Don DeLillo Breaks The Silence

Should a revered author be speaking at this point in his long career?

Don DeLillo, who will turn 84 in a few weeks, has published a new piece of fiction in the October issue of Harper’s, “Time to Destination,” an extract from his forthcoming novel The Silence. How does it measure up? Is excitement about the novel justified?

An uneven writer

DeLillo’s vast body of work is uneven, but when he’s good, he’s sublime. You always know when you’re reading DeLillo. His prose goes down like a light punch spiked with something potent. It’s a spare, sinuous instrument that hints and darts and prods and illuminates the outlines of ominous things, and at times rises to the heights of lyricism. The weirdness builds and builds.

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In November 2009, the New Yorker ran a short story by DeLillo, “Midnight in Dostoyevsky,” which I consider one of the best short stories ever written. It’s an odd tale about a pair of young men in a snowy and desolate college town, not unlike Ithaca or Syracuse, who speculate about a mysterious stranger wandering around the streets in what looks like the type of parka called an anorak. He doesn’t acknowledge or speak to them.

Don DeLillo (photo: Joyce Ravid)

Who is the weird stranger and what’s his personal history? Is he American or foreign? Is he as sinister as he looks? If he’s evil, where did the forces that shaped him begin or end? The growing urge that one of the young protagonists feels to confront the stranger and ask him a few questions seems to come from a place in the human psyche, a need to try to isolate and make finite and comprehensible the pervasive and amorphous evil and disorder of an unfathomably bizarre universe.

DeLillo’s work since then includes the interesting novels Point Omega and Zero K, which don’t depart too much stylistically with early-millennium works such as The Body Artist, Cosmopolis, and Falling Man or indeed with any of the major works of his mid-to-late career.

Authors who’ve been writing for a long time face the challenge of keeping their work fresh and inventive. It’s hard to avoid lapsing into self-parody. The problem is that DeLillo doesn’t always seem to know when he’s trying too hard, and in some of his novels, like 1988’s Libra, his efforts to evoke a sense of ineffable weirdness can seem strained. In what is generally an engaging novel, we get just a bit too much of rain-slick streets and objects mysteriously moving in and out of alleys and characters saying portentous things and the refrain “There is a world inside the world.”

If nothing else, DeLillo holds the distinction of turning out more unfilmable novels than perhaps any other contemporary writer. Roger Ebert said of one effort, David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, that you couldn’t pay him to sit through it again. À Jamais, a 2016 French adaptation of the short novel The Body Artist, earned this rave review from The Hollywood Reporter: “It palpably aspires to be a classily highbrow kind of romantic ghost story with psychological thriller overtones, but falls laughably short of its goals.”

Trying too hard to be relevant?

As recently as this month, I praised DeLillo’s 9/11 novel, Falling Man, in an article for a different publication. To his credit, DeLillo tackled a weighty and controversial subject, 9/11 and the war on terror, without committing the cardinal sin of many writers nowadays: trying so hard to be relevant and important that they end up producing something close to a TED Talk shoddily disguised as a novel. Falling Man, for the most part, works, thanks to its believably drawn characters and its ground-level view of their daily interactions and struggles.DeLillo

It wouldn’t be fair to try to judge DeLillo’s upcoming novel on the basis of the three thousand or so words that comprise “Time to Destination,” but, having read it carefully, I’m not too optimistic. If the author were Joe Blow rather than Don DeLillo, it’s not clear, on the merits of this little piece, that Harper’s would have touched it. “Midnight in Dostoyevsky” this is not.

It’s a quirky and basically plotless account of a couple on a transatlantic flight bound for Newark, availing themselves over and over of the amenities and the sophisticated readouts that state the plane’s altitude and speed, the local time in various world cities, the number of miles and the amount of time left until their destination. “Time to New York” is a leitmotif. The couple really want to get where they’re going and seem to need almost constant reassurances that they’ll be there soon enough.

On one level, it’s an exercise in DeLilloian opacity, impervious to interpretation, but as I thought back to an article I’d read recently, a grim possibility occurred to me. DeLillo is not the above-the-fray novelist of my ideal. He’s on record in a recent Guardian article as having criticized Trump, as any good socially acceptable writer nowadays must do, and having speculated about a path to recovery and what the country might look like when Trump is packed and gone. The couple in “Time to Destination” are a bit like some enlightened progressives, shut up in their self-validating social media cocoon, enjoying all the comforts their cozy hermetic environment provides as they commiserate with each other and check every hour, every minute, every second, how much time remains before they reach their destination: a post-election world free of Trump and everything he stands for. Are we there yet?

If DeLillo is holding up the couple for satire, then well and good. He might just restore my faith in him. But it seems equally possible that the couple are meant to be sympathetic and the author may have unconsciously channeled his own and other progressives’ attitudes into a scenario that ostensibly has nothing at all to do with what I’m positing. The novel is out next month, and DeLillo will surely have plenty to say about it.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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