Surging forth at full throttle before settling down to seated stillness, The Silence, the new novel by Don DeLillo (Scribner, 2020), is a dark and luminous, amusing and devastating theater of systemic shocks and confluent paradoxes.
It’s a reflection of ourselves in a prism of today, refracted into a future soon to come, while its gravities, conveyed in semantic entrancements and short-circuited modes of entertainment, bear down as heavily as the circumstances now visited upon us. It’s also a stark portrayal of the precarious confusion that can be stirred up when things go down.
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And much does go down in this book, from a turbulent crash landing that might indicate many another, to a grave instant of widespread blip-glitch-ness at the downing of a grid. This is all quite exasperating, frightening, alarming. None of it is ever quite explained. In a sense, this might be the point. It’s unnerving enough when our modes of communication or entertainment are inoperative or even momentarily inaccessible.
Natural disasters happen, predicted or not. Accidents happen. Street repairs go awry. The structures that constitute, protect and underlie our public utilities are hardly foolproof, and far from unassailable. A patent feature of so much infrastructure is its naked exposure to attack.
And as we’ve learned, an encounter between a bird and a turbine can bring down a plane.
We live with an awareness of many risk factors. Events of the past year have made us aware of many more. A winter storm is forecast. The winter storm hits. Winds whip and temperatures plummet. The internet goes down. The power goes down.
The suffering, however great, is collective, or at least explicable. The inconvenience is temporary, right?
There’s the crux. If it’s mere inconvenience, we’re already lucky enough. If we’re also aware of its source and scope, we are very lucky indeed. But truly catastrophic events, or events without antecedent or explanation, can leave us shattered.
It’s this very human sensibility, this fragility that DeLillo examines with great subtlety and concision in this slender and deftly hewn book. He does this by way of probing our hunger for information, our shifted mechanisms of perception and memory, our dependency on technologies and addiction to entertainment.
Most crucially, he grasps how this all ruptures the flow and efficacy of even our most basic modes of communication to the point where we have difficulty knowing where to look, or what to look at, when we question ourselves or others — and even whom to ask.
Such themes might be considered characteristic of DeLillo. Readers of his books, especially those who have also read his plays, will recognize how The Silence unravels these thoughts most incisively through extensive dialogue and de facto monologues. It’s not that the characters engage in conversations about the ideas. It’s that the ideas determine the tenor, receptivity, and shape of the things the characters say.
Sources of information and forms of entertainment are re-channeled. Thoughts become destabilized as their thinkers seek stability by echoing the thoughts of others, or in voicing their own through them. Others listen distractedly or merely hear at angles. Communication is triangulated, indirect.
On a return trip to New York from Paris at the story’s outset — in the year 2022, Super Bowl Sunday — insurance claims adjuster Jim Kripps, seated next to his wife, poet and editor Tessa Berens, is so mesmerized by the small screen before him that much of what he says to her is a redirecting of the information it conveys: times of day, altitudes, speeds, temperatures. Tessa listens halfway while writing in her journal, gathering recollections of the trip they just took. They have less of a conversation with one another than a disjointed exchange that seems to hover in the air between them:
“Filling time. There’s also that.”
“Filling time. Being boring. Living life.”
“Okay. Température extérieure minus fifty-seven F,” he said. “I’m doing my best to pronounce elementary French. Distance to destination one thousand five hundred seventy-eight miles. We should have contacted the car service.”
“We’ll jump in a taxi.”
Talking alongside one another while processing thoughts individually, they both also attempt to remember things they know they know and would like to access without digital intermediaries. Tessa dislodges a name, giving way to a keen observation on the curious nature of remembering as it is physically manifested:
“Came out of nowhere. Anders.”
“The first name of Mr. Celsius.”
“Anders,” he said.
She found this satisfying. Came out of nowhere. There is almost nothing left of nowhere. When a missing fact emerges without digital assistance, each person announces it to the other while looking off into a remote distance, the otherworld of what was known and lost.
They carry on with their “remarks generated by the nature of airline travel itself” until they no longer can, as one of the more frightening aspects of airline travel becomes very real. The pace of the prose kicks up apace the turbulence, and tensions rise high.
The catastrophe at hand? World War III, no less. Perhaps. Again, no one really gets to know.
And it’s from here that the rest of story unfolds, set mostly in a Manhattan apartment where five people have gathered to watch Super Bowl LVI. The gatherers include retired physics professor Diane Lucas, her husband Max Stenner, her former student Martin Dekker, and eventually Tessa and Jim.
But their gathering will be of a very different, far less festive sort, since the same catastrophe that has half-disastrously brought down at least one airplane has also knocked out power grids and darkened all screens. It seems not even lingering charges on batteries can keep devices operative or lit.
So people stare at and question blank screens. They shake and curse at phones. And our five main characters end up gathering together in a captivatingly discursive, rather physically inert, generally anxious, occasionally hilarious, overall rivetingly theatrical scenario of default sheltering-in-place.
Such is the milieu through which DeLillo conducts an elegant, scrupulous analysis of the fluidities, aberrations, elisions, elusions, idiomatic charms, and passing if not passive poetics that find resonance in thought and speech.
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And such is the milieu in which Martin, himself now a physics teacher, comments on and quotes verbatim from Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity, pausing on bizarrely selective passages to ponder the strangeness and beauty of certain metaphors and words.
Meanwhile, Diane recounts travel memories with an ostensible assumption that Max and Martin aren’t really paying attention. Max spends much time sitting in his chair and drinking bourbon, talking over his shoulder or across himself when he talks to the others, staring mostly at the blank television screen in much the same way as he did when it was working.
Its blankness, however, and its silence eventually elicit Max’s own version of the broadcast, from invented commentary on the game, players, and coaches, to parodies of commercials for products of his own fabrication. Even as she eggs him on, Diane seems to chide him, but she is the conversational glue holding it all together.
She remains so even after Jim and Tessa arrive, at which point they all seem more and more like five people who happen to meet in an apartment at the same time, as opposed to five friends who have gathered to watch a football game. When they speak, they seem to address an absent crowd, or no one in particular. Readers might think of Bertolt Brecht’s theatrical device of Verfremdungseffekt (alienation/distancing effect), or of the self-aware plays by Luigi Pirandello. Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (1944) might also come to mind.
And then it all builds to a brilliant, compelling crescendo of enlightened, touching, chilling monologues. The prose soars and plunges anew, not so much in literariness as in intellectual mood, its vicissitudes underscoring the effects of so many unknowns. Per Tessa:
“Who knows what any of this means? Is our normal experience simply being stilled? Are we witnessing a deviation in nature itself? […] Is it natural at a time like this to be thinking and talking in philosophical terms as some of us have been doing? Or should we be practical? Food, shelter, friends, flush the toilet if we can? Tend to the simplest physical things. Touch, feel, bite, chew. The body has a mind of its own.”
Much like the characters themselves, we find ourselves contemplating our obsessive modes of mediating time as the hyperactivated mechanisms that they are, fast-forwarding us into darkness. Implied is how little it would take for us to pass, all of a sudden, from one state to the other, how quietly that glitch might go blip.
It’s not uncommon for DeLillo to sound alarms of this sort in his stories, nor is it uncommon for him to fold sports, disasters, paranoia, cinematic touches, hints of science fiction, diegetic limits, and multimediated dialogue and depictions into his narratives. The presence of such elements in The Silence recalls a number of the author’s earlier titles, such as End Zone (1972), White Noise (1985), Cosmopolis (2003), and Point Omega (2010).
The subtly dystopic notes with which he imbues this new novel, however, and the disarmingly timely tenor of the bells he rings in it, dovetail so well with his previous title, Zero K (2016), that one might wonder if a trilogy is in the works — perhaps one pertaining to the swollen ills of empire and bloated capitalism, and our decreasing capacity t o keep up with the technologies that increasingly control our societies.
Trilogy or not, we do at least have a finely crafted diptych to enjoy now and revisit as the books’ posited realities become ever more probable, and possibly real. To wit, DeLillo completed The Silence before the onset of the global pandemic that continues to ravage our bodies, rattle our minds, and wreak havoc while also cornering many of us into our homes, leaving us to stare at screens. Which is to say, the mood and setting of this book will feel queasily familiar.
DeLillo is often lauded as something of a soothsayer, and The Silence, an engrossing addition to his oeuvre, is sure to add credence to that reputation. Like a number of his other books, this one will likely be called ‘eerily prescient’ and ‘ominous.’ And rightly so. This crepuscular prism of our times is surely an omen. It might leave us looking differently at our ubiquitous screens, active or blank, for quite some time. It’s worth noting that a darkened screen still reflects our likeness.
The Silence (2020) by Don DeLillo is published by Scribner Book Company.