Underworld by Don DeLillo

It starts with a baseball game and spans a half century.

Here’s an interesting book in that it’s 850 pages and almost entirely plotless. Not so much a narrative as a collection of vignettes, usually following a collection of interrelated characters but not always. Indeed, these self contained stories about say, the Texas Highway Killer or the neurosis of lonely Sister Edgar are typically more interesting than the story of protagonist Nick Shay himself.

Early in the book, we learn that Nick, now in his fifties, had an affair when he was seventeen with a woman who is now seventy. At this point, I wondered what happened. This teenager and late twenties woman. 750 pages later, when this part of the backstory is actually revealed, I was nonplussed. I wanted to ask DeLillo why he suddenly thought this was a book that necessitated reveals, or backstory.  

It’s not. It’s little pieces of history, orphaned but inextricably linked, beautifully written. This is key. You can’t write this many words lacking the traditional hooks of a long novel without being a pretty amazing writer. DeLillo is surely that. His dialog is snappy and entertaining. His grasp on location and specific eras of time allow him to skip across the country and 20th century, immersing the reader in specific periods without bogging them down in detail. Even when he’s exploring an honestly lazy metaphor, he does so with such skill, you admire it anyway.

Consider the opening chapter, which is the most lovingly crafted description of a baseball game I’ve ever read. In 1951, the Giants shocked the Dodgers to win the pennant with Bobby Thompson’s walk-off homerun. DeLillo records this in keen, nostalgic detail: the player’s emotions, the crowd, the flu-stricken voice of the announcer, the kid sneaking into the stadium to catch a glance of history. I’m not much of a baseball fan anymore, but I cannot forget the communal and familial excitement of the game evokes. Red Sox games humming through the static of my grandfather’s radio is the background noise of my childhood. DeLillo channels that kind of nostalgia throughout his 60+ page description of the game, executing it perfectly. 

It’s very interesting to me what parts of literature persist is some timeless space, eternally relevant, and what ages and feels old. The baseball game, The Shot Heard Round the World, is the former. So long as baseball exists, it will resonate. But a major portion of the novel is dedicated to Cold War paranoia and The Bomb. It’s a pre-9/11 world, the cover eerily picturing a smoky black-and-white World Trade Center. Our paranoias are different now. Sneakier, less bombastic. I found it hard to truly dive into the constant paranoia and nuclear waste metaphors. Felt a bit like a relic. Academic somehow. Not that Cold War media can’t remain relevant — it’s hard to think that Dr. Strangelove, stylistic and shocking as it is, won’t ever not be striking — but DeLillo’s version surely lost something with time.

Underworld is a book wherein the individual parts are less than their sum. Or maybe they just outshine their sum. The sum or whole is irrelevant! Not the ideal situation for a massive novel, but still, I greatly enjoyed my time with it.

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Girl with Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace

girlwithcurioushairThis is… *sniff*… the final published work by David Foster Wallace that I had not yet read.*

Published in 1989, many years before Infinite Jest, Consider the Lobster, or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, this collection features a younger DFW writing about younger people in a voice he hasn’t totally solidified or claimed yet. As a result, it’s more diverse, less experimental with some of the clearest and only examples of stories he wrote that were pure narrative fiction, free of literary affectation (mostly) or authorial asides. A complete absence of footnotes, even.

A list, not comprehensive:

John Billy

Should be a movie. I can see it. Plan the camera angles. Especially the buzzards. Plenty of buzzards in this one.

John Billy starts off with the first person narrator, John Billy, telling a story to an addled tornado-watcher in an Oklahoma bar about the larger-than-life characters of town. At first I thought DFW wrote this simply to make fun of southern stereotypes. But this attitude quickly fell away, so completely engrossed as I was in the small-town politics slash olympian feats of the herculean Chuck Nunn Jr., the blackly villainous T. Rex Minogue, and the cast surrounding them. The southern backdrop is there as a stage for American myth, not just humor.

It’s a weird story to come from DFW. All about myth, our worship of the land and its composite dust. See the cosmos through the plotted field. Not his usual topics of interest. Some might complain when the ending dives into metaphysical silliness and doesn’t entirely wrap up, when what is real and what is not are tossed into a blender, but I found it a perfectly apt conclusion to what the story set up.

 

Girl with Curious Hair

This story is hilarious. It gets across the point of American Psycho (and precedes it) in a fraction of the words. A wealthy member of the Young Republicans Group hangs out / is fellated by his nihilistic punk rock buddies, and he’s just so happy. Black humor at its finest.

 

Lyndon

Lyndon. Like LBJ, 36th president of the United States. One of the many unlikely subjects found in these stories. We see Lyndon through the eyes of his fictional mail boy, and later close confidante, David Boyd.

This is a story about love. And duty. LBJ is a workaholic obsessed with doing the right thing by the country, while also being a kind irritable blowhard assured that he’s the only one that’s ever right. The love part is the relationship between Boyd and the president. Not sexual or romantic love, as LBJ is straight and loves his wife and Boyd is gay and maybe doesn’t love his partners, but tries. There’s a bond between them. Based on a shared sense of duty, work? LBJ as a slide in father-figure, the ultimate patriarchal/presidential role? 

Most striking of all is just how believable this all this. Following the story’s close, I immediately went to Google to check if David Boyd existed. He did not. Which is impressive. Also not the only fictional character in this collection with the same first name as the author…

 

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way

I started this story and instantly knew it would be the weakest one. It was borderline insufferable. DFW getting too cute.  Three disaffected and unlikeable graduate students embark on a plane and cab journey to reunite with several thousand people for the reunion of Every Single Person Who Has Appeared In a McDonalds Commercial, Ever. There’s lots of grandiose statements on what’s wrong with our generation, coupled with a whole bunch of other musings on what’s wrong with our writing programs and contemporary american literature in general. It’s smug and sort of clever; the oppressive flavor of clever that makes you want to vacate the room.

I flipped forward a few pages to see if it ended soon, a common practice of mine. I noted the title still on the top right of the page and frowned, but returned to my place. A dozen pages later I did the same thing. It didn’t seem to end. I rapidly flipped through fingerfulls of pages looking for the end, only to realize with a sinking feeling that it was the entire rest of the book. It’s like 200 pages, nearly a novel in its own right. Half the collection! I thought this book was an instant favorite and now I had to come to terms with the gross, abominable growth attached to its backside.

A funny thing happened about halfway through, though. My boredom and distaste with the story began to metastasize into something else entirely. When I realized the commute of the three students, plus Ronald McDonald and his dad/creator, was never going to end. That they would swirl in banal misfortune and their own solipsistic misery forever, I found myself somehow soothed. It still wasn’t very good, but its misery and repetition became comfortable

 

*Exception being that book he wrote about math. Skipping that one. I think.

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

Book cover:  "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories."  MagHilary Mantel is a Big Deal. For good reason; two time booker prize winner and all around great writer. This means the inevitable: Collect bits of flotsam and jetsam, short pieces from individual assignments over the last 25 years, and publish them in one honestly sparse volume and cash in on that book of short stories.

She’s a good enough writer that it’s still a pleasure to read. The stories are generally about women amidst divorce, ennui, writing, yearning. Only one, about a writer caught in a depressive cycle of speaking engagements, is unsatisfactory. The highlight was a subtle piece that begins innocently with a person lamenting their job working at a doctor’s office, before going off into stranger territory.

The eponymous final story did not do much for me. Perhaps you need to be English to feel the true impact. I thought The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher was going to be an ironic title, but it is quite literal — a woman has an assassin enter her house whilst Thatcher is at an eye doctor nearby, and he assassinates her. It boils down to musing how events might have gone differently:

History could always have been otherwise. For there is the time, the place, the black opportunity: the day, the hour, the slant of light, the ice-cream van chiming from a distant road near a bypass.

Pretty but forgettable.