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Of a Boy – In which Andy (finally and reluctantly) reads a book by Sonya Hartnett. And is pleasantly surprised

May 20, 2015

Pleasantly surprised is a bit of an understatement, actually.

Netty had her reasons for not wanting to read Lolita, and they are legitimate, if arguable. My reasons for not wanting to read anything by Sonya Hartnett are so laughably illegitimate as to be unworthy of an argument: In 2010 I was invited to write a series of (what I now realise were, along with most of what I write on this blog, laughably execrable) posts about the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. One of those posts was about a session involving Hartnett, in which she and a couple of other writers discussed their childhood reading. One of the writers Hartnett mentioned was John Wyndham, a childhood favourite of mine, and while she was nostalgically fond she also called him sexist, which I found odd, given two of his best books, Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids, contain very strong female characters, and Trouble with Lichen is about a male-and-female duo of microbiologists. In my blog I took (not terribly serious) exception to Hartnett’s comments and called her “rude”. Hartnett took (apparently quite terribly serious) exception to this, responded with a comment longer than the few sentences I’d dedicated to her views on Wyndham, and left me with the impression that she was the sort of slightly precious, slightly self-important writer I’d prefer not to read. So I didn’t. Until Netty insisted that if we were going to read some creepy paedophile filth by some defector creep from Russia then we were damn well going to read Hartnett and not some other female Australian writer such as Amy Witting or Helen Garner (my suggestions).

And while I’m not completely chuffed that Netty gave in on Lolita, I am very glad I gave in on Hartnett.

Of a Boy is set in 1977. The news is full of the disappearance of three young children – two sisters and their younger brother – on the streets of an Australian suburb. Nine-year-old Adrian, being raised by his gran though his selfish, disturbed mum and dad are both alive, absorbs the news of the disappearance, but goes through life as the slightly weird, rather lonely, rather too self-aware little boy that he is. When a new family move into the house across the road Adrian forms an odd, seesawing friendship with the oldest daughter, Nicole, and their relationship becomes increasingly intertwined with the disappearance of the three Metford children.

Adrian, in 1977, is nine. Hartnett was born in 1968. I was born in 1969, and lived in the northwestern suburbs of Melbourne from 1976-80. There were times when I wondered whether Adrian lived in Glenroy, seriously. The city in which Of a Boy takes place is never (as far as I and Netty can remember) specified, but it seems to me pretty obviously to be Melbourne, the city of Hartnett’s (and my) birth. Going down the street to buy lollies, trips to the local swimming pool, sleepovers at a friend’s place, dubious, shifting schoolyard loyalties – none of these things are specific to late ’70s Melbourne, but Hartnett saturates her story with a sense of time and place that sometimes left me dizzied. I spent godawful months wandering the grounds of Glenroy Primary School (I had a specific route) during lunchtime, having been abandoned by a group of kids I had thought were my friends who had suddenly decided I was Big Ears (and then later, and in hindsight rather hilariously, Odor Ears) and who refused to speak to me. Later they would speak to me again for a few months. And then they wouldn’t. Childhood is pretty seriously fucked up, and Hartnett captures that in a way I don’t think I’ve read before. The petty betrayals, the tentatively extended affection, the cruelty at once disparagingly despatched and monstrously sadistic – it’s okay, I don’t need therapy just yet, but memories? I’ve had a few.

Oh – and apparently, I have only discovered in writing this post, Glenroy Primary School no longer exists. Jeff Kennett’s work, I guess.

Hartnett’s ability to see things from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy, rather than, perhaps, from Nicole’s, is also astonishing. the feeling that someone who wasn’t at all like me had crawled into my nine-year-old brain was a bit freaky, on more than a few occasions.

There is much more to rave about in this book – the characters of grandma Beattie – so flawed, so hard, and in her knowledtge of her flaws and her rigidity so worthy of at least some forgiveness; and of Rory, Adrian’s deeply messed up, strangely wise, artistic uncle – but I’m afraid, precious, self-important blogger that I am, it was the stuff that resonated with me that I was keen to rave about.

So that’s what I’ve done.

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In which Netty (finally and reluctantly) reads Lolita. And then has some things to say about it …

April 23, 2015

Andy is right – I most decidedly did not want to read Lolita, despite his numerous suggestions over the years. And I only did relent because that’s what this blog is all about – reading important works of (mostly 20th century) literature. No matter how dubious in subject matter. More on that, obviously, later.

lolita-coverI’m not big on Russians in the literature department. I mean, I read One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in college, and I finally got around to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master And Margarita about 10 years ago (it’s very, very good. Read it by all means). The closest I’d come to Russian-cum-American author Vladimir Nabokov was The Police song Don’t Stand So Close To Me, about a teenage student’s infatuation with her teacher, which references the novel (“It’s no use/ He sees her/ He starts to shake and cough/ Just like the/ old man in/ that book by Nabokov”). And frankly that’s as close as I wanted to come. Hell, I haven’t even seen the movie(s) – the original or the remake.

Let’s not beat around the bush here – Lolita may be a novel, as Andy so pertinently notes in his post – but it’s a novel about a man in his late 30s who is having a sexual relationship with a pubescent girl, against her wishes, even though she initiates the first physical contact and then goes along with it, enticed and subdued by various bribes and threats. As always, rape has little to do with sex, and everything to do with power. And, sadly, as the book plays out, we discover its lead character is not the only older man willing to exploit this young girl for his own means and ends.

Actually, who would know what Lolita/Lo/Dolly/Delores wishes, wants or desires, because the book is wholly narrated by the odious, pathetic Humbert Humbert, so the reader only sees the girl (or “nymphet”, or “faunlet”, as Humbug would put it) through his eyes. Obviously that is deliberate, but it is difficult not to see it as yet another way in which Lolita is subjugated, objectified and moulded by the dominant male presence in her life. That Humbert is possibly the most unreliable of unreliable narrators (it is my theory that possibly the entire plot takes place only in his head) does little to clarify these murkiest of waters.

Would this book see the light of day in 2015? It was a battle enough to get it into print back in 1955 – indeed it was initially published in France (but written in English; not the author’s native language) after being turned down by some of the biggest American publishing houses of the day. It was banned in England – and later France – the following year, before its eventual publication in the UK and US in 1958. It was improbably turned into a film, directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring James Mason and Sue Lyon, in 1962, then again in 1997 (this time directed by Adrian Lyne, with Jeremy Irons and Dominque Swain in the main roles); both versions had more than their fair share of censorship issues.

Nabokov, who published nine English-language novels in his lifetime, along with a dozen in Russian, as well as numerous collections of short stories, poetry and criticism, always reserved a special place in his affections for his most notorious novel. In fact, he spent almost 30 years writing various versions of it – as a poem, a short story and another novel, as a novella and an unfinished manuscript, both published after his death; he even incorporated the concept into one of his Russian-language novels. All of which, frankly, makes me feel more than a little uneasy. What is it about this hebephilic relationship that so held him in its thrall over the decades? Lolita is dedicated to Nabokov’s wife Vera; interestingly, it was she, as executor of his estate, who made the decision to posthumously publish the Lolita-esque works her husband had wanted destroyed. Go figure.

Lolita starts with a foreword penned by a “John Ray, Jr, Ph.D”, who is asked to edit Humbert’s manuscript after his death “in legal captivity, of coronary thrombosis” (this is not a spoiler, peeps – this is the book’s opening sentence! However, he’s not in the lock-up for reasons the reader may initially suspect), before the fates of various characters – unbeknown at this stage to the reader – are revealed in the ensuing pages. Yep, he’s a bit of a clever clops, ol’ Vlad. A 1956 epilogue is appended to my 2008 Penguin edition; in it Nabokov outlines the book’s path to fruition (although the bit about the artistic ape appears to be a furphy) and asserts it “has no moral in tow”. As Mandy Rice-Davies remarked at the trial that resulted from the infamous Profumo affair of the 1960s, “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

I’m not going to ruminate on the plot, although I will say that as this book’s reputation precedes itself, anyone who actually takes the time to read it will be surprised by the various, largely unexpected plot twists and turns. I certainly was, having originally gone in with some preconceived ideas about how it was going to play out. Despite Nabokov’s emphatic statement about its morality, this novel’s ultimate saving grace is that its perpetrator is under no illusion about the vile acts he is committing, even as he continues to commit them. This is no American Psycho, where its (also unreliable) narrator shows absolutely no remorse and basically gets off scot-free for his actions. Karmic retribution plays a large part in the proceedings here – as it must – and all the characters end up paying a huge price, some with their lives. Also – and this is very important – it is not an exploitative novel; it is neither titillating nor erotic.

Would I recommend it? That is a very grey area indeed. On subject matter, no – I don’t condone in any way, shape or form child sexual abuse, or any sexual abuse for that matter, and neither does any sane, decent, right-minded person. But purely as a work of literature – subject matter aside – it is undeniably cleverly plotted and well-written. I believe it is still on school reading lists around the (presumably western) world, almost 60 years after its publication, so it obviously has longevity.

But I won’t be rereading it, nor will I bother with any other Nabokov books. I don’t like books that leave me feeling like I need to take a long shower with a loofah brush afterwards.

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Lolita – Andy gets a bit gross and grubby with Vlad and Humbert

April 20, 2015

So here we are in the last half of April, blogging about the first book of the year. Granted, we took January and February off, but still, blogging about March’s book in the last weeks of April is … pretty much par for the course, I guess.

I have suggested Nabokov’s Lolita a couple of times over the however many years it is now Netty and I have being doing the challenge. The last time Netty screwed her face up and said “Why would I want to read that?” This time round I explained, rather gently, that Nabokov was one of the few, perhaps the only giant of 20th century English-language letters that we had not yet tackled.

That got her.

lolitaBut having finally read the Russian great’s incendiary account of one seriously fucked-up man’s hebephilia (No, Humbert Humbert is not a pedophile – he is a monstrously nauseating creature, but he is attracted to girls who have just – barely – hit puberty, and that is a different paraphilia to pedophilia. There may be different labels for the various sexual abuses of children, but do the labels make any of those variations less monstrous, less nauseating? That, dear reader, is your call.), I can tell you that while I respect Vlad’s talent, and will at some stage get around to reading something else of his, I’m not sure Lolita is the magnificent work of world literature it’s supposed to be.

Although it’s pretty good. I mean, this is a book about a middle-aged guy sexually abusing a pubescent girl, and … um …. a lot of it’s really funny. Like seriously, Really, really funny. It is gross and it is disgusting, a lot of it, and it is often laugh-out-loud funny. Humbert’s lack of self-awareness, as hinted at by his creator, is sometimes a source of humour; his occasional moments of blistering self-awareness can be funny, too (although sometimes not so much). There is some slapstick, believe it or not, particularly in the penultimate (is it penultimate? I forget now) murder scene (no, I will not reveal who dies). Feisty, flawed, flippant Lolita herself – apparently Nabokov’s favourite among his fictitious creations – is often very funny.

And sometimes not so much.

There is a point well into the book where Humbert, narrator (mostly), acknowledges that he knows Lolita is desperately unhappy about her lo(li)t(a): after Humbert has raped her, nightly, she waits until she thinks he has fallen asleep, and then she weeps. Except he’s not asleep, and he hears her expressions of grief, and he tells his readers of them. And the next night he rapes Lolita, again.

There are those who claim Lolita is a defence of pedophilia, Or something. None of these tards have read the book, clearly. Nabokov himself claimed he never tried to be didactic, and I’ll cop that. He may not be saying “middle-aged men should not have sex with pubescent girls (or boys, even) because that is gross and disgusting”; but he certainly seems, to me, to be saying “middle-aged men who have sex with pubescent girls (or boys, even) are gross and disgusting and should be held to account for their actions by the law”.

OK, Vlad would probably be annoyed by me reading a little too much into his perspective.

So good but  not great, challenging but not a catastrophe for Western values (George Pell would know more about that sort of thing than Nabokov), queasily amusing, revolting, absorbing. Never forget, as you read Lolita, that this is a novel about the sexual abuse, the rape, of a young girl. But also, never forget: this is a novel,

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Welcome to Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge – 2015 edition. In, er, March. But, you know, whateves …

March 12, 2015
beach-book-image

This is not me not reading Ulysses …

So your friendly scribes at ANRC got a little bit behind the eightball towards the end of last year (that is the correct expression, yes?), hence only just wrapping up the 2014 Challenge this week. So we decided to give ourselves a couple of months off over the summer break – which wasn’t really a break; I mean, I spent it reading Ulysses (yes, I read Ulysses, and no, it’s nothing anyone else needs to do ever. Trust me. That’s six weeks of my life I’ll never get back) and Andy probably read about 100 books in that time ‘cos that’s just the way he rolls. And, you know, that mob over at the ABC’s Book Club does it, so what’s good enough for them, yada yada yada …

So this year we’re only going to be reading 10 books. We’ve also decided to put the Side Challenge on ice for this edition, too, which is sort of a pity because Andy came up with a cracker of a theme – but it will probably return next year.

So without further ado, here’s what we’ll be reading this year:

March: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

April: Of A Boy by Sonia Hartnett

May: Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delaney

June: The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie

July: Atomised by Michel Houellebecq

August: Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

September: And The Band Played On by Randy Shilts

October: King Of The Badgers by Philip Hensher

November: My Struggle Book 1 by Karl Ove Knausegaard

December: The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

So, as usual, we’re not doing ourselves too many favours or cutting ourselves too much slack!

Righto – better get to it. See y’all in a couple of weeks. Still can’t believe I let Andy talk me into reading bloody Lolita …

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2014 – 18 books, three months late

March 11, 2015

Or maybe two months late. Anyway.

Any excuse for a pic of a guy with his shirt off.

Any excuse for a pic of a guy with his shirt off.

Traditionally, Netty and I have rated our year’s reads in our own way. Netty usually if not always gives you a one to 12 of our reads, which she has done once again, whereas I am a bit more slapdash. This year however, I am prepared to be slightly more decisive:

The Story of the Eye is the worst book Netty and I read this year. It may be the worst book I have ever read. Erotic? Surreal? Oh please. Just fuck off. And if you want to write about bullfights, read Hemingway first. Blah. Fuck off. Did I say that already?

The Golden Notebook is infinitely superior to The Story of the Eye. It is also, easily, the second-worst book Netty and I read this year. I can see how it must’ve been revolutionary at the time it was written, I can understand why it holds an honoured place in the feminist canon. Also, it’s a bit crap.

The poetry of Seamus Heaney and the short stories of Lydia Davis are not a bit crap. They are for the most part fine, finely crafted pieces of writing. But while some of Heaney’s poems touched me, perhaps stimulated my memories of Northern Ireland; and while some of Davis’s stories amused and engaged me; while both writers left me impressed with their talents as writers, for the most part I was left disappointedly indifferent.

Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines didn’t leave me indifferent. Songlines was good – really good. It was witty and beautifully written and moving and enlightening – although when you discover, having finished the book, that some of it is apparently fictiticous, or might be, it does sort of take the wind out of the sails a bit.

Anna Funder’s Stasiland, a real-life memorial to the devastation wrought by East Germany’s secret police, and Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest, a fictitious, hard-boiled depiction of Prohibition-era America, might have more in common other than the fact that I really, really liked them both. But they didn’t quite have enough to get themselves into my top five.

Actually I have a top two. Actually i have a top one. But I do have five that were better than the other seven.

Bolano’s By Night in Chile was amazing. Jolley’s The Well was amazing. Mahfouz’s Palace Walk was amazing. To be honest I can’t give you a reason why those three fall behind O’Brien’s Irish Girls, other than the last was read most recently, while the other three were read at the beginning of the year. But from where I sit right now, with a half-empty glass of sauv blanc in my hand, O”Brien eclipses all others.

Except, obviously – like, obviously – for Mary Gaitskill. Bad Behavior may not be the best thing Netty and I have read over the past few years. In fact it almost certainly isn’t. But it is far and away the best thing I have read this year. The two collections Gaitskill has written since – Because They Wanted To and Don’t Cry – don’t quite live up to the promise of the original, but it’s a fucking sliver of a “don’t quite”. Seriously, seriously awesomely great stuff.

I can’t guarantee it, but this may be the first time our lists have bordered on inverse.

As far as Aunty Iris is concerned – not one of the books I read last year disappointed, but I can say that Under the Bell, A Severed Head and The Book and the Brotherhood are probably weaker than The Bell, The Nice and the Good and The Sea, The Sea. The Bell is probably the best of the six. Although if I read all six again this year I’d probablly have a different opinion.

And so… On to 2015. Cos we’re only three months in …

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In which Netty declares 2014 the Year of the Don – and no, I’m not talking about a leg of ham, or that rabble of a footy club that Hirdy coaches …

March 10, 2015

Last year, 2014, was a momentous year in Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge. In addition to reading our usual 12 books, we embarked on side challenges that singled out, respectively, two of the authors who had most impressed us over the eight-year journey (at least I think it’s eight; there’s been a helluva lot of books and a fair whack of booze tipped in over those years).

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Seriously, I would marry this bloke if he wasn’t, like, almost 80 …

One of the best things I have done for myself EVER is to plunge head-first into the back catalogue of American author Don DeLillo (Andy tackled English writer Iris Murdoch, and undoubtedly he will have plenty to say about her in his post, coming to a screen near you shortly). DeLillo is a towering behemoth of modern literature, and the beauty is I’ve still got a half-dozen or so of his books to go. If you love words, plots, themes, characters, and just bloody fan-fucking-tastic writing, well, you know what to do. And do it, stat.

Regular readers of this blog know I love a list as much as Andy hates ‘em. There’s little to fault in the six DeLillos I read last year (and, er, a little bit into this year, too), but if I had to rank them (go on!), then this is how it would pan out:

  1. Underworld
  2. Mao II
  3. Libra
  4. White Noise
  5. Point Omega
  6. Americana

Americana, DeLillo’s first novel, published in 1971, is the weakest link in this bunch – albeit a very high-quality weakest link – but a fine harbinger of what was to come. The other five – spanning the period 1985 to 2012 – are mesmerising testaments to life in these mixed-up, shook-up, fucked-up times. I can’t recommend them highly enough. The only author I have loved more since Andy and I have been doing this blog is Raymond Carver. Yeah – he’s THAT good.

Back to the regular challenge, then. As Frank Sinatra (and others) once sang, it was a very good year …

1. Stasiland – ANNA FUNDER

In which an Australian writer goes to post-Wall East Germany to see what havoc the sins of the past have wreaked on its modern incarnation. Powerful, gripping, beautifully told tales of those who lived behind and beyond the Wall. Essential reading.

2. Palace Walk – NAGUIB MAHFOUZ

Volume one of Mahfouz’s magnificent trilogy traces the life and times of Egyptian patriarch al-Sayyid Ahmad and his long-suffering family from the early 20th to mid-20th century. An absolutely riveting read, especially recommended for lovers of familial sagas.

3. The Songlines – BRUCE CHATWIN

In which an Englishman goes to the red centre of Australia, fulfilling a boyhood obsession, and comes away with a far greater understanding of the heart of this land and its indigenous people than most of us “second Aussies” will ever have.

4. The Golden Notebook – DORIS LESSING

Sisters are doing it for themselves – well, most of the time, anyway. One of the essential tracts of modern feminist fiction. Not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but always canny, comely, and compelling.

5. New Selected Poems 1966-1987 – SEAMUS HEANEY

He wasn’t a Nobel Prize winner for nothing. The late Irish poet distils the essence of his homeland into gorgeously evocative, sublimely succinct prose.

6. The Collected Stories Of – LYDIA DAVIS

An epic collection from one of America’s finer short story writers. When she is on song and en pointe – and she is often – few can touch Davis for wit, insight and brevity.

7. The Well – ELIZABETH JOLLEY

The most surprising book of the bunch for me. Slightly sinister Australian gothic with more twists and turns than a carnival roller-coaster. Heady, shrewd stuff, and a rollicking good read.

8. By Night In Chile – ROBERTO BOLANO

If you can get past the fact that this novella is presented as basically one paragraph, a fascinating account of modern Chile in all its corrupt chaos. Not an easy read by any stretch of the imagination, but a rewarding one.

9. Red Harvest – DASHIELL HAMMETT

Don’t be misled by the lowly placing on this list. Absolutely nothing wrong with this cracking, eminently readable example of early-20th century hard-boiled American detective fiction.

10. Story Of The Eye – GEORGES BATAILLE

Look, I don’t mind a bit of hard-core every now and then. But preferably without chicken’s eggs and severed eyeballs, thanks all the same, Georges.

11. The Country Girls Trilogy – EDNA O’BRIEN

As I said in my original post, misery-gut-laden, woe-is-fucking me Irish chick lit. And three bloody volumes of it! Somewhere along the line I’m gonna get Andy back for that one …

12. Bad Behaviour – MARY GAITSKILL

Tedious tales from a one-trick pony. Whiny, dull, boring, and blah.

Over to you, Andy!

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In which Netty tells you why you should read DeLillo’s Underworld. Right. Now. In only slightly fewer words than the novel itself!

March 4, 2015

underworld-coverBack in 2011, Andy and I read Don DeLillo’s The Falling Man, our introduction to this towering American literary giant. In my post, I commented: “ Yeah, maybe we should have tackled Underworld …” – a reference to the weighty, award-winning and nominated tome that is perhaps the best known of DeLillo’s 16-novel career. 

Flash-forward, and here I am, four years later, fittingly closing my 2014 (yeah, yeah, I know it’s 2015, but hey – it’s a big book, OK?) ANRC DeLillo side challenge with Underworld. About which I have absolutely no qualms declaring The Great American Novel. Caps intentional. 

Seriously, guys. This book is the bomb. Quite literally, in fact, pun unintentional. For reasons that will soon become clear.   

Of the six DeLillo books I read last year – from his first, Americana, to his most recent, Point Omega, and concentrating on his mid-‘80s to mid-‘90s work – Underworld is by far the best of four exemplary works (the other three being White Noise, Libra and Mao II). The scope and breadth of this novel, set in Cold War-era America in the latter half of the 20th century, is truly breathtaking as it recounts the intertwined lives of a dozen or so main characters, including some historical figures – and the trajectory of a baseball at the epicentre of a legendary National League final. 

Its broad, overarching theme is weapons and waste. Its main character, NYC-born Nick Shay, is a waste management executive; his younger brother Matthew (Matty), a disillusioned former military man who served in Vietnam, then later helped develop nuclear arms for the US government, ends up at a non-profit research institute. The novel opens on October 3, 1951, with the National League final between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers, a game won by the underdog Giants 5-4 thanks to a three-run homer known as “the shot heard round the world”. At exactly the same time, the USSR conducts an atomic test at a secret location inside its borders; FBI director J. Edgar Hoover receives the news whilst at the game with his celebrity buddies Frank Sinatra and Jackie Gleason. 

Four decades later Nick and his colleague Brian Glassic are at that Kazakhstan site, meeting with executives from Russian firm Tchaika (translated as that perennial scavenger the seagull), which trades nuclear explosions for cash, effectively destroying radioactive waste with its source material – “killing the devil”, as Nick puts it. His Russian counterpart says waste is the “devil twin, the secret history” of weapons; Nick agrees: “What we excrete comes back to haunt us,” he says. Later they tour a medical institute with jars filled with pickled malformed foetuses, then see the survivors of decades of inter-generational radioactive exposure at a regional clinic, dwarf children without limbs, eyes, with abnormal growths. Musing on the birth of the atomic bomb, knowing its aftermath, the Russian concludes: “Once they imagine in the beginning, it makes everything true. Nothing you can believe is not coming true.”

Four decades later Nick is also the owner of the baseball – which costs him $34,500 – from the Giants’ win. During the course of the novel, which is structured around a non-linear narrative that shifts across time and place, the reader follows its ownership – forming a detective-mystery-esque subplot that shifts and turns in unlikely ways, ultimately linking the various threads into a cohesive whole. Which is, in the bigger picture, an apt description of the novel itself. This is a book that relies on, and is guided by, synchronicity in all its befuddling, light-bulb ways – the ostensibly causal connections between people and places that are rooted in otherworldly relations. “Everything connects in the end, or only seems to, or seems to only because it does,” DeLillo notes. It is clever, fascinating concept that is deftly woven throughout these pages. 

The reader also learns Nick’s back story, the crux of which we know from the beginning – that he served time in juvenile detention as a 17-year-old for murder – but which is not fully explained till almost the novel’s end.  That particular section, Arrangement In Grey And Black – which covers the period (northern) fall 1951 to summer 1952 – so evocatively and beautifully details life in the Bronx that you can almost see and smell the streets. DeLillo adds wry touches that play back into the book’s main themes, such as making minor characters garbage men, et al. 

In another section, Cocksucker Blues (named after the infamous Rolling Stones film), set in NYC in the summer of 1974, the city is choking under a hot summer marred by garbage strikes. Again, DeLillo brings the redolent streets alive with his vivid portrayals ; it’s worth noting that he’s a born-and-bred New Yorker who lived there through the periods he depicts. Later, another character, self-styled garbage guerrilla Jesse Detwiler (a DeLillo invention, as far as I can ascertain) – once arrested for stealing J. Edgar Hoover’s trash – opines that cities rise on garbage, buried debris increasing through the decades, but that garbage has its own momentum and it will eventually push back. DeLillo scatters gems like these throughout the pages like big sly winks to his readers.

We are first introduced to a fiftysomething Nick in 1992. The Phoenix-based executive is driving into the Arizona desert, on a whim, after doing business in Houston, prompted by an article in Time magazine on the renowned American artist Klara Sax. As a 17-year-old Nick had a brief fling with Klara, who was then married to teacher Albert Bronzini, who taught chess to Nick’s younger brother Matthew. Now in her early 70s, Klara and her team of neophytes are working on a massive project nicknamed Long Tall Sally, involving the painting of decommissioned Cold War-era bomber jets (“We’re painting these old planes as a celebration,” she tells an interviewer, “… but how do we know for sure the crisis is really over? … is the whole thing a plot to trick the West?” One of the bombers, Long Tall Sally herself, makes an appearance much later in the novel in her original guise. And thus the circular nature of the narrative continues.

Klara becomes a recurring character throughout the book, transforming from 1950s wife-and-mother in the Bronx into toast-of-the-city painter. During the aforementioned interview, Klara recognises herself in a photograph taken at writer Truman Capote’s famous Black and White (masked) Ball in NYC in 1966; she is standing alongside J. Edgar Hoover.  In a subsequent section, Hoover, along with his (real-life) deputy Clyde Tolson, get ready for this ball; DeLillo pokes fun at the long-held rumours about the notoriously secretive Hoover and his sexuality, mischievously describing the FBI boss’s delight at his custom-made leather mask with its S+M undertones, and recounting how he tilts mirrors in adjoining rooms so he can watch his friend Tolson dress and undress.

I could go on and on, but that would only make this post about as long as the book itself (827 pages, in case you were wondering). But I’ll make my summation short. 

Underworld is a masterpiece. You should read it. No – you must read it. It is fucking brilliant.

That is all.

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