The Silence by Don DeLillo

This is Don DeLillo’s new novel, his 18th. It gives the impression that DeLillo, who is 83, has run out of gas.

Five characters confront an unexplained crisis in 2022, during which civilization, at least the parts that rely on electricity or the internet, suddenly stops. A man and woman on a flight from Paris to Newark run into trouble. They eventually make their way to a New York City apartment where two friends, a husband and wife, live. The husband was planning to watch the Super Bowl. The only other character in the novel is the wife’s former student.

Nothing much happens after that. The characters express their fear and confusion by talking in brief bursts, sentence fragments, all sounding the way Don DeLillo often writes (which I usually enjoy). From two randomly chosen pages:

“The semi-darkness. It’s somewhere in the mass mind,” Martin said. “The pause, the sense of having experienced this before. Some kind of natural breakdown or foreign intrusion. A cautionary sense that we inherit from our grandparents or great-grandparents or back beyond. People in the grip of serious threat.”

And:

She thought for a moment. “The painted ceilings. Rome,” she said. “The tourists looking up.”

“Standing absolutely still.”

“Saints and angels. Jesus of Nazareth.”

“The luminous figure. The Nazarene. Einstein,” he said.

It’s a very short book, only 117 pages, with plenty of white space on every page. Maybe it would work as a play. It’s formatted like a typewritten script in what looks like Courier New. There are only five characters. They talk a lot. The play would only need four sets (an airliner, a clinic, an apartment, a street). I’m sorry to say it doesn’t work as a novel.

Ratner’s Star by Don DeLillo

A book editor named Gerald Howard believes Don DeLillo deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature:

By every metric that we use to measure literary greatness—including overall achievement, scope and variety of subject matter, striking and fully realized style, duration of career, originality and formal innovation, widespread influence here and abroad, production of masterpieces, consistency of excellence, pertinence of themes, density of critical commentary, and dignity in the conduct of a literary career—Don DeLillo, now eighty-three, scores in the highest possible percentile. 

He says DeLillo’s case for the Nobel rests on four propositions:

1. “No American novelist has examined more broadly and with greater insight and originality our postwar history and experience”.

2. “The astonishing and unmatched string of four midcareer masterpieces: White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), Mao II (1991), and Underworld (1997). [All] permanently lodged in the record of American literary greatness.

3. DeLillo’s influence:  [His] work is currently available in forty-three languages and/or countries. He is a true global phenomenon. . . . In the anglophone and domestic spheres, there is no writer more revered than DeLillo.

4.  “The dignity and nobility that he has brought to his vocation as a novelist. . . . He eschews almost all the encumbrances and strategies of a postmodern literary career”.

I’ve read the four novels mentioned above and several of his others. DeLillo is clearly worthy of the Nobel Prize. It’s too bad the Swedish Academy marches to its own peculiar set of drums.

Since DeLillo has a new novel coming out (The Silence), The New York Times interviewed him this month. They gave the interview this title: “We All Live in Don DeLillo’s World. He’s Confused By It Too”:

A permeating paranoia. Profound absurdity. Conspiracy and terrorism. Technological alienation. Violence bubbling, ready to boil. This has long been the stuff of Don DeLillo’s masterly fiction. It’s now the air we breathe. For nearly 50 years and across 17 novels, [he] has summoned the darker currents of the American experience with maximum precision and uncanny imagination.

The interviewer asked a question about DeLillo’s 1976 novel, Ratner’s Star. It’s not a well-known book, possibly because it’s been called “his weirdest novel” and “famously impenetrable” (which must mean “famously” among a small group of readers and critics). A footnote to the Times interview says it’s an “intricately structured semi-sci-fi romp”. That was enough for me to get a copy and start reading (I had a copy years ago but it’s long gone).

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For the first 275 pages, Ratner’s Star didn’t seem impenetrable at all. It’s about a 14-year old math genius who (coincidentally) has won the Nobel Prize. He is invited to a secretive, well-funded installation where lots of brilliant, generally strange people are trying to decipher what appears to be a message from an alien civilization. DeLillo writes beautifully and the plot is interesting. Will young Billy Twillig (formerly “Terwilliger”) from The Bronx (where DeLillo is from) figure out what the message means? Does it mean anything at all? I liked this part of the book and its amusing conversations and technical explanations and foresaw no problem reading the rest.

Then the plot takes a detour. Billy descends into a cavern far beneath the installation with a small group whose purpose is to create a purely logical, universal language. They hope to use this new language to communicate with the alien civilization (assuming there are aliens out there). Since the little group’s purpose makes no sense, the novel’s suspense disappears. There is frequent stream of consciousness. The point of view suddenly changes from one character to another. There are tangents and long passages that feel pointless, as if DeLillo is treading water. Billy becomes a secondary character.

Something eventually happens in a section called “A Lot Happens”. Something else happens in the next section, “I Sit A While Longer”. But between those two developments, a peripheral character spends several pages exploring a cave because he’s fascinated by bats and a journalist decides her manuscript’s many blank pages are fine because she knows what words belong there. The plot resumes in the final pages; before that there’s rough going. Anybody interested in DeLillo’s work should start elsewhere, maybe with one of the four novels that would justify giving him the Nobel Prize.

Pattern Recognition by William Gibson

William Gibson’s best-known novel, Neuromancer, was published in 1984. I read it back then and thought it was excellent. I don’t remember much about it, but if I close my eyes, what comes to me is an image of cyberspace as a set of large, colored boxes, some labeled with their corporate names (like IBM or Exxon). The young man or woman at the center of the story travels through this bizarre virtual reality, but I can’t remember why. It’s fair to say the novel was ahead of its time.

I’ve been tempted to read something else by Gibson through the years but never bothered. I guess I doubted he had more to say. Then recently I saw a positive reference to his 2014 novel, The Peripheral. I wanted some lighter reading so made a trip to the library (which now asks us to visit for no more than 20 minutes and doesn’t allow access to the restrooms). On the shelf next to The Peripheral was Gibson’s 2003 novel, Pattern Recognition. A blurb on the back cover said it was his best novel since Neuromancer

Pattern Recognition wasn’t as futuristic as I expected. It’s a story about a woman, Cayce Pollard, who is extremely sensitive to contemporary culture (circa 2003). She makes her living by telling her corporate clients what’s “cool”. Is the new logo they’re considering acceptable or not? She’s paid to give a “yes” or “no” answer, no explanation required. It’s not her usual kind of job, but she accepts an assignment to investigate a series of mysterious little videos that have been popping up on the internet (the people who obsess about it online call these videos “The Footage”). Complications ensue.

What also ensues are many, many references to the clothes Cayce wears and the restaurants she visits. One minute she’s in London, then she’s flying to Tokyo, then it’s Paris, and then New York, followed by Moscow, and back to London. Cayce uses her client’s VISA card to really get around. I got tired of reading about her jet lag and the cool neighborhoods she visits. (Did William Gibson visit the major cities of the world as his career developed? Is that how he acquired so many details about city life here and there?)

Pattern Recognition might have been a better book if the author gave more attention to The Footage, which is rarely described, and less to Cayce’s favorite jacket and the decor in her hotel rooms. Maybe The Peripheral will be better than Pattern Recognition. I hope it’s Gibson’s best since Neuromancer.

Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh and L.A. by Eve Babitz

After reading Eve Babitz’s semi-autobiographical novel Eve’s Hollywood last year, I wrote:

I’m glad her books are being reprinted. I’m looking forward to reading her second novel, Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., and a collection of her journalism, I Used To Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz. There are much worse ways a person could spend their time.

Slow Days, Fast Company, like her first novel, is a series of vignettes written in the first-person. “Eve” visits Bakersfield, Palm Springs and Laguna Beach. She is taken to a Dodgers game. She writes about Los Angeles when it’s windy and when it’s rainy. She hangs out with friends and lovers, none of whom are as interesting as “Eve” says they are.

The impression I got was that Eve or “Eve” exaggerates a lot. If Babitz used elements from her life, I bet she made them sound more glamorous or exciting than they were. If she made things up, she laid on too much glamour and excitement.

Slow Days was first published in 1977. This is from the back cover of the 2016 paperback edition:

Slow Days, Fast Compay is a full-fledged and full-bodied evocation of a bygone Southern California…. In ten sun-baked, Santa Ana wind-swept sketches, [Babitz] seduces us.

I Used To Be Charming, the collection of her journalism, might be better than Slow Days, but I bet she exaggerated there too. This time around, Eve failed to seduce.

“Watchmen” by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins

I used to update another blog every time I finished a book. I’d summarize the book and offer an opinion or two. An Ingenious Device For Avoiding Thought is still out there, but I’m going to discuss the books here now.

Watchmen is a 1980s comic book/graphic novel that deals with a bunch of caped crusaders, similar to Batman, in an alternate timeline in which America won the war in Viet Nam and President Nixon never resigned. There is one character with actual superpowers, the result of a horrendous accident. Watchmen has a terrific reputation:

“A work of ruthless psychological realism, it’s a landmark in the graphic novel medium.”—Time Magazine

“WATCHMEN is peerless.”—Rolling Stone

“Remarkable … the would-be heroes of WATCHMEN have staggeringly complex psychological profiles.”—New York Times Book Review

“Groundbreaking.”—USA Today

It was adapted for a movie in 2009 and an HBO series last year. I saw the movie and some of the TV series and was interested enough to get a copy of 2013’s deluxe, hardcover edition. I would finally see what all the excitement has been about.

I’m sure Watchmen would have been more interesting if I’d read the original twelve comic books when they came out in the 80s. Its “costumed adventurers” or “masked vigilantes” and their violent exploits would have been more novel back then.

Reading it in 2020, I was disappointed. It was good enough to keep reading, but overall it was repetitious and sometimes boring. There are two interesting characters (the dangerous, extremely intense Rorschach and the naked blue superhero with godlike powers, Dr. Manhattan) but too much of it has the feeling of a soap opera. The artwork is decent but the only reason I finished it (aside from a bit of Puritan work ethic) was that I wanted to see what one of the characters — said to be the smartest man in the world — eventually does to New York City. Recurring characters who hang out at a newsstand, an extended parallel story involving 17th century pirates and a troubled mother-daughter relationship were especially tedious.

So, that’s Watchmen, an entry in Time‘s list of the 100 best novels written since 1923 and, according to someone at the BBC, “the moment comic books grew up”. I guess you had to be there.

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