The Silence: DeLillo Mails It In



By Don DeLillo

Scribner and Sons, 120 pages.


Read my review of Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind. Now imagine a crappy novel that covers a lot of the same turf and you have Don DeLillo’s The Silence. It’s not really a novel at all–more like a short story inflated like an unappealing Christmas lawn blowup.


Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens are returning from Paris in time to watch the Super Bowl with friends. As they approach New York, there’s a bump, and systems shut down. They survive a crash landing and encounter the mayhem of a downed power grid, stalled elevators, closed subways, and barricaded story fronts. An airport authority remarks, “Whatever is going on has crushed our technology.”


Married couple Diane Lucas and Martin Dekker and an acquaintance named Max Steiner munch upon prepared food. When the football broadcast goes off the air, “Max looked at the screen as he ate and when he finished eating he put down the plate and kept on looking.” Diane and Martin sit in the dark with no heat, no email, no working appliances, and no word on when Jim and Tessa will arrive.


On the street people wander in confusion, but the city is mostly silent. Jim and Tessa eventually make their way to the apartment and a five-way conversation ensues that’s like a pretentious version of the Barry Levinson film Diner. Their chatter is the only thing that breaks the silence. They speculate on the phenomenon: “cyberattacks, digital intrusions, biological aggressors… minds [being] digitally remastered?” It doesn’t help that Martin is a conspiracy nut fond of invoking (but not grasping) Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. Diane is a rational physicist, Tessa an alarmist, and Jim and Max mostly silent partners, as it were.


That’s it and “it” is utter rubbish. Earlier I said it’s not a novel, and I stand by that. I may, however, have slighted short stories. This is a lazy work from DeLillo and is easily the worst of his 17 books. At its best, The Silence reads as if DeLillo simply published his ideas for a book; at worst, it’s like the first treatment of a John Carpenter movie. I half expected to hear one of the characters say, “There’s something in the fog!” No one did. Too bad; that would have been more interesting than the conversations that actually do take place. If I thought the world was ending, I wouldn’t waste my remaining time with anyone as boring as Jim, Tessa, Diane, Martin, and Max.


Silence can be the subject of an enthralling work. One example of this Jose Saramago’s brilliant Seeing (2014), in which an election is held, citizens record blank ballots, and stunned officials parade through streets where curtains are drawn and no huzzahs greet them. DeLillo gives us nothing of that ilk. Instead, he gives us a book that would not have been published from an author of a lesser reputation. It comes perilously close to being contemptuous of his audience–a smugness borne of the belief that his name alone is all that is needed to sell books. There are those who will fawningly read anything DeLillo writes, but you can abstain. As in Saramago’s Seeing, you can vote through silence. There are scores of more worthy books to read.


Rob Weir


Suspicion: Hollywood versus Hitchcock




Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

RKO, 99 minutes, Not Rated (pre-ratings code)



Suspicion has long been a beloved offering from Alfred Hitchcock. It was nominated for Best Picture and Best Score, but it was Joan Fontaine who carried away the hardware (Best Actress), the only Academy Award ever won by a Hitchcock picture. Hitchcock is now considered an auteur and the Academy’s slighting of him is viewed an injustice. Ironically, Hitchcock wasn’t overly fond of the only film Hollywood lionized.


Go with Hitch on this. Suspicion is a good film, but not a great one.  There was, however, wonderful chemistry between Fontaine and Cary Grant and the score should have won an Oscar for Franz Waxman. As was the case of a lot of movies of the period, this one begins with a train. That’s where the debonair Johnnie Aysgarth (Grant) first meets Lina McLaidlaw (Fontaine). It was an encounter that, if it happened off the screen, would have set off alarm bells. Johnnie is dashing, handsome, and suave, but we know pretty quickly that he’s not on the level. Still, the plain looking serious-minded Lina is swept off her feet, even though her parents (Cedric Hardwicke and Dame May Whitty) think Johnnie is shady. Nonetheless, following a brief courtship Johnnie and Lina tie the knot. 


Lina should have listened to mom and dad. Johnnie plays the part of a rich man of aristocratic bearing, but he has no title, no job, and couldn’t rub together two ha’ pence of his own–all of which Lina discovers on their honeymoon. He is lovable, but unemployable, as his only real talents are sponging, borrowing, losing money on horse races, and hanging out with his thick chum Cochrane “Beaky” Thwaite (Nigel Bruce), one of Johnnie’s benefactors. But not even Beaky can keep Johnnie in the manner to which he’d like to become accustomed. Then things get weird. Johnnie hocks anything not nailed down and a few that are, he tries his hand at work, but it doesn’t take, and Beaky dies on a trip to Paris. All circumstantial evidence suggests the elusive Johnnie might had a hand in his demise. Johnnie, though, flies into a blind rage whenever Lina questions him.


The movie’s title is the crux of the film. Lina agrees to take out a life insurance policy and promptly falls dangerously ill. It has all the earmarks of a poisoning plot as it could have been outlined by Johnnie’s friend, mystery writer Isobel Sedbusk (Auriol Lee). Suspicion morphs from a tale of a good-natured rogue into a psychological drama. Is Johnnie the sort who would do anything to get his hands on ready cash, or is the “suspicion” all in Lina’s head? Waxman’s score enhances our experiences as viewers. He uses bright music when things are lighthearted, but switches to minor keys when something ominous might be happening.


The good? Cary Grant is, as usual, utterly charming and that disrupts our expectations. On one hand, Johnnie is an obvious heel, but he’s still Cary Grant so we don’t wish to believe him capable of homicide. Fontaine is convincing as an egghead swept off her feet by someone with experiences that don’t come out a book. She is like a frightened rabbit and even looks like one at times. This, of course, is an old-fashioned view of women as the weaker and hysterical sex. If you’ve ever seen The Man From U.N.C.L.E. you might enjoy seeing Leo G. Carroll in a bit role.


The bad? Some might find Fontaine hard to take from today’s perspective. She is Johnnie’s intellectual superior on all levels, yet she can’t see what is patently obvious. But let’s get to reason Hitchcock didn’t like the film. He was forced to abandon a script from Nathanael West and accept one from three lesser-known writers. He was then told to change the film’s ending and I’ll say only that it pulls more punches than a washed-up prize fighter taking a dive. What’s left is a film worth watching, but also one that makes us imagine how much better it could have been.


Rob Weir



Snow a Decent Mystery, but Mostly Conventional


By John Banville

Blackstone Publishing, 304 pages.



John Banville is perhaps Ireland’s most-celebrated living author. He has won the James Tait Prize (1976), the Man Booker (2005), the Franz Kafka Prize (2011), and major awards in Austria, Italy, and Spain. Banville, whose name is often bandied about for Nobel consideration, counts Yeats and Henry James among his influences.


Pretty heady stuff, but you won’t find many highfalutin flourishes in his latest novel Snow. One the book’s pleasures is that the protagonist, Detective Inspector St. John Strafford, is not a particularly perceptive policeman. He misses obvious clues, doesn’t like his job very much, and perceives he’s not very good at it. He’s right about that; he’s a plugger and a plodder, but he’s not very personable. He’s awkward around women, has recently split with his longtime girlfriend, and comes from Protestant aristocratic roots. He endlessly corrects everyone that his first name is pronounced “Sinjun” and his surname is Strafford not Stafford.


Snow is set in Wexford, in 1957, within living memory of the Civil War (1919-21) and Irish independence (1922). Need I remind you that Irish Protestants and Catholics have had a long history of mutual distrust and conflict? Still, Strafford’s background – plus the animus of his Dublin superior– designate him as the person to investigate a murder at the country home of Geoffrey Osborne, a cash-poor Protestant blueblood. The victim, though, is Father Tom Lawless, a spongy prelate who seemingly lacks both religious conviction or enemies. He and the indolent Osborne share a love of horses, though the colonel is a clutchfist misanthrope.


Strafford arrives to a household more concerned with the bother of the carnage, not the shock of it. In fact, no one seems to give it much thought at all, even though Father Tom was also emasculated. The dispassionate colonel ordered the blood to be to wiped up and Father Tom’s body to be made more “presentable.” His dispassion extends to his 17-year-old daughter Lettie (“Lettuce!”) who just wants to step out for a good time despite Biblical proportion snows; his son Dominic; his unstable second wife Sylvia; her Scaramouch-like brother Freddie Harbison; Fonzie, the stable boy; and the housekeeper. Strafford observes that everybody, “had the look of a character actor hired that morning, and fitted the part(s) altogether too convincingly.” Indeed, many of the characters in Snow could have been plucked from an Agatha Christie novel. This includes innkeeper Mattie Moran, buxom barmaid Peggy Divine, Tom’s sister Rosemary, terse local police commander Radford, and the oily Archbishop John Charles McQuade. Especially the latter, whose concern for Ireland’s reputation is as thin as a supermodel’s profile.


The only people who care a fig about the murder are Strafford’s supervisor, Garda commissioner Jack Phelan, and Archbishop McQuade. They insist that an ambulance be dispatched through the heavy snow to bring Father Tom’s body to Dublin rather than being examined locally. Strafford and fellow investigator Detective Sergeant Jenkins suspect a cover-up, but by whom and why? As for the murder itself, everyone in the house has an alibi and there is no evidence of forcible entry.


Straford’s investigations will take him back in time to 1947, when Father Tom held a different assignment and the IRA was active in Wexford. In the present, Strafford wades through deep snow and the even deeper complicity of those seeking to stymy his investigation. The murder’s resolution is shocking and perhaps not what one expects, but it’s not hard to pinpoint who isn’t telling the truth.


Banville appends a ten-years-later coda, but with revelations that could have been tucked into the main narrative. It serves mainly to tell us things we already suspect, and to tie up loose ends of characters about whom we don’t much care. Snow is an interesting tale that will certainly keep you engaged, though the novel’s pivot divulgence won’t surprise anyone. Forget about author Banville’s reputation and read Snow for what it is: a highly readable, but rather conventional read-and-toss-aside murder mystery.


Rob Weir