January 05, 2023

#08-273: Underworld

Cover of the first edition (Wikipedia)

Note: This modern masterpiece follows, in reverse chronological order, the career of a baseball caught by a young fan at New York's Polo Grounds.

Get Ready: Can you think of an object that has been significant to you for most of your life? What is it?

Occasionally the plot of a story traces an object through time, detailing the lives of the people who owned it.

The first example I knew of was the highly-rated 1950 Western film Winchester '73, in which a cowboy wins a Winchester rifle in a shooting contest, but it is immediately stolen from him. It is traded, sold, and stolen several more times, the owner always meeting bad luck.

Another is The Red Violin, a kind of stinker, in which a violin made in Italy in 1681 passes through Vienna, Oxford, Shanghai, and Montreal over the centuries; the language of each section of the film changes with the location. In the end, we learn that the maker stirred his dead wife's blood into the red varnish.

More recently, the 1997 novel Underworld, by the award-winning American writer Don DeLillo, is a non-linear account of the life of Nick Shay, the final owner of a baseball the known history of which starts at an important game in Brooklyn in 1951, where Shay lived as a boy.

After a prologue in which a black boy catches the ball in the stands, the book's six parts begin in Arizona in 1992, where Shay is a waste management executive. It then moves backward through his life, introducing in reverse the events and people that led up to the life he is living in Part 1, "Long Tall Sally."

DeLillo cleverly uses the baseball's history as a "hook" to provide a detailed look at the history of the U.S. in the late 20th century. Along the way he depicts the effects of the work of a serial killer, the ripples caused by extramarital affairs, the development of nuclear weapons, and, in the end, the revelation of an accidental murder many years before.

The effort paid off: the book was a finalist for both the 1997 National Book Award and the 1988 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. In May of 2006, it placed second on a New York Times list of the best work of American fiction of the previous 25 years; Toni Morrison's Beloved won first place by only four votes.

Underworld (the title is a reference to the radioactive waste buried deep underground, and to Pluto, the Lord of Hades) is widely considered Don DeLillo's masterpiece.


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. extramarital
  2. hook
  3. masterpiece
  4. non-linear
  5. prologue
  6. radioactive
  7. revelation
  8. ripples
  9. stinker
  10. varnish

  1. out of order
  2. spreading effects
  3. exposure; uncovering
  4. a bad piece of art
  5. the part of a story that happens before the main action
  6. a material used to protect wood
  7. a technique to create an interesting story
  8. an artist's greatest work
  9. outside of marriage
  10. emitting radiation

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for January 5, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. i; 2. g; 3. h; 4. a; 5. e; 6. j; 7. c; 8. b; 9. d; 10. f