Book Review: Underworld by Don DeLillo

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3/5 Stars.

I’ll be honest with you, I probably wouldn’t have pushed through this if I wasn’t already a big DeLillo fan. The prologue and parts of the epilogue are beautiful and memorable. And then there’s the seven hundred or so pages in between. Of course, since it’s DeLillo, the dialogue is excellent and many of the passages can stand alone on their own as master works of fiction. But there’s just so much else there, and much of it winds up feeling bloated and superfluous.

Yes, I feel stupid saying all of this about a modern classic. But approaching this subjectively, I didn’t love reading this book. Last year when I read Infinite Jest — an equally challenging monster of a post-modern novel — I felt immensely fulfilled in spite of the challenging nature of the book. But it pains me to say that I just didn’t feel that way with Underworld. I liked Nick Shay’s coming-of-age-story told in reverse. I liked a lot of the themes and metaphors. I liked that DeLillo tied it all in with the cultural history of the United States during the Cold War. There was just too much of the last part.

I’m still glad I read it. As I said, I love DeLillo. I owed it to him to read this. If you consider yourself a DeLillo fan like I do, it’s hard to avoid tackling this behemoth. And in the end, I have to admit: there’s something undeniably special about experiencing a work of fiction like this from a master like DeLillo.

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Zero K by Don DeLillo

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4/5 Stars.

(Note: I received an advanced digital copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.)

In his latest novel, DeLillo proves once again that he is the undisputed master of picking apart layer by layer the existential dread that manifests in the face of impending mortality.

“Everybody wants to own the end of the world.”

Zero K is about a remote compound where a group of scientists and social theorists have developed a method for cryogenically preserving human bodies post-mortem until an undetermined point in the future when technologically will allow for them to wake up into a better life. Jeffrey Lockhart’s father, Ross, invites him to the compound where Ross’s beloved second wife Artis — faced with a terminal illness — is about start this process.

The concept inevitably raises many questions that have been examined before in similar stories: At what point in the process of being reborn do you stop being who you are? What are the mental and physical consequences of infinite longevity? And, most importantly, does immortality render life meaningless?

In DeLillo’s capable hands, these ethical and metaphysical quandaries never feel trite or redundant. And even during the most nebulous parts of the story, he carries us through with his brilliant dialogue, introspective characters and thought-provoking prose.

Zero K certainly didn’t reach the same heights as White Noise for me, but in many ways it felt like a follow-up. Ross and Artis face a similar dilemma as White Noise’s Jack and Babette: who will die first? Only in Zero K, they have the option of leaving this life and transitioning to a new one together.

“We are born without choosing to be. Should we die in the same manner?”

Whether or not taking control of one’s future in the face of a random and indifferent universe is an effective anti-dote to existential dread is left up to each reader to determine for himself.

White Noise by Don DeLillo

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5/5 Stars.

You ever read one of those books that makes you wonder what the hell you’ve been doing with your life that you’ve somehow overlooked it all this time?

That’s White Noise for me. First, there’s all the writers I’ve enjoyed over the years who have clearly been influenced by him (David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Chuck Palahniuk, Bret Easton Ellis…even Miranda July). But more importantly, this is a book that focuses explicitly on the one issue that plagues me every single day of my atheist life: a crushing fear of death.

I’ve yet to come across a work of fiction that broaches this fundamental existential dread so deliberately. In DeLillo’s world, our attempts to quell the fear of death with consumerism, television and other forms of white noise ultimately prove fruitless. The fear is always there, and in their desperation to overcome it, the irony is that his characters can barely manage to live meaningful lives.

I’m only scratching the surface of everything this surreal, hilarious, eerie satire has to offer. There’s so much more about the duality of technology (which creates an appetite for immortality while simultaneously threatening extinction), the regenerative nature of destruction, and the fate of the modern man willing to go to any means possible to assuage his most primal fears. White Noise easily joins the ranks of my favorite books of all time.

“A person spends his life saying goodbye to other people. How does he say goodbye to himself?”