Viewed retrospectively, from the end-point – or something like it – of his career as a published novelist, the early work of Don DeLillo resembles the ladder in Wittgenstein’s Tractatus, which was briskly dispatched once its purpose had been served. For Wittgenstein, the image evoked the kind of ruminative discourse he had used in order to show that ruminative discourse was nonsensical and must be banished. The six novels that DeLillo published between 1971 and 1979 constituted a similar process.
A series of experiments in the portrayal of American institutions – TV, sport, banking, espionage – these books suggested he wasn’t an absurdist or a satirist, let alone a social realist, but something closer to a deist. DeLillo was preoccupied with the search for connections as a human impulse, and not a product of the so-called Age of Paranoia. Then DeLillo’s need to write this slightly modish sort of fiction expired. With The Names (1982), the Athens-set novel that marked his ladder-kicking moment, he started devoting himself almost exclusively to the notion that, as one of the characters puts it, “even random things take ideal shapes”.
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Without going so far as to disown anything he has written, DeLillo was surely making a point when he chose to omit from his 2011 collection The Angel Esmeralda the first eight stories he had published and instead to begin with “Creation”, from 1979, a work that seemed to raise and then shelve any anxieties about his new direction. At one point, the narrator, gazing skywards from a Caribbean hotel swimming pool, sees clouds and a bird, and thinks, “The world and all things in it.” Then he reminds himself that the hotel was really “a modern product”, before deciding that he isn’t in the mood for doubt: “It was special, yes. The dream of Creation that glows at the edge of the serious traveller’s search.”
That last move – past self-consciousness, beyond deflective irony – was one of many turning points in his presentation of the questing impulse, the long journey that began with David Bell, the narrator of DeLillo’s first novel Americana (1971), recalling, “Quincy’s wife and my date smiled at each other’s peace earrings,” and ended with the languorous reflection on the word “peace” in Underworld (1997). That proved to be the last hurrah – in fact, the final syllable – of the heroic period that also included, in order of chronology and importance, White Noise (1985), Libra (1988), and Mao II (1991).
DeLillo’s achievement in those novels was to make his inventorising impulse – the immersion in what he called “the thick lived tenor of things” – the basis of an abstract aesthetics. In his 1977 novel Players – the strongest harbinger of what came next – the narrator talks about “the intimacy of distance”. DeLillo hit upon an approach that appeared to invert that formula, finding distance in intimacy; looking at things so closely that he creates a sense of detachment.
But in recent years he has been at risk of abandoning, even undermining, this gift – of delivering only the distance of distance – and the six books he has produced since Underworld form a loose mirror-image of those he wrote before The Names. DeLillo’s taste in titles shadows, to some degree, the arc of his activities: from something at least recognisably real (Great Jones Street; Running Dog – the name of a magazine) via the sort of specificity that symbolises something grander than itself (White Noise) to the bluntly generalising (Cosmopolis, Falling Man) and concertedly bare (Point Omega, Zero K).
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Even if DeLillo’s latest novel, The Silence – a long story, really, at 15,000 words – marks a return to the definite article, it’s one that alludes to a lack, or vacuum, a retreat from stimuli. DeLillo presents a world that has already been tweaked and tailored to his needs – it’s 2022, but not the 2022 we would ever have known – before an unspecified cataclysmic event brings an end to all technology.
The novel begins, in the dying moments of the old status quo, with a couple on board a flight to Newark. Jim, we’re pointedly informed, is “tall, yes, but noncommittally so” and experienced “no trouble meeting his need to be nondescript”. His wife, Tessa, is a poet defined as not-American in the vaguest terms (“Caribbean-European-Asian origins”). Meanwhile, awaiting their arrival in a Manhattan apartment, their friends, Max and Diane, and another guest, a young physicist named Martin, are watching the 56th Super Bowl: “Commercials, station breaks, pre-game babble.”
DeLillo provides a number of hints as to where his preferences lie. Jim compares the kind of talk that occurs within the artificial space of an aeroplane to “the ramblings of people in rooms, in restaurants”. A debate unfolds as to whether Rome is tacky or holy. When Diane finds herself describing Max’s running commentary on the interrupted football game as “a kind of plainsong” – a piece of traditionally DeLilloan thinking – she immediately tells herself: “This is pretentious nonsense.” DeLillo’s apparent willingness to accept the sort of dichotomy that he long ago resolved – exalted vs earthbound, rigour vs intuition – is corroborated by his use, not for the first time, of a bald bipartite structure.
Through all the shifts and changes in his work, DeLillo has been consistently drawn to the abstracted state. But it no longer provides a point of contrast. “I liked the way she held to her silence,” David Bell reflects in Americana. “In that movie-set atmosphere she seemed a librarian-mystic.” In The Silence, when Martin – the latest in the long line of chatty seers – announces, “Time to sit and be still,” he is speaking in a land shorn of distractions, a city that all of a sudden has become an ideal environment for dwelling. It’s no great feat to be a mystic in a wasteland.
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The growing sensation is of DeLillo marking his own homework, agreeing with himself. Noncommittal tallness and a nondescript identity are followed by non-erotic undressing and a nowhere stare, along with a more pronounced reliance on a single piece of negative vocabulary. When Martin explains that he wishes he could walk with Einstein on the Princeton campus, he adds: “Saying nothing.” When the turbulence on Jim’s flight becomes severe, he says “nothing”, and when Max tells Martin to ask Diane how long they have been married, he says “nothing”. Instead of doing his usual patter when pouring a glass of bourbon (“Aged ten years in American oak”), Max says “nothing”. Towards the end, Martin argues that the individual is nothing, but Max understands nothing of what he says.
The novel’s opening line of dialogue is a single word, “Look”. A tempting retort would be that there’s nothing to see here, but that is close to being literally true. When Martin, gazing out the window, intones, “Crowds dispersed. Streets empty,” it reads almost like a taunt; a reminder, from the echo chamber that constitutes this writer’s bizarrely Beckettian late period, of the muse he abandoned, and of a time when he deployed his peerless gifts of divination to show us everything we had missed about names and noise and the world. l
Picador, 128pp, £14.99
This article appears in the 28 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning