In the midst of a never-ending pandemic straining the bonds of civil society comes Don DeLillo’s latest novel, The Silence. It, too, sheds light on what happens when what we take for granted is suddenly absent. But in this brief book -- it is an easy read in one brief sitting -- the bonds that snap are electronic: suddenly, the power grid fails, and on Super Bowl Sunday, of all days.
DeLillo is a recently acquired taste. Years ago, I flirted with him, but the light he shed on was too indirect. I wanted the pulse of John Dos Passos or the narrative thumping of Sinclair Lewis. DeLillo is subtle light reflected off the surface of our lives. I think I needed to grow up some to appreciate him.
So now I am old.
And I am still perplexed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, an event that took place when I was in elementary school, and which has, from time to time and perpetually, haunted me. The sense of things not being what they appear, or that the official narrative was unreliable, spiked some during the aftermath of the 2020 election and the fractious run up to Inauguration Day. Somehow, I kept thinking about Lee Harvey Oswald.
So I read DeLillo’s fictional account of Oswald’s life and participation in the assassination, Libra.
A simple, one-word review should suffice: Wow!
Oswald was a loner, as are we all in the deep, dark nights that define us. Was he also a dupe of folks whose sinister purposes depended as much upon chance as on design? In an era of easy conspiracy theories, it’s easy to set one’s imagination lose and conceive of subtle purposes improbably coalescing around the achievement of a plan. But live long enough, and you will learn that most of life is far from the accomplishment of pre-determined ends: The gods in control? Chance and circumstance; the Good Lord Chaos has altars everywhere.
I found Libra convincing. Oswald craved significance, and a place in history. Oddly satisfied to have found one at the wrong end of a rifle one fine day in November, 1963, he was quickly disabused of the smug conceit about having, finally, arrived. Jack Ruby took care of that. Why did it all happen? What does it all mean?
Why does anything happen? What does anything, really, mean?
The point of good literature is to turn our gaze inward, to make us look at the fragile springboards on which we stand. Each of us, whether knowingly or not, recreates worlds out of nothing. We are meaning making things.
So what’s the meaning of the electronic world that connects us, obsessively, to one another and to an endless stream of data? A flyer sits in his first-class seat, obsessively reading data about the plane’s speed, the miles to his destination, his altitude, the speed of the flight. He sits next to his wife, a poet, but he cannot shed the electronic detritus on the screen in front him.
A man sits, awaiting his guests’ arrival and the beginning of the Superbowl. He’s a bettor. He knows the game, the odds, the sportscaster’s every cliché. His wife listens, but doesn’t really hear. She’s a retired professor, one of her former students, a precocious sort of guy with a thing for Einstein, prattles on, always with a remark, an observation, and narrative thread tying one thing to another.
The five worlds on display are disrupted, suddenly. The power fails. There’s no longer a screen to view, but there is a flight to complete. The Super Bowl is not on display, but the narrative game must go one. The student keeps talking; the weary professor observes it all with a wistful longing to connect – perhaps she shouldn’t have retired so soon?
The novel covers but a brief snapshot in time, the transition from a time of connection to the cusp of the disintegration of the electronic web in which the characters reside. How they navigate the transition from chatter to silence is the focus. It all happens so quickly, there’s no time for despair, or even panic. It’s an odd book that way. You read it, put it down, and then find yourself asking, what, really, was the point of it all?
I’m hoping that question won’t be my final bit of sentience. But who knows?
I’m also hoping that DeLillo is busy at work on something related to the pandemic. It’s been nearly a year of this now, and there’s no end in sight. I sort of feel like Oswald these days, wandering around wondering about my place, all the while resting on my electronic crutches.