Underworld sports all the fittings of the Great American Novel: the length, the epic dimension, the complexity of its themes, its entanglement with American history. Like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (although less experimental in language and content), Underworld constructs an almost anthropological representation of the fifty-year period between the Cold War and the Nineties. Don DeLillo manages to do so with nuance, coloring his writing with direct references to the filmic canon (most notably, the work of Sergei Eisenstein) and art history (the description of Peter Bruegel’s The Triumph of Death is a perfect mise en abyme of the novel itself).
Underworld mixes quotes, fictional and real characters, and a staggering number of references without ever losing its solid connections with contemporary issues (waste storage, for example; or the unrealistic and frantic repetition of videotape that resemble the “unrealistic quality” of reality- c.f. Infinite Jest, DFW).
In Underworld a reader will find the History of great events and great personalities; and history without the “H”, the small one, that resonates with the familiar and everyday routine. The way through which this dual conception of history passes, the tool that allows us to imagine and see what is beyond “the official version”, is language. The word, for DeLillo, has great evocative power; it is the expressionistic chisel that chips into the past. It’s an act of reshaping. It’s the mystery and beauty of the hundreds of individual experiences that move against the backdrop of post-war America.