Monday, August 4, 2008

Underworld (1)

Don DeLillo
New York: Scribner

Why read it? Novel. When I worked as a k-12 language arts supervisor, I encountered a question from a parent that I did not answer satisfactorily. She asked me, "Why is all the literature we study in the secondary schools so depressing?" I gave her the standard answer, of course: even when concerned with tragedy, literature affirms life. That answer did not satisfy her. Well, this novel is another in the "Depressive" school of literature. And yet, it affirms life. It defines the people in the "underworld," the bottom of the social ladder, as depressed, helpless, hopeless and having no control of their lives. In other words, it's an attitude or mood that puts people in the dregs of society.

Don DeLillo is a good writer. The novel begins with Bobby Thompson's home run, the miracle home run that won the playoff for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1951. That baseball, seized by a kid playing hooky from school, seems to connect the stories throughout the book. The author goes on to highlight events in the second half of the twentieth century. The attitude toward life is pessimistic. All the characters are weary. The novel features both real and fictional characters, including Russ Hodges, baseball announcer; Frank Sinatra; Jackie Gleason; Toots Shor; Lenny Bruce, with lengthy excerpts from his routines--talk about a pessimistic view of life--and J. Edgar Hoover and his companion. [Remember, he was gay.]

The mood is weariness, pointless lives, meaningless sex.

But DeLillo writes vividly. He is able to capture the look and feel of a professional baseball game through the eyes of a kid; a ride on the elevated train; the teeming life and language of the tenement streets; walking out of a movie house into the glare of a sunny afternoon when you were a kid and the "movie was all around you"; and the little things in life that you noticed, but didn't remember until the author put them into words--and your memory.

But the mood defines the social class. Life goes on and on. It doesn't get any better. We live, but with no reason to live. We're not thinkers. We're feelers. Things happen and we feel. We don't control our destinies or any events in our daily lives. We're moved to action by emotion; we respond with emotion, not reason.

We lack even the purpose of an insect.

All things are connected.

I think that DeLillo does the reader a service by defining the lowest social class as victims of a mood. And in my mind, he raises the question, how far are the affluent classes from falling victim to the same mood?

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