[Spoiler Alert! If you read this running commentary, you will find out all that happens in the book because I write about everything as I read it. This 2020 novella is in two parts, and I wrote about Part 1 before reading and writing about Part 2.]
7 December 2020
These six chapters take up the first two-thirds of the book, as the characters live through the first few hours of what appears to be a global catastrophe. It starts small and, in most ways, it stays small. One of the two middle class couples we meet are on their way home from Europe to New York, while the others are expecting them at their apartment so they can all watch the Superbowl game together. There’s already a guest in the apartment, a former student of the woman and now a high school science teacher. He is a troubled soul, and tells the woman he is taking medication for this… but that comes later. Long before that, all the other characters seem to be doing their best to convince themselves there is some meaning in their lives. DeLillo seems to be doing his best to convince us they’re wrong.
I caught the headline of a review suggesting that in this book DeLillo is like a 21st Century Samuel Beckett. I can see the attraction of this idea, as characters try to talk themselves out of their own sense of meaninglessness. But the world of this book is too real for Beckett, too utterly recognisable as the 21st Century we know. For me, DeLillo is channelling his inner J G Ballard, his characters living in a modern world that has rendered them helpless. When, unaccountably, the automated and digital world simply stops working, it’s hard to see how any of them are going to survive.
The way DeLillo is telling it, it’s all about the words. Jim, the man on the plane, reads information in English and French on the overhead screen. Speed, journey time, distance, temperature… it’s all precise, calibrated, and meaningless. He talks to his wife Tessa about how time spent on planes—so much time, it seems—is always like this. It’s impossible to read, to think, and even, as one their friends back in New York says later, to remember what the meal has been. Tessa, as it happens, does remember. But by then, such a small victory as the world grinds to a halt around them—no lifts, no heating, no phones, no TV—isn’t any kind of victory at all. She is a poet, among other things, and has been spending her time on the plane writing a diary of their trip to Paris. For her, words mean something, and she loves it when she is able to retrieve from somewhere the forename of Celsius, the temperature man. But that was then, in Chapter 1, before things stop working on the plane just as it’s coming in to land.
It’s weirder still in Manhattan, in the other couple’s apartment. It isn’t at first, just ritualised to a point were even Max, the big sports fan, can see the absurdity of it. He always watches every minute, including the commercials, prepares something to eat for half-time because the first half isn’t for eating. He knows every detail of this event, the absurdity of Roman numerals being allocated to it as though it’s a war, the language of the commentators…. And, for minutes on end, he doesn’t stop watching the screen after the picture distorts and then disappears altogether. The blank screen becomes almost a character in its own right, especially later, when Max starts a long monologue parodying both the jargon of the commentators and the absurd promises of the commercials.
Diane is a retired physics professor, and if there’s any meaning in her life now it isn’t in the marriage. After all these years, she’s still bemused by Max and his adherence to rigid norms of behaviour—this is how you watch a game, he seems to be saying. He always puts a big bet on, he gets the food ready for half-time, he settles down to watch. A mention of quarterbacks will probably lead to his ritual complaint about ‘the way in which pro football has been reduced to just two players, easier to deal with….’ Some time after the screen goes blank, he becomes restless, goes down the stairs of the apartment block to see what other people are saying. It’s Diane who wants to be satirical. The garbled speech as the picture distorts before the screen goes off is ‘extraterrestrial.’ Later, to end this chapter, ‘Is this the casual embrace that marks the end of civilisation?’ Of course, she’s only saying what they’re all thinking.
But in fact, Max isn’t the main point of interest for her. It’s Martin Dekker, her former student. He’s obsessed too, but with Einstein, and especially the 1912 manuscript of his Theory of Relativity. It’s the working of the mind that thrills him, the strange insights Einstein’s redrafted words sometimes reveal, and ‘the sheer physical beauty of the pages.’ Diane studies him closely, finds him fascinating. They talk about the manuscript while Max is out of the apartment, and ‘This was erotic in a way, this exchange. His responses were quick, his voice suggesting the eagerness of someone who has retained what truly matters.’ But, of course, there’s the rub. What truly matters now?
The chapters alternate between the two couples. Now Jim and Tessa are in a van taking them and other injured passengers to an emergency room in Manhattan. It’s hectic, confused—and utterly focused on the narrow points of view of these two in the great metropolis of New York. That’s what third-person limited narratives do, of course, but I’m sure DeLillo is making a point. In our society, maybe there isn’t any bigger picture any more, only what we receive on our devices. OK, the lights are out in the skyscrapers, the van driver slows down to keep pace with a solitary jogger… but it isn’t about what’s going on outside. In their next chapter, it’s all about is Jim’s head wound or, at the hospital, finding a toilet cubicle where they can have sex. The woman on the reception desk speculates about what’s going on, then gives them a long commentary on her own unsatisfactory life. Then she asks about their plans, where will they go from there, and they tell her about the football game on TV at their friends’ place. ‘“How will you get there?” / “Walk.” / “Then what?” the woman said. / “Then what?” Jim said. / They waited for Tessa to add her voice to the elemental dilemma, but she just shrugged.’ The woman only becomes efficient again when the power comes back on, however briefly. Otherwise, everything is unmoored.
Between these two Manhattan chapters we see how things are moving on in the apartment. As the strangeness begins to bite, it’s easy to see why this has been compared with Beckett. It’s as verbally rich as Waiting for Godot or Happy Days, especially when Max goes into a kind of verbal overdrive, parodying every element of the language of the Superbowl TV event. Diane Is already ‘impressed’ by his performance, and then he begins to twist the pastiche into something strange and almost bitter. ‘Coach of the offense. Murphy, Murray, Mumphrey, dialling up some innovations. He kept on talking, changing his tone, calm now, measured, persuasive. Wireless the way you want it. Soothes and moisturises. Gives you twice as much for the same low cost. Reduces the risk of heart-and-mind disease. Then, singing, Yes, yes, yes, never fails to bless, bless, bless.’ Now, Diane is ‘stunned.’ Where did all this come from?
Meanwhile, in the same room, Martin is going through an existential crisis of his own. It clearly goes back to long before the digital blackout, and whatever he’s been looking for he doesn’t seem to be finding it. To him, Einstein seems to have the status of a spiritual leader, summed up not by any world-changing mathematical insights but by the sounds of words. Diane seems to know this when she says ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ to him. She wonders, ‘Would he respond as she imagined he would?’ Yes, he will, the response in this particular catechism being ‘The radiant name.’ It seems to be an old game of theirs, based on a phrase of Einstein’s that Martin now quotes: ‘I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.’
A pose Martin strikes much later, standing up straight for a change and staring straight upwards, echoes Diane’s own description of tourists in some Roman palazzo. They had been staring at a ceiling covered in religious images, listening to their audio-guides and… and what? Did they find what they were looking for? Diane can’t even remember the name of the palazzo, tries (and fails) to bring Max down to some kind of reality by getting him to share the recollection.
Through Martin, DeLillo channels a lot of ideas about–what? Words as non-signifiers, sounds in the ether. He describes watching foreign language movies with his students, telling them they mustn’t read the subtitles. Or this: ‘He’d recited names to them. Thaumatology, ontology, eschatology, epistemology. He could not stop himself…’ and DeLillo can’t stop himself either, listing another half-dozen or more. It’s hardly surprising that in Martin’s science classes, a student will tell him about words he’d never heard before appearing in a dream he’d had: ‘umbrella’d ambuscade.’ Martin had imagined ten armed men waiting in the rain for their victim to come along, as though to confirm how pointless it is to look for meanings. And when, later, he stops talking and stares upwards, all that seems available for Diane is to try to exchange looks. This echoes the way that Tessa and Jim often communicate. But who can she exchange looks with? Max is in his own place, pouring bourbon only for himself. He’s been doing that since just after the screen went blank.
Do things become more normalised when Tessa and Jim arrive? In these extraordinary times, there are the most conventional of exchanges. Max’s only acknowledgment of Jim’s head-bandage is to throw ‘a few counterfeit punches’ as he would on a normal afternoon. And it was Paris they’d visited, not Rome. And… ‘the conversation became laboured after a while.’ I bet it did. As they sit in candlelight while Martin goes with Diane to fetch the food, ‘Tessa started to count down slowly by sevens from 203 to zero, deadpan, changing languages along the way, and eventually the food arrived, prepared earlier by Max, and all five individuals sat and ate.’ It could be stage directions from a play, but it isn’t a play because DeLillo likes to speculate on everybody’s behalf. ‘Was each a mystery to the others, however close their involvement, each individual’—that word again—‘so naturally encased that he or she escaped a final determination, a fixed appraisal by the others in the room?’ And as Max pours another bourbon for himself and Part 1 ends with him staring at the blank screen, I’m not holding my breath for any answers.
The answer, in fact, seems to be yes, each really is ‘a mystery to the others, however close their involvement’ and the rest. And if Part 1 had been Waiting for Godot (which it isn’t really, of course), Part 2 is Waiting a little bit longer. It’s a joke that could be made about Beckett’s original… but I’ll try not to mention it again, beyond wondering whether there’s some similarity between the mid-20th Century sense of existential crisis and what DeLillo is presenting us with in a near-future so close it’s here already. Why all the communications technology when nobody’s using it to say anything? Is it because there’s nothing to say?
Enough of the questions. All five characters get their turn in Part 2. There are no chapters because, aside from a page or two when Max explores an outside world described with no vividness at all, there are just little packages of aimless action or meaningless talk. Martin is a shaman for our times, making plausible-sounding pronouncements that are, as Diane thinks to herself, just as likely to be nonsense as anything useful. The digital meltdown is deliberate. Except it might not be deliberate, just the inevitable finishing point for a society built on digital foundations nobody understands any more. ‘Cryptocurrency,’ Martin says, and for Diane the unhyphenated word (she imagines it as unhyphenated, holds it up in her mind for scrutiny) becomes a kind of totem of how dependent we are on—what, exactly? Einstein didn’t know what World War III would be like, but—as DeLillo quotes in his epigraph to the whole book—World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones. For Martin, what is happening now proves Einstein never got anything wrong.
But Martin is quietly going mad. He begins to channel his inner Einstein by speaking first in a German accent, and then in the German language. Diane can understand the simple stuff, but not the structures of global communications and the hacking and potential malfunctions that threaten it all. She doesn’t know if it’s bona fide or not even when he’s speaking English. She’s pretty sure he’s making a lot of it up, not that it matters. Later, when Tessa and Jim have gone for a lie-down in the apartment’s only bed because they are exhausted, she assumes, wrongly, that sex is in the air. Max has gone out again, so she invites Martin to take off his trousers and underpants. He does so, but nothing happens. There’s no longer any signal, verbal or otherwise, that she feels competent to read.
Meanwhile, Max is on the street and finding out absolutely nothing. People mill about, there appear to be some confrontations and blows exchanged, but he—and therefore we—get no idea of any bigger picture. It’s like Part 1 all over again… but I’ve said that already. The others aren’t terribly interested by what he has to tell them, and he’s more interested in telling them about counting the stairs. He hasn’t done that since he was a kid, he says, and takes refuge in a childhood memory of counting the seventeen steps up to their apartment above their landlords’ place.
Do I need to go on? Jim doesn’t say much, beyond a quick recap of what it had been like in the plane, then the van, the hospital with the fast-talking woman, the jogger on the street…. Diane says little, ending with ‘Shut up, Diane.’ Tessa describes her notebooks, in which she has jotted every little thought and event for years. Sometimes, she says, she re-reads a page or too and is astonished at what she had thought worth recording. And, being Tessa, she draws attention to the way she tells herself to shut up too.
It’s all tending in the same direction. It’s as though this has become DeLillo’s meditation on how, when you come down to it, words are only words anyway. Jim and Tessa think about going home, she with an idea of the familiar knickknacks on her writing-desk. Martin has talked himself into a complete hole, where even Einstein isn’t going to help him. All he wants is a mirror so he can look in it in order to be reminded to shave. Diane muses on how she wishes she hadn’t retired early, and was still offering physics to students who seemed to be listening….
It’s Max who ends Part 2, in exactly the same way he ended Part 1. Or, not quite exactly. In Part 1 he ‘stared’ into the blank screen. In Part 2, and we know DeLillo wants us to notice the significance of the change—he ‘stares.’ Ah.