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Reading Don DeLlio’s “The Silence “

Reading Don DeLlio’s “The Silence “

I’ve been reading DeLillo’s books for a long time now. The first time I heard his name was when I struck up a conversation with a man on a train in England at the end of the 1980s. He told me that I should really read DeLillo. But it was not until I was a summer student in New Mexico in 1991 that I came across White Nose and its ”airborne toxic event”. And then Underworld when it was published in 1997. I remember carrying around that heavy brick of a book with a photograph of the World Trade Center in the foggy background and St. Marks’ church in the foreground. There was a tiny bird high the photograph, superposed on the towers, that looks to us now like an airplane. DeLillo to me has always been a constant steady background presence. He has always been writing about how conspiracy and terror have such a large place in our contemporary consciousness. So when on one of my walks around town I saw his new book The Silence on the shelves at Shakespeare and Co. I immediately bought it. DeLillo finished this book just before our ”current situation” started.

It is a very slim volume, not more than 100 pages set in a mono-spaced font like it was bashed out on a typewriter. The events in the book take place over the space of a few hours. There’s a catastrophic event but the consequences are not an explosion or widespread destruction. Instead, almost every electronic device stops working. Screens turn dark. And here the event is not seen from the perspective of governments or nations but simply that of a few friends gathered around to watch a football game on TV; there’s a faint echo of the magnificent stadium scene at the start of Underworld. This time, however, people are at home.

DeLillo offers no clear explanations. Perhaps it’s a coronal mass ejection. They’re called ”Carrington Events” after the 19th century scientist who realised what was electrocuting telegraph operators around the world and lighting up the night sky was a big blob of charged particles coming in from the sun. Such an event would have had minimal impact 150 years ago, but today of course it would be catastrophic. Satellites observing the sun would give us a few minutes warning but there would be not much else we could do other than save the files and close the applications. But in DeLillo’s book there are hints that it’s not a natural event.

This is what the silence looks like now

You see, he is not really interested in explaining what happened. His question: what would we do if the screens went dark? What would happen to human consciousness when the current stops flowing? This being a DeLillo novel our friends speak in a complicated stream-of-consciousness diction comprising waves of technical language and terms. Sentences are pared down to a string of nouns. Almost all events take place in a single room; he’s not interested in outside. But what’s happening outside? “You don’t want to know,” a character informs us. One of our friends happens to be an Einstein scholar, a convenient person to have around in an an event like this in a DeLillo novel. And at one point, an uncanny prophecy:

“What comes next?” Tessa says. “It was always at the edges of our perception. Power out, technology slipping away, one aspect, then another. We’ve seen it happening repeatedly, this country and elsewhere […] But remaining fresh in every memory, virus, plague, the march through airport terminals, the face masks, the city streets emptied out. […] 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 that these questions have been asked. Scientists have said things, written things, physicists, philosophers.”

Since Underworld DeLillo’s focus has narrowed right dow. There is no sweep of event, and the voices speaking are only echoing sounds that we have heard before. There’s no resolution, of course. We leave the book still waiting for the TVs to come back on again and for the smartphone screens to light up. And we start to imagine, just a little, what life without these devices might be like.

Auster and Descartes: reading 4321

Auster and Descartes: reading 4321

Paul Auster’s work has a certain resonance for me. I first discovered his books in that distant summer of 1991 when I made my first trip to America. In fact, I bought “In the country of last things” at the famous Strand bookshop in Manhattan. I read it on my ten-day greyhound bus journey to Socorro, New Mexico where I spent a long six months as a “summer intern” (finishing in December!) at New Mexico Tech. It was a strange and mysterious experience to read that book about the end of the world as the countryside unrolled around me back to zero and dissolved into desert. In the next six months out there I discovered Moon Palace and the New York Trilogy. It seems strange now because the first places and last places I saw on this trip to America was Manhattan, the deserts of New Mexico, and finally San Francisco, and all of those places play a central role Auster’s early novels.

Some mysterious trees, seen in the desert.

By the time I had arrived in the deserts of New Mexico it was hard enough for me tell the difference between what happens inside books and what happens outside them. Here’s an example: in one scene in Moon Palace the central character is instructed to take a trip to a Brooklyn art gallery, keeping his eyes closed, and only open then when he arrives before a certain painting — “Indian by moonlight”. I had of course never heard of this painting but I was curious, what did it look like? In the middle of my stay in New Mexico I made a trip back to New York and I knew I wanted to visit that Brooklyn Gallery and see the painting. I phoned the gallery. Do you have a painting called “Indian by Moonlight” in your collection, I asked them. Yes, they said. Could I see it? Well — no. You see, they explained to me, it’s in a part of the gallery where there are no lights. We could take you down there, but you couldn’t see it. So, even if I opened my eyes, I couldn’t see the painting.

Well, as they say — years passed. And now I find myself living in Paris. A few months ago in our local bookshop I chanced on an enormous tome, 4321 it said, and it was by Mr. Paul Auster. It had been years since I had read any novel by Paul Auster. I hesitantly picked it up. I wasn’t frightened of big books, but yes maybe I have less time now, so I didn’t buy it just then. But I was curious. A few weeks later when I learned I had to make a trip back to the Salpé hospital, I knew that afterwards I’d have enough time to read it. And so I did, all one thousand words in around a week, comfortably installed on the couch in the front room.

Proust on the left, Orwell on the right

Perhaps you’ve heard the central conceit of the book: Mr. Auster imagines three other versions of approximately his own life. Four stories in total. Only, the other three lives are cruelly cut short: the other Paul Austers do not make it to the end of the book. One is struck dead in his youth, more or less, by a bolt of lightning, an event which Auster himself narrowly avoided. That must have been hard for Auster to write especially because their deaths seem at times arbitrary and capricious. So, the book is a reflection on the different paths that lead to a life. Starting with the same raw material, the same inklings and desires, talents and failings, what would we become? Each Auster makes slightly different choices, meets different people, becomes a different person.

Paris (a city, one character says, I have never heard anyone say bad things about) lies near the heart of the story. There are the familiar tropes about writing books and creating works of art in that glittering city and Auster manages mostly to stay away from cliche. The history of America after the war is finely detailed and it struck me just how turbulent and unsettled those times were. Assassination of one public figure followed another, JFK and MLK and RFK. We think that our times are difficult now!

Auster paints on a very broad canvas but despite the sweep of history this is not Dellilo’s Underworld. At first, seeing the size of the book, I wondered, would this be Auster’s big book, the career-defining masterpiece? In the end, I am not so sure. If there had only been one of the four stories in the book, would it have been as interesting? Are any of the stories interesting in and of themselves? Although, really, the fascinating aspect here is just how each of the four stories interrelate to each other. The different Austers swelter in impossibly hot New York summers or travel to Paris for a week or a month or for years. His mother becomes a famous photographer or is a portrait photographer for families and weddings or closes her studio and abandons her art. Reading the book, one cannot help wondering what are the inflection points in one’s own life that might have a led to a different outcome. We have each have innate talents and gifts, how are they expressed differently?

Where it all ends

Finally, there is only one thread and there is only one writer. We are in Rue Descartes, Paris. This, we are told, is where the book was finished. Auster must surely know Milosz’ poem Bypassing rue Descartes. Rational systems destroyed the cities of Europe and killed millions. Weighted against that, to protect us, tradition and custom. For Auster, I suppose, on one side is our innate nature, on the other, our environment. It is impossible to know all these alternate lives that we may have led. This book, at least, makes us think about them.

Sergio Larrain and “Valparaiso”

Sergio Larrain and “Valparaiso”

In Don Delillo’s play “Valparaiso”, an everyman becomes a media star simply because he gets on the wrong flight. Instead of going to Valparaiso, Indiana, he takes a jet for Valparaiso, Chile. The story is told entirely in the form of a series of interviews in which the unfortunate man tries to define himself in terms of his unwanted celebrity. In the end, we never get to find out what Valparaiso, Chile is really like. So it was with interest that I saw a small, cloth-bound book in a bookshop the winter before last with the handwritten words “Valparaiso” on the cover. This, it turns out, was Sergio Larrain’s “Valpariso”.

Larrain was a interesting character: born into a wealthy and privileged family, he decided quickly that he would not follow the path that had been pre-ordained for him. Attracted to a nomadic photographic life, his photographs quickly brought him attention and he became friends with Cartier-Bresson who invited him to join Magnum. At Magnum, he tried photojournalism, and was remarkably successful, managing to get an impossible photograph of a well-known Italian mafia figure by posing a tourist. And then, after only a few short years, he returned to south America, bought a house in a remote hilltop village in Northern Chile, and retreated from the world. He felt that he could not be a professional photographer at Magnum. But there was one place he continued to photograph, and that was the port city of Valparaiso. A small book of those photographs had been published in 1991 and had become legendary amongst photographers and commanded exorbitant prices on the second-hand market.

However, Larrain became increasingly reluctant to publish his work and be interviewed, and it was only after his death in 2012 could one even think about publishing his photographs. He corresponded closely with Agnès Sire at Magnum, and had even sent her an updated version of his book. And so, the Valparaiso that was published in winter of 2016 is an expanded version of that 1991 book, and includes photographs that Larrain took throughout his whole life. You can see a few photographs from the collection Over on Magnum.

I bought this book when it was published a year ago, and I return to it often. The rationalist part of me does not know what to make of Larrain’s talk of the cosmic consciousnesses and his obsession with yoga (he apparently gave yoga lessons during his visits to the Magnum offices in Paris). The photographs, however, have their own logic and charm. I am not sure I am so keen on all those macro shots of flowers and droplets of water, but the message behind them is straightforward and compelling enough. You must observe, you must see things that no-one else sees, and if you do, wonders may possibly be revealed to you. Most photographs are quiet photographs taken with a normal lens and they insist that you look at them carefully. But go just a little deeper, and the understated photographs have more meaning than they seem to at first.

No, this is not a Sergio Larrain photograph, but there are steps and some close-ups.

Larrain’s book is not a reportage about life in Valparaiso, although looking at the pictures you do get some sense of what that place might be like. People go up and down stairs, boats arrive and depart. But you see, he is finely attuned to the strange things that can happen in any place if you look hard enough. At the start of his career he realised that Valparaiso was a fine place for such things: at the exact moment he was taking a picture of a young girl with a bob haircut, exactly the same girl stepped into the frame. A double. That is what photography seems to be about: to be able to create situations where the unexpected may happen.

It has been observed countless times how surprisingly difficult it is to take photographs worth looking at. Today, this is even more confusing because cameras will make all the decisions for you — with the exception of where to point the camera, which is the most important one. Looking at Larrain’s book I found it could be considered as an interesting reflection on what a good photograph might be, and how one might find them. One could not ask for more from a book of photographs.

“Surviving doomsday”

“Surviving doomsday”

For as long as I can remember I was interested in science. For the first ten years of my life, we lived across the street from the Cookstown public library, and I devoured anything I could find in there about science or astronomy. (I remember later hearing a Carl Sagan story where, as a child, he goes into his public library, asks for a book about the stars…and comes out with a book about Hollywood). There was only one bookshop in our town, and I’m happy to report that it’s still there today, but one day I was in there and saw this interesting book called Surviving doomsday. Interesting for me because there was a drawing of a mushroom cloud on the cover, and that was science, right? In the foreground, a man with a geiger counter in hand and wearing full radiation protection strode confidently away from the cloud. I managed to persuade my parents to buy it for me. I must have been around 8 or 9.

Yes, to survive Doomsday, all you need is a geiger counter and the right clothes.

This must have been 1979 or 1980, and we were in the depths of the cold war. I was fascinated by the book. Inside, one could find details concerning how to build a nuclear fallout shelter (but was there enough space in our Cookstown garden, I wondered) together with helpful hints concerning what colour to paint the walls. Of course, at this time there were programs on TV all the time imagining how nuclear war might unfold. I remember standing in our garden talking about one of these shows with my cousin. “Did you hear when they said they hit Lisburn?” I asked him. Lisburn is a suburb of Belfast. Of course it was Lisbon. At the age of 11, my knowledge of world capitals was very sketchy.

I brought the book to school to show it to my friends, I found it so fascinating. Our horrified teacher confiscated it from me. But I think I was too young to be horrified. Perhaps I didn’t fully appreciate yet what was in the world to be unhappy if it was no longer there. Later on, as a teenager, when we moved further out into the countryside, I made an extensive study of post-apocalyptic literature, discovering amongst other classic works George R. Stewarts’ Earth Abides, which describes America after the population is decimated by deadly virus. At the end of Stewarts’ book, a hundred or so years after the catastrophe, the survivors simply lose interest in rebuilding civilisation. What does it mean to them anyway?

And so today we are almost at the end of the second decade of the 21st century. We survived the cold war. A few days ago I learned that those folks at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (remember them?) have advanced their doomsday clock to only two minutes to midnight. Not even enough time to paint the fallout shelter walls the right colour … Let’s just hope that that particular solution to Fermi’s paradox (where are all the aliens) based on the durability of technological civilisations turns out not to be true, after all…