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For Don DeLillo, 'The Silence' Is Deafening

In Don DeLillo's latest novel, The Silence, it is much like our post-pandemic life -- everything changed but nothing happened. Are we listening?

The Silence
Don DeLillo


October 2020


Paradoxes abound in The Silence, Don DeLillo's latest novel. Its subject—the end of contemporary life as we know it—is huge. Its size is small, barely over 100 pages. Its premise is high concept: on Super Bowl Sunday, 2022, all technology—a word that one character in DeLillo's masterpiece, White Noise, calls "lust removed from nature"—suddenly stops. Its delivery is not what the concept promises. It's less, and more.

If the idea sounds familiar, it should—it's the same as Eric Kripke's Revolution, the 2012-2014 television series. But that show, about a post-apocalyptic, survivalist America, relies on action and plot twists, while The Silence largely ignores the premise altogether. The Silence also superficially resembles Cormac McCarthy's The Road, another novel about the end of technology by another giant of literary fiction.

Yet The Silence is never harrowing, or even especially alarming. During the opening scene, on an airplane that we know is in danger of crashing if we've read the blurb, we're still treated to DeLillo-esque bon mots:

"Children on this flight. Well-behaved," he said.
"They know they're not in economy. They sense their responsibility."

Like DeLillo's previous novel, Zero K (2016), ostensibly about cryogenics, the seeming science fiction of The Silence is a misdirection. The Silence barely depicts any consequences of what would be the most consequential event in human history, or any of the practical, political, or social implications about what the end of technology would mean.

Instead, The Silence focuses on five characters—two late-middle-aged heterosexual couples, one having survived that airplane crash and the other awaiting their arrival, and a younger man with a penchant for quoting Albert Einstein—at a Manhattan Super Bowl party. But if The Silence largely ignores its premise, it also jettisons the usual trappings of plot and character in favor of dialogue and monologue, so that it resembles an absurdist play more than a novel proper.

So its characters talk, and talk, and when they're not talking, the narration talks in their voices. Sometimes it's the ready-made, prefabricated language of television soundbites. After the football game disappears from the screen, "Max said, 'This team is ready to step out of the shadows and capture the moment." Sometimes they talk mockingly: "'Is this the causal embrace that marks the fall of world civilization?'"

Sometimes, as critics of DeLillo have alleged for decades, they sound like replicants attempting human speech, highbrow versions of the aliens from Bonnie and Terry Turner's Third Rock from the Sun (1996-2001) or the more recent webcomic by Nathan W. Pyle, Strange Planet: "'In class you quoted footnotes. You vanished into footnotes. Einstein, Heisenberg, Gödel.'"

But mostly, more than any other DeLillo novel, the characters sound a lot like we do in 2020, in the time of Covid-19: "'Filling time. Being boring. Living life.'" Elsewhere: "'Are we living in a makeshift realty? Have I already said this? A future that isn't supposed to take form just yet?'" Later, narrated in third person but likely from the point of view of Martin, the younger man and frequent quoter of Einstein: "And isn't it strange that certain individuals have seemed to accept the shutdown, the burnout? Is this something that they've always longed for, subliminally, subatomically?" Later, he says, "'And the streets, these streets. I don't have to go to the window. Crowds dispersed. Streets empty."

Max, the football party host, says, "'I'm done with all this. Sunday or is it Monday? February whatever. It's my expiration date.' Nobody knows what he means by this." Diane, a former physics professor, says, "'Staring into space. Losing track of time. Getting out of bed.'" And Tessa, a writer and one half of the couple from the plane, says "'What if all this is some kind of living breathing fantasy?...Has time leaned forward…or has it collapsed?...What comes next?...It was always at the edges of our perception."

The back cover of The Silence declares that "Don DeLillo completed this novel just weeks before the advent of Covid-19. The Silence is the story of a different catastrophic event." As Tessa's monologue concludes, it becomes clear that this disclaimer is not entirely accurate to our current reality: "But remaining fresh in every memory, the virus, the plague, Covid-19, the march through airport terminals, the face masks, the city streets emptied out."

Indeed, DeLillo is famous for his prescience--having anticipated the impact of the media and images on the human psyche, the role of environmental disaster in shaping American life, and the prevalence of psychopharmaceuticals--all in White Noise (1985) alone. Cosmopolis' tale is set in 2000 and published in 2003, but it seemed more of its time in 2012, after the financial meltdown and Occupy protests, with the release of David Cronenberg's film adaption that year.

But DeLillo is also a retrospective novelist, looking back on the ways in which September 11 developed into fragmented images and narrative in Falling Man in 2007. Before that, he excavated how the assassination of President John F. Kennedy was not just the end of the Camelot era, but the ushering in of a new age of conspiracy and uncertainty in Libra (1988), to say nothing of the 50-year Cold War framework in Underworld (1997).

The Silence, however, is less about a 2022 "different catastrophic event" than the catastrophic event we are currently living. DeLillo's 16th novel appears to be his first that is neither late nor early to the uncanny prediction of current events but arrives precisely on time.

Yet one of the most difficult aspects of 2020 is that unlike other, singular, dated catastrophic events in the US—Kennedy's assassination, 9/11—we have nothing specific to point to, no "where were you when…" elegies. We were all home or went home. Everything changed, and nothing happened.

Nothing happens in The Silence, either. But in keeping with Existentialist philosophers Martin Heidegger and Jerry Seinfeld, being about nothing is fraught with meaning, with something. Max wonders, "Is everyone at home or in darkened bars and social clubs, trying the watch the game? Think of the many millions of blank screens. Try to imagine disabled phones. [Paragraph break] What happens to people who live inside their phones?" On the surface, The Silence it gets the particulars of our apocalypse exactly wrong –it is the bars and clubs that were empty, not the screens.

It's the lingering question, "What happens to people who live inside their phones?" that will haunt readers, but not because their screens are blank, but because they are full. It's our lives that are empty. Screens are all we have. For millions of people, nearly all social interaction, work, school, and formerly live entertainment has migrated from life to laptops. The Silence captures the foreboding sense of time and space displaced, replaced by stretches of nothing. And the only way to fill that nothing, the novel suggests, is with language.

Even then, much of that language is less about communication—the dialogue is laden with meaningless signifiers like "football food"—than it is about connection. The response to Tessa's above monologue, the only mention of the title in the novel after the only inference of a looming pandemic, may be more revealing than what she says: "Tessa notes the silence that attends her pauses." The silence is not utter, but in between, a state of indeterminacy, awaiting resolution.

The novel's conclusion refuses to provide it. Instead, in keeping with its resemblance to an absurdist play, it gives us the technological equivalent of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, where Vladimir and Estragon decide, "Yes, let's go," but do not move, as the curtain falls:

Max is not listening. He understands nothing. He sits in front of the TV set with his hands folded behind his neck, elbows jutting.
Then he stares into the blank screen.

There is plenty of talking in The Silence, but no listening. In its final paradox, The Silence is both ambiguous and didactic. People: the screens were always blank. People: talk less, listen more. Yes, it sounds like a motivational thinking poster, and it probably is. It shouldn't take a world-ending blackout or pandemic to realize that the problem is not technological or epidemiological. It's us. It always has been. Max is not listening. He's staring into the blank screen. Are we?

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