Don DeLillo’s Underworld is chock-full of jaw-dropping literary set pieces that it is surprising to find such a low key moment, when a Jesuit priest names the parts of a shoe to his student, staying with you longer than the rest, probably because it brings you back to the elemental basics of good writing after the dizzying operative heights of Pafko at the Wall.
DeLillo said of the novel, “I think it’s simply because the novel took me so long to write that I discovered things, I observed things that I simply missed in other novels, that could not be accommodated by other novels. It had to be here – everything in my own sense, in my own narrow sense, everything is here, in this book.”
The non-linear narrative of the novel, which jumps around time like a sagacious grasshopper, from the 1950s to the 1990s, is as broad a panoramic sweep of American history as any other great novel of the 20th Century. But it’s not DeLillo’s ambition that brings you back to Underworld time and time again, impressive as it may be. You come back for the language. Sentence for sentence, Underworld may be the most absorbing novel of the late 20th Century, containing within its towering 827 pages the highest density of great sentences anywhere. Take a look:
“Sometimes I think the education we dispense is better suited to a fifty-year-old who feels he missed the point the first time around. Too many abstract ideas. Eternal verities left and right. You’d be better served looking at your shoe and naming the parts. You in particular, Shay, coming from the place you come from.”
This seemed to animate him. He leaned across the desk and gazed, is the word, at my wet boots.
“Those are ugly things, aren’t they?”
“Yes they are.”
“Name the parts. Go ahead. We’re not so chi chi here, we’re not so intellectually chic that we can’t test a student face-to-face.”
“Name the parts,” I said. “All right. Laces.”
“Laces. One to each shoe. Proceed.”
I lifted one foot and turned it awkwardly.
“Sole and heel.”
“Yes, go on.”
I set my foot back down and stared at the boot, which seemed about as blank as a closed brown box.
“There’s not much to name, is there? A front and a top.”
“A front and a top. You make me want to weep.”
“The rounded part at the front.”
“You’re so eloquent I may have to pause to regain my composure. You’ve named the lace. What’s the flap under the lace?”
“I knew the name. I just didn’t see the thing.”
He made a show of draping himself across the desk, writhing slightly as if in the midst of some dire distress.
“You didn’t see the thing because you don’t know how to look. And you don’t know how to look because you don’t know the names.”
He tilted his chin in high rebuke, mostly theatrical, and withdrew his body from the surface of the desk, dropping his bottom into the swivel chair and looking at me again and then doing a decisive quarter turn and raising his right leg sufficiently so that the foot, the shoe, was posted upright at the edge of the desk.
A plain black everyday clerical shoe.
“Okay,” he said. “We know about the sole and heel.”
“And we’ve identified the tongue and lace.”
“Yes,” I said.
With his finger he traced a strip of leather that went across the top edge of the shoe and dipped down under the lace.
“What is it?” I said.
“You tell me. What is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s the cuff.”
“The cuff. And this stiff section over the heel. That’s the counter.”
“That’s the counter.”
“And this piece amidships between the cuff and the strip above the sole. That’s the quarter.”
“The quarter,” I said.
“And the strip above the sole. That’s the welt. Say it, boy.”
“How everyday things lie hidden. Because we don’t know what they’re called. What’s the frontal area that covers the instep?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know. It’s called the vamp.”
“The vamp. The frontal area that covers the instep. I thought I wasn’t supposed to memorize.”
“Don’t memorize ideas. And don’t take us too seriously when we turn up our noses at rote learning. Rote helps build the man. You stick the lace through the what?”
“This I should know.”
“Of course you know. The perforations at either side of, and above, the tongue.”
“I can’t think of the word. Eyelet.”
“Maybe I’ll let you live after all,”
“Yes. And the metal sheath at each end of the lace.”
He flicked the thing with his middle finger.
“This I don’t know in a million years.”
“Not in a million years.”
“The tag or aglet.”
“The aglet,” I said.
“And the little metal ring that reinforces the rim of the eyelet through which the aglet passes. We’re doing the physics of language, Shay.”
“The little ring.”
“You see it?”
“This is the grommet,” he said.
“The grommet. Learn it, know it and love it.”
“I’m going out of my mind.”
“This is the final arcane knowledge. And when I take my shoe to the shoemaker and he places it on a form to make repairs—a block shaped like a foot. This is called a what?”
“I don’t know.”
“My head is breaking apart.”
“Everyday things represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to your progress. Quotidian things. If they weren’t important, we wouldn’t use such a gorgeous Latinate word. Say it,” he said.
“An extraordinary word that suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace.”