Written by Abdallah Hussein
The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic is an unusual, tragic, and (most relevantly) suffocating circumstance. Going into 2020, I was optimistic at the prospect of the undiscovered, but I could never have imagined myself isolated in my home for unearthly amounts of time, knowing one unlucky excursion out my front door could result in the contraction of a lethal disease. Daily challenges that elicited confusion and disillusionment in the supposed “comfort” of my home wasn’t exactly something I had on my wishlist for the year. In an attempt to cope, I tried different ways to distract myself, anything from exercising to curling up in my bed watching movies and shows. But if any relief came, it was minimal and fleeting. It wasn’t until I ensconced myself in literature that I really did see a positive, lasting effect. As summer started and the number of Covid cases grew faster than ever in Texas, I began reading many books, each adding an extra pad of armor to my psyche in their own unique way. No book, however, has been more beneficial to my personal health and well-being than Don DeLillo’s Underworld.
Underworld is a book of American life, which allowed me to see through the eyes of a multitude of unique characters dissecting and displaying the human condition in all its richness and griminess.
Underworld was published in 1997 and was a runner-up for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998. It is an 827-page non-linear behemoth of a novel that follows the lives of over a hundred characters through the tumultuous second half of the twentieth century, placing them amidst famous historic events. The baseball game where the game-winning “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” occurred, Truman Capote’s famous “Black and White Ball,” comedy houses that hosted Lenny Bruce and many more make their due appearance in the novel, but all are overshadowed by the threat of looming death—The Cold War. Underworld echoes the same feelings of anxiety and fear and dread that run rampant today due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The book, at first glance, seems as if it’ll be a history and event-based book, but it’s quite the opposite: the focus is on the normal, everyday Joes experiencing those events. In the grander scheme, the events are only there to give new dynamics and dimensions to their lives. Underworld is a book of American life, which allowed me to see through the eyes of a multitude of unique characters dissecting and displaying the human condition in all its richness and griminess.
I have never really encountered a book, or any art form for that matter, such as Underworld; by the time I’d finished the sixty-page prologue I knew that Underworld was completely different from the previous dozen or so books I had already read during quarantine. Forty years after a game-winning home run, main character Nick Shay drives through the American desert in search of Klara Sax, a woman twenty years his senior with whom he had a romantic affair when he was a teenager. Four decades later, Nick has lost his virility, masculinity, and identity. In an effort to absolve himself of the string of unfortunate events that have plagued his life, he decides to seek Klara Sax out—to visit a time when he felt a strong and reverberating sense of manhood. At the time, I was still reeling through the end of an important relationship, and I felt hopeless when pondering the thought of emotional recovery. In the context of all those feelings, exacerbated by the pandemic, the relieving sensation of being lifted out of a deep hole was even greater. Nick going into the desert in search of Klara, in search of a part of himself that he’d lost, struck a major chord with me because it mirrored my own search through literature for solace. It was a passage so moving that I was no longer concerned with my own problems. Instead, I immersed myself in the story of Nick and Klara’s encounter and thereafter, the dozens of other character’s stories that followed. Beginning most prominently in Nick and Klara’s encounter and extending off into the subsequent story lines, there was a neat escapism that also encompassed the luxury of learning more and more about who we are, what we feel, and how we respond to obstacles as people. To sum up the result of reading that passage would be to quote (one of my favorite quotes anywhere) part of the very first sentence of the book: “and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.”
Reading about a time in history that was in its own way “unprecedented” reminded me that while our specific condition is unique, “unprecedented” times have always happened.
A character-centered book is hardly difficult to find. Why were his characters in particular the ones who made our new and terrifying world understandable to me? DeLillo is generally known for his “navel-gazing” (i.e. excessive self-contemplation) and nowhere is this better on display than in Underworld. Navel-gazing is a chastisement aimed at authors whose characters are too invested in their own internal worlds, but in Underworld, introspection is perhaps the shining achievement. In a book where all the characters are under a suffocating cloud of events, it is refreshing to see a focus on the individuals caught up in the overbearing storm of events rather than the significance of the events themselves. Considering the string of calamities happening in and outside of our country such as police killings, economic depressions, and the chaos and division of the 2020 presidential election (all under the shadow of a global pandemic, I might add), a novel about the events of fifty years ago becomes extraordinarily relevant today. DeLillo’s navel-gazing played a huge part in my own relief amid the fast rush of loneliness and anxiety.
If I had read Underworld before the pandemic, it would have been a great book. But it would have lacked that deep human connection, that personal “book-to-reader” synaptic click that exists when the reader is damaged in ways that are gigantic and universal in their scope, as well as tight and personal in the heart and mind. Moreover, reading about a time in history that was in its own way “unprecedented” helped me because it reminded me that while our specific condition is unique, “unprecedented” times have always happened. The brand of fear and uncertainty we’re experiencing now is not new and seeing those emotions experienced on the page helped me feel seen. There’s a special kind of humanism in a book where no personal detail or thought is skipped or skirted. It’s all put out there in the open and we are treated with a full observation of many, many character’s thoughts, feelings, dilemmas, and tragedies.
At the novel’s conclusion, DeLillo ends his masterpiece with the assurance that “Everything is connected in the end.” Only after writing this article do I truly understand that ending and that quote. Without the seemingly inconsequential decision of picking up Underworld, I would not be who I am today, nor would I be writing this article and sharing all the novel has to offer. The novel reminds us that we are not necessarily alone, because we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves. We are connected in all our victories and defeats and when the world around us is rocked by unexpected, terrifying, or simply surprising events, we can take courage in the fact that we are all going through it together.