Our Manhattan trio are enjoying the Super Bowl on TV when the power mysteriously disappears, disrupting not only the match but the plane conveying their expected guests (happily, Jim and Tessa survive, duly arriving at the party).
The cause of the disturbance is opaque: Germ warfare? Cryptocurrency? ‘‘[A] selective internet apocalypse’’?
‘‘Is this,’’ Diane asks, ‘‘the casual embrace that marks the fall of world civilisation?’’ ‘‘The casual embrace’’: a very particular phrasing (then again, all of DeLillo is a particular phrasing) suggesting the incomprehensibility of failure itself, particularly in its late-capitalist American iteration. Systems are collapsing, but we are so enveloped in them we cannot perceive it – even if we did, we probably wouldn’t know what to do about it.
In this, as ever, DeLillo’s subject remains the same: the search for ‘‘lost systems in the crux of everyday life’’. Like Bret Easton Ellis, underneath all the hip contemporaneity, a curiously old-fashioned humanism is discernible, seeking out organising principles (football in End Zone, maths in Ratner’s Star).
The only true north lies in modernity’s aggregate detail, which DeLillo remains adept at cataloguing (plane conversation is described as an ‘‘automated process, remarks generated by the nature of airline travel itself’’; you wonder sometimes if DeLillo carries a notebook scribbled black with these kind of riffs – his modernity stanzas, his late-capitalist couplets).
In the original galley copies of The Silence, a stray line about COVID-19 found its way in, smuggled by a rogue editor. Apparently, someone hoped to make the book seem more contemporary (DeLillo excised the offending reference).
Whoever it was would have been better off picking up the occasional infelicities that were left behind. At page 39, Tessa reflects of Jim’s occupation, ‘‘Why was this so reassuring?’’; 10 pages later, Diane looks at a blank screen and thinks, ‘‘She could not understand why this was reassuring to her.’’
One thing is clear: it is not reassuring to the reader.
There is a recurrent tendency in late-period DeLillo to invoke such rhetorical questions. They are typified by a distressing banality: ‘‘What happens to people who live inside their phones?’’; ‘‘All our lives, all this looking. People looking. But seeing what?’’ It is a tic that hardly appears in the early work. Unfortunately, it afflicts his more recent novels with discouraging frequency, like some poor guest being repeatedly trotted out on Q&A.
‘‘When the novelist loses his talent, he dies democratically, there it is for everyone to see […] the shitpile of hopeless prose.’’ This is Bill Gray in Mao II, running from his own failed novel. Thankfully, DeLillo is not Gray – not yet. His power isn’t diminished, exactly (the strength of language remains irrepressible); but it does feel straitened, zen koanic to the point of vanishing.
How does DeLillo feel about all this? For more than 20 years, he has been saddled with the accusation of not producing anything to rival Underworld, his magnum opus, despite the myriad global cataclysms that have occurred since 1997 (many of which felt tailor-made for DeLillo’s brand of zeitgeist cartography). The Silence could almost be read as a cheeky shout out to James Wood, who in 2000 wrote: ‘‘There are many enemies, seen and unseen, in Underworld, but silence is not one of them.’’
This critic (he doubts he is alone) yearns to wield such power over an author’s output. Trapped in ‘‘the rooted procedure’’, the glittering paranoias and anxieties of modernity, DeLillo can only travel hermetically inward.
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