One day in the Aughts, a New York Times Book Review colleague DJR Bruckner, known to everyone as Don, wandered to my cabin. Don was very tall, stooped slightly, had enormous hands and feet, and had been on Nixon’s enemy list. He was visibly trembling. He pointed to the right. “If I have to read another 2,000-word review of a John Updike book,” he said, “I’ll throw myself out the window.” I left out his profanity.
Unlike Updike, Don DeLillo did not stun us with literary overproduction. His sleek new novel “The Silence” is his 17th since his first “Americana” almost 50 years ago. But through him I sense a little what my former colleague felt about Updike: I have a strange disinterest in reading (or conjuring up) another searching piece of thought about his work. I’m writing this out of my own window.
It is hardly that DeLillo is unworthy of examination. He’s our Paranoia and Anxiety Award winner, a man who took full advantage of the mood of his age and is as important at his peak as any living writer. It is a plum task to check it out, and critics (and writers who stand in the moonlight as critics) are encouraged to do so. Everyone longs to fire the big guns, just as every actor longs to play Hamlet. The very ambitious reviews merge in my head.
Since I don’t want to read any more of these reviews, I’ll try not to write any. Maybe I can pretend we’re sitting at a bar, you and I, six feet apart, out on the patio somewhere. We can leave the big settlement outside, like a Great Dane that we briefly chained to the bike rack. Would that be okay (taps the microphone)?
DeLillo’s new novel is a flawless disaster novel with apocalyptic overtones. It’s a Stephen King novel written by Philip Glass instead of Chuck Berry. A plane from Paris to Newark lands. Two of the main characters are on this flight and survive. Power grids have failed all over the world. Aliens? The Chinese? The joker? QAnon?
DeLillo, who caused a chemical “airborne toxic event” in “White Noise” (1985), is an old hand in such scenarios. With the blackout, a man comments in lines that could have appeared in almost any of DeLillo’s books: “The semi-darkness. It’s in the common mind somewhere. The break, the feeling of having experienced this before. Some kind of natural breakdown or outside intrusion. A warning sentiment that we inherit from our grandparents or great-grandparents or beyond. People who are seriously threatened. “
“The Silence” will be slightly retired on Super Bowl Sunday 2022 going forward. Players take note: DeLillo predicts the Titans will play the Seahawks. Two wealthy couples, old friends, plan to gather together to watch the game on a super-screen television in a Manhattan apartment.
The good news about “The Silence” is that it is fascinating and that DeLillo’s syntax at 83 is more prickly than ever. I’m just as drawn as anyone to stories of doomed airplane flights and hints of the end of the world, and DeLillo got me mostly excited. I was never sorry to keep this novel.
The bad news is that “The Silence” reads the first two chapters of a disaster novel, alongside a certain black box and black turtleneck presumption that is a hallmark of DeLillo’s late career. With 117 pages, it’s over before it starts. It’s like a filmmaker putting two couples in a secluded old farmhouse for the weekend, turning off the electricity, calling on the dogs of hell, and then rolling the credits.
“Half the world is renewing its kitchens, the other half is starving,” wrote DeLillo in “Zero K” (2016). The characters here are on the side of the kitchen that renews life. The soccer game is a forum for DeLillo to approach a familiar topic: the whims of mass consumption.
The game is played at the Benzedrex Nasal Decongestant Memorial Coliseum. Diane, a physicist, says of her husband: “Max just keeps looking. He becomes a consumer who had no intention of buying anything. One hundred commercials in the next three or four hours. “
Diane and Max are waiting for Jim and Tessa to arrive from Paris. Your flight loses power in midair, just as William Hurt’s plane did scary after the crash of a villainous atomic satellite in Wim Wender’s “Until the End of the World”.
Until the crash landing, DeLillo is an urban observer of the flight rituals. Jim and Tessa are in first grade discussing the pronunciation of the word “scone”. He writes about how nobody remembers what they say on airplanes. “Much of what the couple said to each other seemed to be a function of an automated process that arose from the nature of the air traffic itself.”
DeLillo’s comment on the flight reminded me of a sentence from Elif Batuman’s book “The Possessed”: “Air travel is like death: everything is taken from you.” Jim and Tessa survive the crash landing of their plane with only minor injuries. they manage to get a little implausibly through the dark streets to the Super Bowl party.
“The Silence” was completed before the arrival of Covid-19, but psychologically fits our current moment well. We are, DeLillo writes, “we are all escorting one another through the sleep disorders of this unimaginable time.”
When the world comes to an end, Ian McEwan wrote in Saturday (2005), hot showers will be one of the first things to go away. DeLillo writes about what we would miss most now. “Think about the millions of blank screens. Try to imagine the disabled phones. What happens to people who live in their cell phones? “
What’s going on out there? Sunspots? Bioweapons? Has anyone cut the submarine cables? “Dark energy,” writes DeLillo, “phantom waves, hack and counterhack.” The lack of knowledge gives way to fear and paranoia, traits DeLillo has long burned into his fiction. There are strange harbingers. Terrible imaginations are slowly becoming apparent on the negative plates of the hearts and thoughts of his characters.
A fifth guest at the Super Bowl Party is Martin, a former student of Diane. He is an expert on Einstein’s physics and adds another note to the doo-wop choir of alienation, a basso cantante. “His universe became ours,” he says of Einstein. “Black holes. The event horizon. The atomic clocks. See the invisible.”
Martin turns Einstein’s thinking on a spit between the twin fires of his imagination. The epigraph of this novel comes from Einstein: “I don’t know what weapons the Third World War will be fought with, but the Fourth World War will be fought with sticks and stones.”
“The Silence” is a small, strangely smooth DeLillo novel. In terms of his career, it’s not a waterfall, it’s a spray. Posterity will be kind to him, but relatively little attention is paid to this production.
The novel does a kind of disc check to find out what’s in our nocturnal thoughts. Existence is a cursed stock we’ve invested in, suggests the author. His best writing here, however, reminds us of how he puts it and how you and I order another round from our gaiter server: “Life can get so interesting we forget to be afraid.”