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While writing this newsletter I listened to:
John Cale - 'Paris 1919'
Mickey Newbury - 'Looks Like Rain'
Alison Cotton - 'Only Darkness Now'
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Acedia
week of 01 December 2020
 

Hi,

I spent this evening reading The Silence, Don DeLillo's new novel. I tried to take it slow, but it's just about 100 pages, so that was somewhat difficult; its a blink-and-you-miss-it experience, not just because of its brevity, but how desiccated it feels as narrative fiction.

I should be used to this by now; The Silence can easily be grouped with the other super-slim, skeletal novellas that have interleaved his longer works for the past two decades: The Body Artist and Point Omega, both of which I loved for different reasons. The former is a pensive, beautiful book, one of the rare examples of DeLillo attempting to inhabit feminine consciousness, and it felt to me almost necessary after the hefty bloat of Underworld (and again, I'm not talking about that novel's page count so much as the ideas within it). Point Omega meditates upon time, space, war, and death: common territory for the man, but it's balanced by what's basically some art criticism about an installation, and the resulting work has an elegant, placid breath (not breadth) to it. 

The Silence, by comparison, felt at first like it would fall far short of these other two books. This could be DeLillo-by-numbers, sprinkling absurd and detached snippets of conversation with the expected thematic touchstones (mass media, accelerated capitalism, postmodern space, yada yada yada). It's set on the night of the Super Bowl in 2022, it starts on a flight from Paris to New York, and its characters fill the first chapter with seemingly banal conversations and the recitation of meaningless facts.

But DeLillo has earned the benefit of the doubt from me, more than just about any other writer, as I've come to practically worship him over the course of my adult life. That adoration came slowly, however, and many of his novels left me cold at first, the 'slow burner' types that continued to bang around in my brain long after I finished reading them. It was only a couple of years ago that I looked back with some perspective and realised just how amazing of a writer he really is, beyond the oft-remarked upon prescience (bordering on outright clairvoyance) of his ideas. Perhaps DeLillo has emerged as the ideal writer for this point in my own career, when I have turned almost completely away from aesthetic investigations in favour of examining systems, structures, the mass mind, and the effects of media.

The Silence is a science-fiction novel, like his earlier Ratner's Star, though it's not a space opera by any stretch of the imagination. The only thing that 'happens', and I don't think this is much of a spoiler, is an unexplained occurrence that brings about the sudden end of functional technology to the entire world at once. I wrote my master's dissertation in 2006 on what I called 'unarticulated disaster', as I was interested in the avoidance of description, the possibilities of ambiguity, and the meaning of repression. The Silence would have been a prime cut to dissect had it existed then, but now perhaps the device has become so common –– almost the default approach to disaster –– that I no longer find the concept so fascinating. Is this just the activation of the toxic cloud of White Noise, his most famous book, made kinetic while sprinkling in a bit of American football (recalling End Zone, perhaps his funniest and most accessible one)?

With this being a Don DeLillo novel, nothing proceeds the way one would expect it to. Which is to say, the apocalypse, if it happens at all, happens off-page, or maybe not at all. No violence, no crowds in the streets, not a single confrontation with mortality or mass hysteria; it's like an anti-Mao II. Instead we get a group of five educated, privileged people sitting in a NYC apartment and speaking, not necessarily with each other, but at each other. It proceeds through a series of short, increasingly mad chapters (reminding me a little bit of Robert Downey Sr.'s little-seen mindfuck Pound) before sputtering to an inconclusive halt.

And that's it, at least on the surface. Is this a half-formed novel, a sketch stretched too far, a bit of easy self-parody ... perhaps the man is slipping a bit (being that he's 84)? But even an hour after finishing it and trying to write something here, I'm already starting to feel that afterglow that his work tends to ignite. The barebones style of this can be generously read as refinement rather than omission, recalling the icy minimalism of later James Ellroy novels (though with, of course, extremely different content). I am long past the need to empathise with his characters, or even to see them as characters; they're rarely more than ciphers for whatever ideas are there to be pored over, and that's why I've always given him a pass for usually narrating through a series of interchangeable white men. This is an ensemble novel containing five characters, but the first one we are introduced to has a classically DeLillean name, Jim Kripps, and a wife who is a person of colour, a description that feels clumsily tacked on and bears little relevance to anything, though the fact that five characters get any personalties at all with such a short page count is probably some sort of accomplishment.

'Screens go dark' is cheap sci-fi, a hackneyed Black Mirror episode waiting to happen, and on the surface this could be too obvious, like an old curmudgeon critiquing the kids and the Way We Live. The cover of The Silence depicts a tilted, glowing screen, but the less obvious theme so masterfully employed here is our addiction not to the devices themselves, nor to the information within, but to the interface. The loss of tactile interaction when all the screens go dark causes a paralysis, an absence of connection that I could feel somehow between all of the babble about Albert Einstein and capitalism and the NFL, as inverted in its non-physicality as that one Ray Bradbury story set on the rainy planet is physical prose. Anyone can write a novel about the information age, but it takes a genius to write such a short work about the way information flows through us, and what it takes away. And I suspect that time is going to extract more from this as I continue to think about it.

MEDIA INTAKE

This is the customary media intake section of the newsletter, though I'm never sure if I should include it when I open with a long bit about media. There's not been a whole lot of intake; I have been extremely busy on some paid projects, some efforts to seek payment for potential projects, and other avarice-driven tasks. Over the weekend I did take some breaks, and watched two films from the mid-80s, the teen drama Reckless (1984) and Haskell Wexler's forgotten second film, Latino (1985). Both, while flawed, had their moments, and I was struck by how the former really sold its earnestness (and how any teen film today is overly winking and knowing), and how the latter made me want to watch some of John Sayles's work again, as it's been years. Both are worth seeking out, and fun, or 'fun' in the case of Latino, which does portray the Reagan administration's atrocities in Nicaragua in an appropriately brutal manner.

OTHER STUFF

This is the first newsletter in awhile and I know that in earlier issues I expressed a certainty that Trump was going to win, so some of you probably expect me to eat crow here. Sure, whatever, I was wrong about that, but in many ways I think my cynicism has been justified: anyone who doesn't see this election as a catastrophic disaster for the Democrats is delusional, despite getting the White House. I don't need to echo the same leftist viewpoint that's all over Twitter and the podcasts, but I stand by my prediction that the selection of Biden by the party elites during the primaries will go down as one of American history's biggest mistakes, and the campaign's failure to offer anything at all besides 'I am not Trump' was clearly a massive downballot liability, blowing their chance to get the Senate. Today, the news that he plans to appoint Neera Tanden to a cabinet position (with Rahm Emmanuel also rumoured to be getting some job) is especially disheartening. I was hoping that we could at least wait until maybe February to actively start opposing this administration, but I guess it has to start now.

But I should keep politics out of this newsletter. Wait, should I?  

I am writing this tonight partially to try to get myself back into the mood of writing in general, as I'm feeling the motivation creep back. Or as we should say in 2020, it's time maybe to once again create some 'content'. We'll see.

Thanks for reading (if you made it this far), and stay safe.

John
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