- 30 Oct 20
A Short But Sharp Shock From One Of The Heavyweights
In an ironic confluence that would have Alanis Morissette’s eyebrows leaving her face altogether, there was a power cut the morning I received Don DeLillo’s latest novel in the post. I knew there was something amiss when the house alarm woke me up with an odd clang. “Mains Fault”, the display read, and my worst fears were confirmed when the light switch failed to provide its usual response. No heat, no light, cooked food soon to go foul in the freezer, and, of course, my phone was about to die too. It’s bad enough that we’re, for the most part, locked down, but with the power off as a further insult on top of injury? Read a book, you might condescendingly howl. I have, obviously, but it’s a tricky manoeuvre in the dark.
Anyway, panic over, the ESB had it sorted in a few hours, but what if it had been something more serious? Which brings us to DeLillo’s latest novel – I say novel, 116 pages is closer to a short story really, or ‘novella’ if you wasted your college years studying things of little practical value – The Silence; the power goes out and, as far as we know, it isn’t coming back.
We open on a long-haul flight from Paris to New York. Jim and Tessa are in business class, Jim incessantly reading out the flight info on the overhead screen while Tessa, a poet, is making notes about the trip. Their chat is peppered with inane well-heeledisms about the in-flight food and other prosaic ponderings. They’re hoping to make it back to New York for a Super Bowl party with friends. Massive turbulence is followed by a bang and Tessa asks “Are we afraid?” It turns out they should be.
Waiting for them are Diane and Max, in front of their big screen TV as Super Bowl LVI – we’re in 2022 – is about to kick off. Max plans to watch it all, the commercials as well as the game. Joining them is Martin, an Einstein-obsessed former student of Diane’s. The screen starts to shake and then goes blank. Computers and mobiles are dead too, even the “sentimental relic” of the landline has gone silent. There’s a snatch of unrecognisable dialogue from the blank screen. Is it Russian, Chinese, or perhaps even extra-terrestrial? Martin starts babbling about black holes, event horizons and atomic clocks. Max goes out to speak to the neighbours he has never met. There are suggestions of a sunspot, strong magnetic fields, and the belief that we’d all cling to, that “the experts will make adjustments.” “Is this the casual embrace that marks the fall of world civilisation?” Diane casually asks. Nobody laughs.
Meanwhile, in another part of town, Jim and Tessa have somehow survived the crash landing relatively unscathed. They make their way from the airport, passing a jogger, another sentimental relic from a different world. Back to the apartment, and Max is now commentating on the game he can’t see, complete with advertisements and side-line interviews, unable to let it go, while Diane muses on the millions of blank screens, wondering “what happens to people who live inside their phones?”
And there’s the rub. As Tessa and Jim find out in the clinic they visit, everyone has a story - they were stuck in an elevator, they were on a stalled subway – and when the lights blink and go out, no one knows how permanent this aberration is. DeLillo completed the book in March, back when COVID-19 was still more a rumour than anything else, but it reeks of where we find ourselves now. The characters remember the COVID outbreak from their perch two years in the future and acknowledge that the fear of the power going down is something which haunts the periphery of human consciousness.
“Seemingly all screens have emptied out, everywhere. What remains for us to see, hear, feel?” It’s a fair question. Max reckons this is World War III, while Diane free falls along time’s arrow past Finnegan’s Wake, but it is the epigraph from Martin’s idol Einstein, his famous quote about World War IV being fought with sticks and stones, that sums up what DeLillo is driving at here. As the nameless clinic administrator points out, “the more advanced, the more vulnerable.” And you thought we were in trouble now? Things could get worse, a lot worse.
There’s no getting around the fact that this is a slight volume – you could employ it as a bookmark should you choose to revisit a vast masterwork like Underworld - but DeLillo is still worth your time, and, here at least, he won’t keep you long. Read it while the lights are still on.