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Underworld by Don DeLillo

How to read "The late-20th century’s Ulysses"

Underworld by Don DeLillo

By Howard Calvert

Week 3

If reading this book were a marathon, I’ve hit the wall. I’m 536 pages in, and I need a Lucozade Sport pouch and a motivational talk. Maybe a shoulder massage, too.

Currently, the story is jumping around in time every five or six pages. I have no doubt this is complex, expertly written story-telling of the highest order, but I’m a bit lost. And still have no idea where it’s going.

Although, there was a good section about the names of the parts of a shoe.

Week 2

The first thing I noticed about this book is its weight. Not just its weight in my bag on my commute to and from work, but also the strain on my fingers when holding it while reading. It’s like my hands are getting their own workout. It turns out it weighs 680g. Compare that to 90g for an average issue of ShortList. I know it’s a minor concern when talking about one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed pieces of fiction, but my first piece of advice would be: if you suffer from arthritis or generally have weak hands, buy the Kindle edition.

Once I stopped weighing the book and actually started reading it, the next thing I noticed was that the prologue is 60 pages long. That’s 60 pages before you even get to Part 1. The prologue is about a historic 1951 baseball match between the Giants and the Dodgers, in particular one fan who jumps the gates and ends up grappling over, and winning, the ball after it is struck into the crowd to win the match.

As it turns out, many readers don’t even make it past the prologue. It’s easy to see why – there’s a fair amount of bewildering baseball terminology to wade through. Despite this, I found that it moved along at a brisk pace, and before I knew it, a week has passed and I’m 324 pages in. I’m still waiting for some kind of plot to develop, as characters come and go and the narrative jumps around in time. In summary: it’s like a slightly pretentious Back To The Future with extended periods of tedium and mind-wandering.

Oh, and those two pages about buying a packet of peanuts? More gripping than expected.

Week 1

To prepare for the mammoth task ahead, I clicked on a few Amazon reader reviews to see what’s in store for the next 14-15 hours of reading. ‘A mixed reaction’ would be a fair description:

“I couldn't stomach too much of this ‘great’ writing. It's now back on the shelf, for the time being.”

“The late-20th century’s Ulysses.”

“Having endured some 300 pages of nothingness, I considered setting myself on fire and leaping from the veranda.”

“A masterpiece of panoramic storytelling…”

“There were the odd 50 pages here or there that I struggled with…”

“It has two pages to describe a couple of baseball fans buying a pack of peanuts…”

“So far up its own arse it's scary.”

One thing’s clear – it’s going to take time and effort to fully appreciate this monster of a novel, with long passages about baseball and the Cold War ahead of me. My eyes and brain are psyched and ready to go.

Zero pages read, 832 to go.


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