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).

Untitled

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.

Ulysses by James Joyce

Ulysses deals with a single day, June 16, 1904, in Dublin, the principal characters being Leopold Bloom, a salesman; his wife Molly, an opera singer; and Stephen Dedalus, a part-time teacher: 

Since its publication, the book has attracted controversy and scrutiny, ranging from an obscenity trial in the United States in 1921, to protracted textual “Joyce Wars”. The novel’s stream-of-consciousness technique, careful structuring, and experimental prose—replete with puns, parodies and allusions—as well as its rich characterisation and broad humour, have led it to be regarded as one of the greatest literary works in history; Joyce fans worldwide now celebrate 16 June as Bloomsday. [Wikipedia]

I’ve begun reading it a few times but never got past the first few pages. This time I tried something different. Before reading a chapter (or “episode”), I read the chapter’s summary on Wikipedia. I thought knowing in advance what was happening would make Joyce’s novel easier to read. This turned out to be true. But it didn’t make it easy enough. 

There is probably an annotated Ulysses available, but given the number of annotations it would need, it might weigh 40 pounds. I ended up skimming chapters and skipping others. If it was a normal novel, with a plot and character development, I would have missed too much. But the book’s central character buys sausage, wanders around Dublin, has lunch, has a drink in a pub, attends a funeral, bumps into acquaintances, watches girls at the beach, and so on. Most of the conversations or thoughts he has are only semi-understandable. Here is a typical moment:

Mr Bloom, strolling towards Brunswick street, smiled. My missus has just got an. Reedy freckled soprano. Cheeseparing nose. Nice enough in its way: for a little ballad. No guts in it. You and me, don’t you know: in the same boat. Softsoaping. Give you the needle that would. Can’t he hear the difference? Think he’s that way inclined a bit. Against my grain somehow. Thought that Belfast would fetch him. I hope that smallpox up there doesn’t get worse. Suppose she wouldn’t let herself be vaccinated again. Your wife and my wife.

Mr Bloom stood at the corner, his eyes wandering over the multicoloured hoardings. Cantrell and Cochrane’s Ginger Ale (Aromatic). Clery’s Summer Sale. No, he’s going on straight. Hello. Leah tonight. Mrs Bandmann Palmer. Like to see her again in that. Hamlet she played last night. Male impersonator. Perhaps he was a woman. Why Ophelia committed suicide. Poor papa! How he used to talk of Kate Bateman in that. Outside the Adelphi in London waited all the afternoon to get in. Year before I was born that was: sixtyfive. And Ristori in Vienna. What is this the right name is? By Mosenthal it is. Rachel, is it? No. The scene he was always talking about where the old blind Abraham recognises the voice and puts his fingers on his face.

Joyce portrays the character’s minds as extremely busy, much busier than a normal human being’s. When conversations occur, it’s as if they were taken down verbatim, except with strong Irish accents and no context provided. But I did enjoy the language, and being privy to the character’s inner musings, and the lively portrayal of Dublin. 

Selections from Ulysses would be enough for most readers. But one chapter I did read word for word was the last. That’s the famous chapter in which Molly Bloom considers her life and expresses her passions while lying alone in bed. Some of her sexual thoughts are very explicit, which must have been part of the prosecution’s case in the obscenity trial. Unfortunately, Joyce decided not to include punctuation in Molly’s soliloquy. That makes it hard to tell when one thought ends and another begins. But getting to know Molly from the inside was still a pleasure.