I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.
The Silence, by Don DeLillo, Picador, 128 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1529057096 In the early months of the pandemic, like many others, I struggled not just to read but to decide what to read. Within the barrage of news, government directives, information and disinformation, amidst the scramble to adjust to a disorienting new reality, it was difficult to find a book that felt appropriate to this uniquely urgent, psychologically exhausting moment. Many contemporary novels suddenly looked like artifacts from an entirely different timeline, while the books that were being recommended as relevant seemed to promise little escape from the stressful new codes we all suddenly lived by; did I really want to open up a copy of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year with my freshly-scrubbed hands and settle in for some comparative disease reading? I wanted both immersion and escapism, hyper-reality and critical distance, and I scanned the bookshelves for something that might resonate with daily life while somehow being a little less, as they say, on the nose. One evening, after another exhausting day of juggling work and suddenly exponentially magnified parenting duties, I turned to the familiar pleasures of Don DeLillo. This decision offered the satisfaction of tackling a couple of remaining gaps in my reading of his novels (of which there were sixteen, at that point, not counting the pseudonymous Amazons ) as well as the comforts of a sensibility somehow attuned to my psychological state. DeLillo’s style has evolved in the almost half-century since the appearance of his debut novel Americana, and his oeuvre is now long enough to have several distinct phases, but by and large his novels are bleakly comic in mood, cool and aphoristic in prose style, and less inclined to solicit empathy for their characters than to drift inside and around their anxieties in highly stylised reveries. The lucid-dream atmosphere of these books, with their alternating clarity of observation and sudden dreamlike swerves, seemed like a good fit for what we had collectively agreed to call strange and unsettling times. The book I picked up was Ratner’s Star (1976), in which a fourteen-year old mathematical prodigy named Billy Twillig is summoned to a vast research complex to help decipher what may be an alien message. His colleagues in this endeavour are a collective of wackily-named eccentrics, several of whom – in a long-running DeLillo motif – pursue shamanic quests for quasi-mystical forms of knowledge into increasingly hermetic patterns of isolation….
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