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underworld, don de lillo

another book by de lillo, and more thoughts about the society in which we live. in concentrating on historical (the last 50 years) america this feels more removed from my own life than, for example, white noise.

this is a wide ranging, complex book, worrying about love and betrayal, the threat of the bomb and the sense of community it created, and, dominantly, about consumerism, waste, and the cult of ownership.

i have two separate comments i want to make.

first, i was not completely happy with this book. none of the works i've read by de lillo has had a rollicking plot and this is by far the longest, which means that the final hundred pages feel a little more like a chore than they should. part of the blame must lie with the temporal structure - the story moves backwards in time. i guess a fair amount of work (to be honest, i have no idea at all - what am i doing sitting here writing about books like this, criticising them, when i could never write anything comparable?) must have been spent planning how the various threads from earlier in the book come together at the end, but some of the final knots - the shooting, in particular - seemed inadequate. on the other hand i may have missed some connections (were they the same balls - what about the man on the ship? - or was that, after all, the point?).

i should confess that another reason for my lack of enthusiasm is that de lillo doesn't pander as much to my racist preconceptions of modern america as in some of his earlier work. there's a certain cheesy aroma of feel-good italian-american boy/girl made goodness that niggles me. as he lost my sympathy (this was later in the book - the initial focus on trash and bombs was a solid fix) i became less trusting - if his description of the web, which is something i do know, is that far off the mark, then should i buy his depiction of a graffiti artist?

but writing this, i feel guilty (i can picture myself as the conceited owner of a tired 486, baselessly proud of my visual basic pop-up hello-world, loudly criticising the NT code base) because de lillo can write like a dream. he writes how people are thinking and it's right. it is not how people think - at least, it's not what i listen to, in my head - but it is exactly what someone writing how someone thinks should write (and if you don't get my point tell me why pictures, and not photos, hang in the galleries).

my second comment is supposed to illustrate how de lillo has tried to write the great american novel (bet no review of this book avoids that phrase). i though it up in the shower and it seemed good back then, now it bounces between pretentious and plain crap, so let's see if it flies...

i write software, and i'm pretty good at it, and i don't pretend it's easy. the reason it's hard, and what makes it fun, even if i am paid to do it, and even if i sometimes want to shoot my boss, is that it has so many levels of hierarchy. if that sounds trite then look at some numbers: the chip in my laptop executes an instruction every 0.000000005 seconds, while a program might take 5 seconds to do something, so programming spans about 10 orders of magnitude (divide one number by the other - if you're wondering what on earth i'm talking about go read something else). it's hard to find anything else at the same level (take building, which ranges from, say, a tack 1cm long to a building 100m high: just 5 orders of magnitude).

to cope with that huge range in scale software design must use many different layers of abstraction. hence the complexity, beauty, and fun of it all.

now, in this book, de lillo is looking at 50 years of history. he's also looking at individual seconds in a person's life. that's 9 orders of magnitude. he's in the same ballpark as a software engineer. there's no way he can do this without abstraction, without layers of meaning, without building something on details that echo epochs. and, as someone who lives, works, with that kind of complexity, he gets my respect. he ain't done that bad.