It took me five years to write Underworld and when I returned to the novel roughly seventeen years later I found myself on a brief tunneling journey into deep memory, with the elements of surprise, delight, regret and puzzlement mingling page after page. It was at first a somewhat grudging experience that turned eventually into several days of pure pleasure.
First edition, signed on half-title. In the very first note on the flyleaf, DeLillo reveals the origins, and a major theme of his novel: “Front page, NY Times, October 4, 1951. Matching headlines. GIANTS CAPTURE PENNANT / BEATING DODGERS 5-4 IN 9TH / ON THOMSON’S 3-RUN HOMER and: SOVIETS SECOND ATOM BLAST / IN 2 YEARS REVEALED BY U.S. / DETAILS ARE KEPT A SECRET “I discovered this coupling at a local library,” he tells us, “on the microfilm device—after reading a news story in Oct. 1991 about the 40th anniversary of a famous ballgame.” When he has the character Bronzini discover that front page, much later in the novel, DeLillo writes in the margin on p.668: “My first inkling (actually it was more like a rush) that there was something in these mated stories that I wanted to explore in fictional terms.”
He explores it brilliantly in the novel—and with as much verve and excitement in these copious and comprehensive notes. By our count, just under 400 pages—almost half of the novel’s 827 total—bears annotations in DeLillo’s hand. They explain the origins of the novel and his frequently changing decisions about how to organize it. “Novel took 5 years to write – autumn 1991 to autumn 1996. Title applies to a number of events and themes ranging from J. Edgar Hoover’s presence in the prologue to an underground nuclear explosion in the Epilogue, from subway graffiti to a (fictional) movie directed by Sergei Eisenstein (etc.).” They draw connections between this and his earlier and later work; tease out recurring themes and images; and frequently draw attention to which parts of the book emerged from his own experience—“I didn’t realize how much of The Bronx was in this book”—and which were pure (or impure) imagination. Many of those astonish him as much as they do us. “Where did this come from?” is a frequent query. On p. 696 he writes: “It may be a greater jolt to memory reading these pages now than it was when I wrote them, roughly 20 years ago.” It is impossible to recount the richness of his annotations in a short catalogue description, other than to say it constitutes a deep and profound commentary by the author on what critic John Leonard rightly called “the best English-language novel” of the 1990s. They create the sense of DeLillo being by our side as we read the novel. Or, to stay with the theme of the book: it’s like having him sit next to you at a ballgame, making lively, witty, interesting and insightful comment on the play. But—unlike Jackie Gleason in the Prologue—always keeping his eye on the ball.
DeLILLO, Don. Underworld. New York: Scribners, 1997. 8°. Original cloth-backed boards; dust jacket.