novel, Underworld, unquestionably his masterpiece. . . . A triumphant performance.”
– Sam Coale, Providence Journal-Bulletin
“Underworld, DeLillo’s richest and most ambitious novel, seeks nothing less than the secret truths of modern America.”
– Gary Lee Stonum, The Plain Dealer
“Magnificent . . . Underworld is the most powerful and original novel that DeLillo, one of the strongest American writers of our time, has written.”
– Peter Wolfe, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Think of Underworld as a successor not to the great American novels of Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald, but to the Russian masterpieces of Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy. . . . Abig, multistoried, glorious, moving novel.”
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