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Book Talk: Underworld

September 8, 2009

(I was reading through my old blog for one thing or another and came upon all my Book Talks, mini-book reviews of every book I’d finished, and it’s such a wonderful idea that I have no idea why I stopped doing it. So here’s for picking it back up again.)

It is no well kept secret that I madeĀ it through Infinite Jest this summer (although I guess it shouldn’t be considered properly finishing it since I skipped the footnotes…I know, I know, but I hate flipping back and forth and I’ve read enough DFW footnotes to know what an ordeal/extraordinary treat that would have been and the book is still over a thousand pages sans footnotes, so I’ll give them more consideration second time around, okay?) Although this was enough of an accomplishment on its own, perhaps just as much of a challenge to me was the fact that undertaking this massive reading project meant I couldn’t (or at least, shouldn’t) start reading new books for quite a while. And there are few things I love more than diving into a brilliant novel I’ve yet to discover.

This became especially painful when I paid a visit to my favorite shop in the East Village, Obscura (Antiques and Oddities) and spent a few hours chatting with the shopkeeper and a frequent visitor about favorite books and authors. They offered suggestions that filled up a few pages in my mini-Moleskin ripoff, and hearing about how marvelous all these other works were supposed to be made me itch for a new start.

I was good, though, and worked through the brilliant, dizzying epic that is Infinite Jest before I embarked on classics like Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Which, although poetic and atmospheric and much, much shorter, still didn’t quite feel satisfying enough to the part of me that thirsted for reading that wasn’t so impossibly dense or impossibly far fetched. That brings us to Don DeLillo’s (arguable) masterpiece, Underworld.

This is a book that the regular in Obscura had hyped so much, as one of his favorite books, and given that all his other recommendations/our mutual favorites were of the most impeccable taste, plus I’d already heard much about the book, plus I’d read DeLillo before and loved it, I couldn’t believe my luck when I found a paperback of its 800 something pages on one of New York’s many sidewalk used book stands. I brought it home and counted down the days until I could start devouring it, even if it meant another commitment to a novel the size of two or three normal ones.

And oh, boys and girls of the jury, what a perfect commitment! If I had requested specifically a novel to get me out of the state of mind DFW+Woolf collectively set me into I couldn’t have asked for a better option. DeLillo’s language is beautiful, fluid, moving, with an essence that captures New York and a post-Cold War America. The beauty in the dangers and stories of the streets, squalor and glamor, I will never get that concept out of my head, garbage that sings of characters with lives in scenes, sometimes harsh and violent, sometimes tender and delicate. I do love the sense of foreboding and vague shadows, morbid obsession that clouds the novel, but I love even more (as with all novels) the awe that it inspires, in its chapters and words and sentences, thoughts that reflect my own, decades gone past brought back to life with this soft syringe of imagery and ghosts, in between lines and paragraphs and threading through the expanse of these lives.

It began with baseball, and I never thought I cared about baseball, just as I thought I’d never care about waste, or nuclear bombs, for that matter, this world so far from the one I live in now. But DeLillo reminds me that it’s not so far, or maybe it is but it is real, as real as the keyboard I type on or the vaguely uncomfortable chair I sit on, as real as the clouds and sky and city outside and the people who live inside it.

It’s been a while since I’ve been so moved with a novel, I suppose, fallen so in love with its character and ways, its silken whispers of text on paper, but I needed the refresher course. Not that DFW is not brilliant, and Woolf, too, but DeLillo hit reality in a sense that the other two couldn’t. And for a hopeless daydreamer like me, perhaps that dose of reality is simply what I need most.

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