It would be easy, trite even, to call Don DeLillo’s latest book, The Silence, prescient and timely, however one wouldn’t be entirely wrong to do so. Nominally, the book covers a huge, world-changing event taking place one Superbowl Sunday in the near-future, where all power and connectivity is lost, apparently everywhere, across the planet. In a moment the world has changed, perhaps forever, in ways nobody yet knows.
Tessa and Jim are on a flight to New York, where they plan to join their friends to watch the Superbowl, when the plane’s power goes out. Their friends, Max and Diane, are in their apartment watching the pre-game. Max is preoccupied with his bet on the game. Diane is preoccupied with their guest, her ex-student Martin. Martin is preoccupied with his studies of Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity. The power goes out there too.
DeLillo has flirted with kind of thing before, a major catastrophic event, with the Airborne Toxic Event in White Noise. And here, with a book written before the pandemic, he describes how we might cope with disaster. But, as always, it is the small details, the stuff between the gaps that is more interesting. The “event” itself doesn’t matter as much as the way we all deal, or fail to deal, with a world falling apart somehow.
In the last year I have noticed far more the banal effects of a pandemic than the dramatic. The chapped hands from all the washing. The new dances we make around each other in the supermarket. The weird juxtapositions of social media – mass death one moment, popular memes the next. The queasiness of seeing people stood closely together on television.
Here, in the air, much of what the couple said to each other seemed a function of some automated process, remarks generated by the nature of of airline travel itself. None of the ramblings of people in rooms, in restaurants, where major motion is stilled by gravity, talk free-floating. All these hours over oceans or vast landmasses, sentences trimmed, sort of self-encased, passengers, pilots, cabin attendants, every word forgotten the moment the plane sets down on the tarmac and begins to taxi endlessly toward an unoccupied jetway.
A lockdown, quarantining, isolating. Sitting on a plane. Similar sensations. We spend hours in apparent comfort, all we need to hand, but it is quietly unsettling knowing you cannot leave. Time blurs. Losing sense of hours, days. A time that could be well-spent, but circumstances that make that very difficult. What will we remember?
You vanished into footnotes.
The obvious, the apparent, the clear-cut, are none of those things anymore, and perhaps never were. But maybe there is something in the detail, in the little things. In life, in writing, there is the search for clues, search for subtext, search for the answers, and to feel they are more likely in the margins. When things are hidden. When things are said, or written, with the guard down. When the numbers are given a second look. Reading between the lines.
It is satisfying. It feels more authentic than the official statement, the best-selling novel, the polished artefact. The joy of interpretation. To come to our own conclusions on the conclusions of others.
There’s a fear of falling into conspiracy theory, but then isn’t everything conspiratorial, theoretical? We seen enough to know the official line can’t always be trusted. But let us not just accept the unofficial line either.
I find in books, music, other things, there is a lot to be found on the less well-trodden paths. And those paths are easier to find now. More marginalia is published, I think. There are demos, outtakes, sketches. Worlds to get lost in.
“Einstein,” she said. “The manuscript.”
“Yes, the words and phrases that he crossed out. We can see him think.”
“The nature of the handwritten text. The numbers, letters, expressions.
And in those margins perhaps we find the real person, or at least get a little closer to them. There is beauty or truth or challenge in what is said, but also in how it is said. How it was put together, and how it was pulled apart. The deleted passage. The tired, scribbled note. The hum of an amp. The garbled melody. The cut scene. The alternate take. The preparatory drawing. The first draft.
It is reassuring that perfection doesn’t come fully formed. And reassuring that others make the wrong choices too, to see where they might have gone, perhaps should have gone. There is more than the Official Record.
And isn’t it strange that certain individuals have seemed to accept the shutdown, the burnout? Is this something that they’ve always longed for, subliminally, subatomically?”
Acceptance seems a sensible approach when the world is out of your control, when the world is out of control. And, yes, then there is something beyond acceptance – those who may not have wanted these specific changes, but are happy with the consequences of them. Let’s not pretend the old world worked for us all. It didn’t.
And yet, it doesn’t quite sit right. Is this acceptance, and this longing, OK? Should we settle for this? Should we be aware of the dangers of what we have fallen into?
I’m not sure I can work out any of that. It is more a case of getting by, getting through. Amid all of this there are some things that are better for me – I’m lucky to have a good home, and to enjoy being there. But that doesn’t make it right for everyone. It doesn’t mean this kind of world is right for me. There is still the sense of fear and the sense of loss.
Max Strenner is trying to look bored.
I think before I would have made the assumption that in a lockdown boredom would be a key feature. And I don’t think that would be a bad thing. Boredom can be productive. In a hyper-connected world we don’t really have the opportunity to be bored anymore. Everything is available. Boredom, as was, was a productive state. It gave time for thinking, creativity, dreaming. It also generated the kind of frustration, anger even, to do something about it – to make something of that thinking, creativity, dreaming. I get why someone would want to look bored.
But boredom seems a luxury we don’t have. Or at least I don’t. There’s too much to do, and even when there isn’t too much to do there is still too much happening, outside. The constant stream of news, speculation, terror. I know it would in some ways be healthy to switch off, but my survival instinct tells me it is better to know, to be prepared. Perspective is impossible. Everything can seem immense, historic, and by the next day seem trivial, or overshadowed by the next development. So I need to try to find out everything, just in case.
Will we look upon now as simpler, easier times, I wonder?
“Is it natural at a time like this to be thinking and talking in philosophical terms as some of us have been doing? Or should we be more practical? Food, shelter, friends, flush the toilet if we can?”
I don’t know how you think, let alone write, during a time like this. How do you get a handle on something of this scale? How do find some sort of philosophical thread to something so impossible to really understand? Practicalities are hard too. I stand in the supermarket forgetting what I needed to get.
Max is not listening. He understands nothing.
Not listening. Understanding nothing. Silence. To just wait for the TV to flicker back on and for everything to be back as it once was. To just be. Not listening. Understanding nothing. Silence.