Don DeLillo: ‘Conspiracies have always been on my mind’
The US novelist talks about his latest book, set in a world hit by a tech blackout
Don Delillo: “I wondered what would happen if power failed everywhere.” Photograph: Jean-Christian Bourcart/Getty Images
Over the course of 17 novels, Don DeLillo’s fans have come to feel that he is able to tune into vibrations far beyond the perceptions of other writers – and thus that his unnerving prescience is all part of the very spooky deal. But even by his standards, the timing of his new book, The Silence, is extraordinary.
He finished writing it in March, just as New York, the city where he was born and still lives, went into lockdown – at which point fact and fiction fell, with unseemly haste, into a disconcertingly tight embrace. Set in 2022, it depicts a world in which the memory of “the virus, the plague, the march through airport terminals, the face masks, the city streets emptied out” is still fresh – and thus one where people are half expecting the new “semi-darkness” that falls in its opening pages, the sidewalks once again silent, and the hospitals all full.
This time, however, the cause is not a pandemic, but a dramatic “loss of power”. Is it, as one character theorises, the Chinese? Have they “initiated a selective internet apocalypse”? No one knows, largely because they have no means of knowing. The lines are dead. The screens are blank. The technology is bust. Even the conspiracy theorists are going to find their audience tricky to reach now.
It’s just fiction that happens to be set in the future
So that we might talk about this unlikely achievement, it is arranged that DeLillo will ring my landline – that “sentimental relic” as he calls it in The Silence. Is the thought of hearing the disembodied voice of Don DeLillo in the middle of a pandemic reassuring, or is it terrifying? In the days running up to our conversation, I can’t quite decide about this. But when the call is finally made – I stand up to take it, and somehow never manage to sit back down – he does not sound at all like a portent of doom.
“Oh, I don’t see it that way,” he says, gently, when I ask if we should read the novel as a warning, our dependence on technology having only grown in the age of Covid-19. “It’s just fiction that happens to be set in the future. I guess it all started with the idea of the Super Bowl.” Images have always been important to him, and with this book, it was the idea of a blank screen that lodged itself in his mind. “I wondered what would happen if power failed everywhere, nothing functioning … a universal blackout.”
He makes it sound so simple: domestic, almost – as if the battery in a remote simply needed changing. But in The Silence, this loss of power is far from ordinary. In a Manhattan apartment, Diane Lucas, a retired professor of physics, her husband, Max Stenner, a football fan and gambler, and her former student, Martin Dekker, sit in front of the TV awaiting the arrival of their friends, Jim and Tessa, who are flying in from Paris. The five of them will watch the big game together. But then … the pictures shake and distort, and silence unaccountably falls. It is, as Martin puts it, almost as if the screen is hiding something from them.
I’m not older and wiser. I’m just older and slower
The attempts of these individuals to reassure one another in the moments after their phones die are not only halfhearted (they’re New Yorkers, and a certain pugnacious stoicism sets in immediately). Once fear begins to stalk them, any such efforts are also doomed to failure. As Max stares at his screen, unable to tear his eyes away from its expansive greyness, Martin repeatedly quotes Albert Einstein, a haunting that culminates with the line: “I do not know with what weapons world war III will be fought, but world war IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” (This is also the book’s epigraph.) Meanwhile, in Jim and Tessa’s business-class cabin, smaller screens are also darkening. No amount of canapés can help them now; no soft blankets nor expensive moisturiser.
The Silence is a short book. It runs to just 117 pages, a brevity that is underlined on the page, where DeLillo’s text occasionally resembles the pages of a late play by, say, Edward Albee. But don’t be taken in. Hard labour was involved. “There were many distractions,” he says. “But I’m also much slower. I’m not older and wiser. I’m just older and slower.”
He attributes its germination to two things. “One, I was on a plane from Paris, and it was unusual – at least for me. There were overhead screens below the luggage bins, and for most of the flight I sat there looking at them. I found myself taking out an old notebook that I carry with me, and noting details, writing in the language in which the words appeared on screen: outside air temperature, time in New York, arrival time, speed, time to destination, and so forth. I looked at this notebook when I got home, and I began to think in terms of what became the book’s first chapter.
“The other important element was a volume I’ve had for some time: the 1912 manuscript of the special theory of relativity by Albert Einstein. It’s an oversized book, and much of it is too technical for me. But I read what I could comprehend in the English translation, and then I began looking at other volumes concerning Einstein’s life and work – and I found he was entering the narrative. He was beginning to occupy my mind. Both these things accompanied me into The Silence.” Is the connection between the two of them time, which is never more paradoxical than during a long flight? “Yes. Time is a powerful matter: elusive, as you say.”
The Silence is a horrifyingly resonant book, and not only because the reader is bound to see themselves in its pages, pathetically trying and failing to read their emails. The streets, quiet at first, and then, as panic sets in, crowded. The shameful notion that we might more easily be able to live with a deadly virus than without our mobile phones. The hearsay and supposition that soon tip into conspiracy theory.
All these things make it feel like the weird apotheosis of at least one aspect of DeLillo’s art: a crystal ball between hard covers. “Well, let’s see what happens in two years,” he says, mildly. “I hope it doesn’t happen. I don’t know when this [the pandemic] is going to end. Nobody does. There are predictions, but nobody believes them.”
People can effectively broadcast what they’re thinking, and it becomes unending
But, yes, my suggestion that a virus, whether biological or technological, connects directly to the preoccupations of earlier novels isn’t wrong: “I can’t quite explain why, but this has always been in my mind. Conspiracies. I guess it reached its summit when I started thinking about a novel concerning the assassination of President Kennedy [Libra, which came out in 1988]. The idea of a conspiracy, rather than a lone assassin, was extremely potent and powerful in those years in this country, and it lasted several decades. I still have a shelf of books – they’re looming behind me now – about the assassination, and many of them are based on the possibility of conspiracy, a position that has never been totally resolved.”
Covid-19 is a lone assassin: a killer that can only be defeated by a bullet fired by science. But it, too, is prey to this stuff: all the dark talk of China, of secret laboratories and withheld vaccines. “It’s enormously complex,” he says. “In part, because technology is so prevalent in everybody’s lives. People can effectively broadcast what they’re thinking, and it becomes unending.”
In White Noise, the 1985 novel that won him a National Book award and with it a whole new readership, an “airborne toxic event” caused by an industrial accident was also a metaphor for television; for “the virulent ubiquity of the media spore”, as Martin Amis put it. In The Silence, the loss of power is perhaps a metaphor for our addiction to technology, for the way that even as the internet purports to connect us, it isolates us, unyoking us from the people and places we love best.
Not that DeLillo is such an addict, or even a man in recovery. “It’s not at all [needy],” he says, laughing, of his own relationship to technology. He isn’t entirely enjoying this call – it didn’t help that we were at first cut off, almost as if we were enacting one of the scenes in the book – and yes, he still works on a manual typewriter: “I use an old secondhand Olympia, which I bought in 1975. What I enjoy about it is that it has large type, and this allows me to look clearly at the words on the page, and so to find a visual connection between letters in the word, and words in the sentence – something that has always been important to me, and which became more important when I was working on The Names [a novel from 1982, set in Greece and the Middle East, that is ostensibly about flashy business types in perpetual motion, but is really concerned with both the vagueness and specificity of language]. I decided then: just one paragraph on a page so that the eyes can fully engage.
“I should also tell you that, because I work this way, and because I have gotten slower, I have half a ton of first-draft material buried in my closet from this small novel.” Does its size bother him? Isn’t it the case that a major part of its power lies in its concentration? “Well, I hope so,” he says. “I would say that I put everything I had into this book.”
Is the desire still there? Is he still driven to write? “A good question. I do ask myself, at the age of 83, what can be next, and I don’t have an answer. At the moment, I’m talking to translators and others about this book. When that’s over and I have, in theory, a clearer mind, we’ll see if anything else is happening up there. But yes, with The Silence, I had the same desire to hit the keys, to look at the words, to keep going no matter how long it takes.”
DeLillo was born in the Bronx in 1936, the son of Italian immigrants; his grandmother never learned English. After a degree in “communication arts”, he worked as a copywriter at the ad agency Ogilvy & Mather – a job he quit to become a writer. Americana, his first novel, was published in 1971, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that people began talking about him as one of the greats, in the same breath as, say, Thomas Pynchon.
The publication of White Noise in 1985 placed him, as the Pulitzer prize-winning American writer Richard Powers put it in his introduction to the 25th anniversary edition of the novel, “at the centre of contemporary imagination – I can think of few books written in my lifetime that have received such quick and wide acclaim while going on to exercise so deep an influence for decades thereafter”.
David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, where DeLillo’s stories have often appeared, calls him a master. “If there are books that describe our age better than Underworld, White Noise, Libra, and Mao II, I really don’t know what they are. He sees deeply into who we are and, at the same time, anticipates who we are becoming. He is an astonishing, unique literary intelligence.”
He has a sense of the fragility of technology like no other novelist, says Colm Tóibín
“He caught something that was in the air,” says Irish writer Colm Tóibín, who has known him for almost 30 years. “A sort of paranoia, a sense that things were ending, an idea that nothing was not connected, and that much was a kind of illusion. The illusion interested him, and he set about finding a tone that would match an undercurrent in the world, a secret energy, that had replaced reality and had become a reality that was more like echo than sound.
“His sentences needed to be bathed in irony because so many words and phrases had been used in advertising and speeches, so much language had been debased. I think he has a sense of the fragility of technology like no other novelist and a fascination with technology’s power and limits. He is not a psychological novelist, or a novelist who writes about feelings, but one who has a sense of reality that is hidden and can only be summoned up by offering hints and clues and images. He has an extraordinary command over not only tone but half-tone, not only voice, but the thing that was almost apparent, almost said.”
His impact on other, younger writers has been considerable: Rachel Kushner, Jonathan Lethem and Dana Spiotta have all spoken of their debt to him.
DeLillo himself sees no connection between the billboards of his Bronx childhood, his career in advertising, and his fiction. He believes that his attachment to images – both the look of the words on the page and the pictures that sometimes float into his mind – can be traced back to all the movies he saw while he was working on Americana, especially those in black and white (“He really knows about film,” says Tóibín).
Was it terrifying, quitting his job to become a novelist? “No! It was a great relief. I was living in an apartment where my rent was only $60 a month. I’d been able to save money. I woke up one morning, and I said: I’m quitting today, and that’s what I did. I have a clear memory of it. I started, very slowly, working on my first novel, and after two years I determined that even if no one ever published the book, I would keep going. And so I did, and I got lucky – the first publisher to see it took it – and I’ve been lucky ever since. I am a kid from the Bronx. There were all sorts of challenges. But I felt I was doing OK, and that I would keep on doing OK as long as I did what my intuition dictated.”
I still go back to the Bronx to see the guys I grew up with, those who are still alive
Perhaps his intuition also tells him that fame, as applied to the novelist, interferes with the reception of the work itself. Certainly, his reticence is adept, carefully covered with grace and an old-fashioned politeness. He won’t offer any opinion about the forthcoming election. “My lips are sealed,” he says, though I detect a smile in his voice. All he will say about the pandemic is that he and his wife, Barbara Bennett, remained in New York during lockdown and feel they have been luckier than most – and that it continues to “astonish” him that he puts on a mask as well as his hat every time he steps out of the door: “It’s very cinematic.”
But ask him about the American dream, as I do just before he hangs up, and he softens a little. Does he believe that it is over? “I wasn’t thinking of this book in those terms, but the older I get, the more I consider those beginnings: my parents, what they had to face. We lived in a house in the Italian Bronx. We were three generations: 11 people. But it was all we knew. I still go back to the Bronx to see the guys I grew up with, those who are still alive. We meet up in the old neighbourhood, and have a meal, and talk and laugh and remember.”
For the first time, he sounds lighter, emotion – or at any rate, some kind of energy – at last discharged. “Oh, it’s wonderful,” he says. “It’s really wonderful.” He wishes me luck and then – click – he disappears. – Guardian
The Silence is published by Picador