DeLillo has since stayed small

Michael Gorra has a thoughtful essay on Don DeLillo’s late style in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. Ostensibly a review of DeLillo’s latest, The Silence, Gorra’s essay considers DeLillo’s body of work against some of his peers and literary forebears, arguing that DeLillo’s finest novels were composed and published in his “full middle age”:

The core of DeLillo’s oeuvre is the series of five novels that began with The Names (1982) and ended with Underworld; the intervening volumes are White NoiseLibra, and Mao II (1991). Those books look permanent, with the last of them a summa; his early books in contrast seem preparatory, though they each have their admirers. To put it another way, DeLillo was born in 1936, and what matters are the novels he wrote in full middle age, with Underworld appearing when he was sixty. Dickens was dead by that age, Balzac too, but DeLillo has had a third act in the six short books he has written in the new century. These novels rarely take age itself as their topic, as both Saul Bellow and Philip Roth did in their own late work; yet still they are the product of age.

Gorra then points out that “DeLillo’s recent books are significantly different from the great novels of his middle age, and that difference is worth thinking about.” Gorra continues:

…after Underworld his sense of novelistic form, of what he needs to make a narrative, did change. Probably there was no good way to follow that novel, with its distorting size and scope, a book that began with Frank Sinatra and ended with the disposal of nuclear waste. How could one compete with that—compete with oneself? DeLillo wisely didn’t try. There would be no new plateaus, no arc of increasing achievement. Underworld’s successor, The Body Artist (2001), was deliberately slight, a novella-length exploration of the uncanny that makes me think of “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” It was as if a composer who’d only written symphonies had suddenly switched to a tinny atonal song, and DeLillo has since stayed small. His late books have been at most a quarter of Underworld’s length, with The Silence the shortest of them, and always with fewer characters and a more sharply limited focus.

There’s a thorough and very generous review of The Silence embedded in Gorra’s essay—he’s far, far more generous than I was toward the book (at one point Gorra attests that he “can’t tell the difference between a few randomly chosen sentences from his recent work and a passage from Libra. Reader, there’s a difference). And while his phrase “DeLillo has since stayed small” is not overtly pejorative, I think it nevertheless captures the general sense that DeLillo’s late works—or late style—simply does not meet the quality of his work in the eighties and nineties. (Gorra admits that “Cosmopolis seems to me almost unreadable” — I concur.)

Others have found crystalline beauty in DeLillo’s late work, and in The Silence in particular. I found it a depressing read, not for its content necessarily—okay, maybe for its content, but also for its form, its prose. I concur with the first sentence of Gorra’s conclusion, but not with the second:

Some pages in this book verge on self-parody, and I doubt it will draw any readers who haven’t already invested themselves in DeLillo’s work, in the half-century of risks his voice has taken. But those of us who have will find something poignant and terrible in this strange unbroken silence.

Read Michael Gorra’s essay on DeLillo, “The Sense of an Ending,” here.

Don DeLillo’s new book The Silence is a slim disappointment

Don DeLillo’s latest fiction The Silence is set on Super Bowl Sunday in the year 2022. The story, such as it is, takes place over the course of a few hours, focusing primarily on five characters who gather in a New York apartment to watch the big game. The quintet is unable to see the game though because, for reasons unknown and never really explored, contemporary communication systems and technologies fail worldwide. No email, no internet, no teevee.

“Seemingly all screens have emptied out, everywhere. What remains for us to see, hear, feel?” the narrator—or maybe one of the characters—wonders. Other characters insist that what’s happening is the beginning of World War III (The Silence opens with Einstein’s famous quote about World War IV being fought with sticks and stones). “The drone wars,” another quips blankly, worrying—is he worrying?—that the “drones have become autonomous.”

We’re told of chaos, panic, and “small riots” in response to this unexplained failure of technology, but DeLillo doesn’t show us any of the pandemonium, let alone evoke much of a sense of anxiety about the titular silence. Instead, the book plods along a course of droll ennui and flat utterances that I suppose are meant to sound profound. “What if we are not what we think we are?” asks a character, and if DeLillo is pulling our leg with such banal dialogue, there’s little in The Silence to signal that the book is open to an ironic reading.

Instead we get blank references to Einstein, deep time, mass surveillance, and Jesus of Nazareth, as if these would-be motifs can signal meaning (or, like, lack of meaning, man!?) on their own. Characters repeat buzzwords; a dude riffs on microplastics; another treats his auditor to a pre-coital definition of capitalism. “The woman realizes she is still in the thrall of cryptocurrencies” is a real sentence in this book.

The rhetorical moves here have long been staples of DeLillo’s toolkit, but the verbal obliquity of The Silence feels anemic. The sentences are thin, the book is thin. The ideas don’t stick. Or rather, the insights that DeLillo offers here seem, well, obvious.

I used the verb plods a few paragraphs above, which doesn’t seem like the obvious choice for such a skinny book. I checked out an ebook of The Silence from my library and read it in about 75 minutes. (I am not a fast reader.) DeLillo’s publisher Scribner lists the hardback at 128 pages. I imagine the font must be huge and the margins pretty wide. What I read could’ve fit neatly into 40 or 50 pages of a mass-market paperback. (The hardback retails for twenty US dollars.) The American cover insists that The Silence is a novel, but it sure doesn’t read like one.

Despite its brevity, The Silence plods. For a book with a plane crash, a football game, casual sex, planet-wide panic, and the maybe-advent of WW III, The Silence is notably listless. Perhaps that’s by design, but if so it’s a design I didn’t care for.

Reviews and descriptions of DeLillo’s last novel Zero K (2016) deterred me from reading it, even though I liked its predecessor Point Omega (2010) more than many reviewers. I was intrigued by The Silence’s brevity, hopeful that DeLillo might pack the narrative with rich sentences and deep thoughts. I was hoping that he might bring some of the magic that we got in Pafko at the Wall (1992), a wonderful novella that DeLillo repurposed as the prologue for Underworld (1997).

But no. The Silence is a slim disappointment, a scant morality play whose thinly-sketched characters speak at (and not to) each other liked stoned undergrads. At least it’s short.