I am a sentinel, here from a foray to the front lines of the old guard to relay that shit is not looking good out there. New novels from Don DeLillo and Martin Amis, two of the remaining dons of the literary scene of the 1980s, are out within a week of each other, like some last blast of “Remember when?” just before the 2020 election further propels us into a new realm of reality. Amis has written a novel so interested in Amis that its cover — a black-and-white portrait of, you guessed it, Amis — feels less like a postmodern joke and more like a warning sign. DeLillo, whose work is usually our national harbinger of future calamities, has written a disaster thriller that forgets to thrill. These aren’t novels, meant for wide consumption and interpretation — they’re diary entries, fixated on personal proclivities, let loose on an unwitting public. If you’re looking to the old guard for innovation, you’re in for a disappointing reading season.
DeLillo’s The Silence is downright skinny, only 116 pages, with typeface and margins a middle-schooler might use to pad his term paper. It’s set on Superbowl Sunday, 2022 — the Titans versus the Seahawks. One couple, Jim and Tessa — well-to-do, somewhere beyond middle age, otherwise vaguely drawn — are on a flight back to Newark from Paris, headed to watch the game with another couple, Diane and Max, and Martin, Diane’s 30-something former grad student, in their Manhattan apartment.
Inexplicably, Jim and Tessa’s plane plummets from the sky, and on the TV in Diane and Max’s living room, “images onscreen began to shake. It was not ordinary visual distortion, it had depth, it formed abstract patterns that dissolved into a rhythmic pulse, a series of elementary units that seemed to thrust forward and then recede. Rectangles, triangles, squares.” The power goes out. Nobody knows exactly what might have caused a plane to surrender to gravity at the exact moment the electrical grid went kaput, but The Silence is full of theories.
The rest of the novel follows Jim and Tessa as they make their way from the wreckage — “A crash landing. Flames … Wing on fire” — to a medical clinic and then through the city to their friends. Meanwhile, Max sits in his armchair facing the blank TV and chants his own versions of the predictable one-liners that football announcers gas out to accompany the game (“This team is ready to step out of the shadows and capture the moment”). Diane paces behind him, postulating about what particular breed of villain is behind the electrical failure. Martin spouts lines from Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity and endlessly tosses out phrases that we’re meant to understand represent the malignancy of technology: “cryptocurrencies,” “wireless signals,” “countersurveillance,” “data breaches.”
From here, The Silence digresses, and I mean this quite literally, into a series of overlapping, stream-of-consciousness monologues. One character drones, “From the one blank screen in this apartment to the situation that surrounds us. What is happening? Who is doing this to us? Have our minds been digitally remastered? Are we an experiment that happens to be falling apart, a scheme set in motion by forces outside our reckoning? This is not the first time these questions have been asked. Scientists have said things, written things, physicists, philosophers.” Gathered in Diane and Max’s living room, waiting out the disaster they envision on New York’s streets, they all turn towards Martin, who babbles like a possessed droid: “He speaks of satellites in orbit that are able to see everything. The street where we live, the building we work in, the socks we are wearing. A rain of asteroids. The sky thick with them. Could happen anytime. Asteroids that become meteorites as they approach a planet. Entire exoplanets blown away.” This is a murky soup of fears, a subReddit for undereducated conspiracy theorists come to life. And from there, nothing much happens.
What makes The Silence such a letdown is that if the future is coming for us — and it is — it’s DeLillo who I most expected to nail the tenor of how that feels. This novel is ostensibly about the effects a rupture in our digital connections might have, how we’d do if our fingertip lifelines went dead and we were left to dwell in uncertainty about our government, our safety, our survival. This is the man who brought us White Noise’s infamous “Airborne Toxic Event,” a menacing cloud that activates a host of worries about the dangerous molecules invading our bodies. He created an entire vocabulary for how Americans worry. The absurdity of fear and the fear of absurdity have always gone hand in hand in his work, and even when he’s misfired in the recent past (Cosmopolis, Point Omega, Zero K), there’s been a level of slicing specificity that only DeLillo can deliver. But here, the metaphors are like wrecking balls. DeLillo is so obsessed with what his characters might theorize about the disconnecting world that he forgets they might feel some things, too. They’re malfunctioning holograms, sputtering their lines, supposed avatars from the future who fail to pass themselves off as human.
Amis, that former enfant terrible and tagalong baby brother of Saul Bellow, Philip Larkin, and Christopher Hitchens, has always preferred to root around in the past, and the autobiographical Inside Story (cheekily subtitled “How to Write”), is more than an excavation, it’s a 560-page rehashing of his life story from the 1970s onward. And admittedly, Amis’s life has been rather eventful. He flits about from topic to topic — talking over anti-anti-Semitism with Bellow; wondering whether Larkin, rather than novelist Kingsley Amis, might be his real father; riding first-class in the Eurostar to Prix Mirabeau with Hitchens; screwing a bounty of apparently gorgeous and Barbie-figured women. Interspersed are some of his writing tips, if anyone came for that.
Does all this sound familiar? It ought to, because much of Inside Story is regurgitated from Amis’s other work, especially his memoir Experience. He admits as much: “If you’ve read my novels, you already know absolutely everything about me. So this book is just another installment, and detail is often welcome …” If you’re just landing on this planet and want to learn about the crew of white, male, self-obsessed writers who dominated the Western literary scene in the second half of the 20th century, here you go. But if you thought that Amis, now 73, might look over his wild life with fresh eyes, you’d be laughably wrong.
He especially hasn’t evolved when it comes to recognizing that women, too, might have brains and creative talent. He notes that as a 34-year-old literary critic he was “an old hand at processing American writers,” meaning “Gore Vidal, Kurt Vonnegut, Truman Capote, Joseph Heller, and Norman Mailer.” The “modern masters” of painting? “Lucian Freud, Francis Bacon, David Hockney, Patrick Procktor.” He brings up Jane Austen to point out that there is no sex in her novels, and wonders where she would “find the language or even the thought patterns of sex?” He briefly engages on Virginia Woolf to call her second-rate. Muriel Spark “is the very deftest of writers,” but “can quickly exhaust your powers of retention.” Iris Murdoch, a personal friend, receives a small, admiring tribute, but there is no mention of the other great female novelists of his era. No Nadine Gordimer, no Shirley Hazzard, no Joan Didion, no Anita Brookner, no Doris Lessing, no Toni Morrison. He does, however, “like[s] old Norman [Mailer]” and saves the fact that the notoriously cruel novelist stabbed his wife in the chest, and stood over her body saying “Let the bitch die,” for a footnote.
The style of Inside Story makes it clear that Amis wants to cross-contaminate his life and fiction to such a degree that we’ll never know when his tongue is in his cheek and when he’s sticking it out at us. (In one section of writing tips he says that fiction should only “broach [sex] with extreme caution,” and then fills dozens of pages with his own thrusting.) That’s his modus operandi after all — to offer a smile and let us know he knows he’s a bad, bad boy. It’s a convenient method for never owning up to using the same tired, misogynistic tropes. Amis is still able to charm (when he isn’t calling an old girlfriend “tits on a stick”), but that charm is his only weapon, and the shine’s gone off over the past 40 years. In 1973’s The Rachel Papers, he established his schtick as a loquacious purveyor of horniness; you’d just think his genitals and his typing fingers would be exhausted of it by now.
Of course, every novelist has their preoccupations. But Amis and DeLillo both rely so heavily on their former genius that their respective novels have come out watery. The Silence and Inside Story are lazy books, born of two novelists trotting out diluted versions of their greatest hits. If I want rakish Amis I’ll skip back to London Fields. If I want wisely pontificating DeLillo, there’s Underworld. What a relief that I’m cracking open a new book right now, and I’ve never heard of the writer.