The Novel as Counterhistory

The Novel as Counterhistory

Underworld
by Don DeLillo
Scribner, 1997 827 pp $27.50

Underworld has the makings of a masterpiece. It’s a novel of the historical imagination on a vast scale, with uncompromising perceptual rigor. On the level of the sentence, it pulls off eight hundred pages of successful and often brilliant linguistic moves. On the level of structure, it travels through half a century in roughly reverse chronology and through a symphony of motifs whose interconnections demand another reading, and another. But it’s impossible for me to contemplate reading Underworld again. It fails the most basic tests of narrative. It has no forward drive, or backward drive. Its incidents are random and without consequences. Its central characters have perceptions without lives, are largely unknowable and leave you cold. Every page is of the deepest interest, and yet the novel as a whole is boring. And this suggests something unavoidable in the relationship between DeLillo’s two great subjects, fiction and history.

...

Lima