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Don DeLillo: ‘I wondered what would happen if power failed everywhere’

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October 18, 2020 at 10:00AM

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The US novelist, long preoccupied by the uneasy reality of western society, talks about his latest book, set in a world hit by a tech blackout

Over the course of 17 novels, Don DeLillo’s fans have come to feel that he is able to tune into vibrations far beyond the perceptions of other writers – and thus that his unnerving prescience is all part of the very spooky deal. But even by his standards, the timing of his new book, The Silence, is extraordinary. He finished writing it in March, just as New York, the city where he was born and still lives, went into lockdown – at which point fact and fiction fell, with unseemly haste, into a disconcertingly tight embrace. Set in 2022, it depicts a world in which the memory of “the virus, the plague, the march through airport terminals, the face masks, the city streets emptied out” is still fresh – and thus one where people are half expecting the new “semi-darkness” that falls in its opening pages, the sidewalks once again silent, and the hospitals all full. This time, however, the cause is not a pandemic, but a dramatic “loss of power”. Is it, as one character theorises, the Chinese? Have they “initiated a selective internet apocalypse”? No one knows, largely because they have no means of knowing. The lines are dead. The screens are blank. The technology is bust. Even the conspiracy theorists are going to find their audience tricky to reach now.

So that we might talk about this unlikely achievement, it is arranged that DeLillo will ring my landline – that “sentimental relic” as he calls it in The Silence. Is the thought of hearing the disembodied voice of Don DeLillo in the middle of a pandemic reassuring, or is it terrifying? In the days running up to our conversation, I can’t quite decide about this. But when the call is finally made – I stand up to take it, and somehow never manage to sit back down – he does not sound at all like a portent of doom. “Oh, I don’t see it that way,” he says, gently, when I ask if we should read the novel as a warning, our dependence on technology having only grown in the age of Covid-19. “It’s just fiction that happens to be set in the future. I guess it all started with the idea of the Super Bowl.” Images have always been important to him, and with this book, it was the idea of a blank screen that lodged itself in his mind. “I wondered what would happen if power failed everywhere, nothing functioning … a universal blackout.”

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