Friday, 1 August 2008

Underworld by Don DeLillo

Well...The opening chapter was stunning in the way it reads like in you were seeing the action in a film with the camera weaving around the stadium switching from wide shot to close up. It was also clever in setting up the themes and plot lines...the start of the cold war and its impact...loss...and the mystery/holy grail hunt for the baseball.., and waste(of human life and of the environment. This continues when we meet the main character at the end of the cold war and the planes of war being turned into art and start to learn about some major event in their lives some 40 years ago that is going to unwind and make clear the rest of the story. Which it does as you meet his brother, his wife, his partner, his science teachers and then the characters in their lives and so on. They begin to flesh out the political and emotional implications of the cold war and the waste internal and external this represents. Unlike a lot of the critical reviews I did feel that his characters were well sketched.

I did get 2/3s of the way through but the reason for abandoning it was that it didn't emotionally engage me. And the reason for this is that for me it lacked a dramatic drive that pushed me to find out if all the story lines were resolved. Because of this I was "analysing" its processes rather then able to live the story in my imagination. A important factor for this was the(have a stiff drink here!) basis of why it is a highly skilled novel...its Americanness. Getting around the book and knowing what period and location and so being emotionally engaged depended on getting the cultural/social history clues which as a non-American does not have the same resonance.

Here I am thinking of a similar story that was written from the British perspective. It would have a problem of finding a universal sport as cricket, tennis and football have class connotations and the nearest to a game having the 1951 spot was the 1966 world cup which was a very different era. So the British story would have focused on the loss of empire and the political and social changes this required over the same time period. Our crime patten is very different so the mobster angle would have focused on London and the London gangs. We could not have had a Texas Highway mass murder given our gun laws. Our mass murders are more domestic. We would not even had the popular TV stars of the 50's has we were about 10 years behind in TV access.

Hence as the story that is about American experiences and cultural perspective it dramatic weakness means it lost its hold over me.
Just to sweeten the pill I moved on to Post Office by Charles Bukowski which is equally American as a British equivalent of this would be Saturday's night, Sunday morning by Alan Sillitoe but which grips from the opening lines as it types into universalise experiences of bad jobs, being screwed over, self hate etc. Its the first I have read of his but now a fan!

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