#2 — Underworld — Don DeLillo
Underworld is a book that sifts through 50 years of Cold War America and ends up proving that a Cold War-less America is a rudderless America. However, if Underworld were simply a polemic with no greater point than teaching this lesson, it would have been made obsolete by 9/11 and no one, other than professional historians, would care much about reading it.
This is not the case for many reasons, but I’d like to focus on just three.
First off, in its structure and feel, Underworld captures something essential about the world we inhabited in 1997 (when it was published) and inhabit still more today. The book consists of several disconnected, parallel narratives. Like a bunch of jumbo jet aircraft leaving parallel sets of contrails, the narratives that make up Underworld are laid out in parallel, but not explicitly made to touch. Then, like a light wind, the reader’s mind begins to make the narratives expand and intermingle and connections are discovered.
This strikes me as an apt portrayal of the idea of our world, with many contemporaneous narratives that are united by an unseen web of connections, just below surface level. Thus, in the way DeLillo has structured his book, he mimics something very important about our world, and in a much more compelling way than several other postmodern writers who have attempted the same thing. Also, as the name "Underworld" implies, DeLillo explores some of these "below surface level" elements that unite our world.
Second, Underworld successfully delves into the question of what unites us as Americans. With the amounts and kinds of diversity encompassed by America, it’s a far question to ask "what’s American?" In mulling over the Cold War, DeLillo comes up with some answers–he establishes a national Zeitgeist that didn’t die with the Cold War, but continued on past the fall of the Berlin Wall and is still present to this day.
Third and most important, Underworld is simply a pleasure to read. The book treads the fine line between being sufficiently coy to engage a reader’s mind and being so coy as to be incomprehensible. It’s a book that keeps a reader constantly thinking, which is another way to say it’s continually entertaining. It’s also a book that, at times, exhibits spectacular storytelling. The first 50 pages is worthy of a novella, and is among the best openings of the 20th century. Also, the book’s final section spectacularly exhibits DeLillo’s fine ear for English as it is spoken, and gives us another novella-esque narrative that is, if not quite as good as Underworld’s opening, still spectacular.
#3 — Speak, Memory — Vladimir Nabokov
#4 — The Octopus — Frank Norris
#5 — The King of California — Mark Arax, Rick Wartzman
#6 — The Corrections — Jonathan Franzen
#7 — City of Glass — Paul Auster
#8 — Vladimir Nabokov: The American Years — Brian Boyd
#9 — Rise of the Creative Class — Richard Florida
#10 — Madeline is Sleeping — Sarah Shun-lien Bynum