Don DeLillo is one of America’s most decorated, prolific writers working today. He burst into the mainstream with his novel “White Noise,” which won the National Book Award in 1985, and, not long after, was twice named as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction.
His latest work, “The Silence,” is a featherweight of a novel at just over 100 pages and reads more like a play. Driven by dialogue and featuring dramatic soliloquies, “The Silence” borrows the format of a dinner party and an end-of-the-world premise with scant details: A few acquaintances gathered for Super Bowl LVI in 2022 are suddenly siloed in a Manhattan apartment when all technological systems seemingly crash without explanation.
Split in two parts, there are three narrative threads, all of which converge in the second part of the novel: the first is a couple on an international flight from Paris to New York City that emergency crash-lands; the second is a Super Bowl party of three (a professor, her husband and her former student) waiting for the couple-in-flight to join them when the TV suddenly goes blank; the last and most interesting thread is hardly detailed, purely speculative and asks, quite simply, ‘What the hell is going on?’
The answer eludes reader and characters alike, but is described variously as “the total collapse of all systems” or “a tumbling void.” Is it simply a severe power outage or, more sinisterly, a coordinated cyberattack? If so, does this mark the beginning of World War III, as the epigraph quoting Albert Einstein clearly suggests: “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with stick and stones.” Or is this a glitch in a simulated reality?
Allow me to indulge briefly in this final interpretation. Technological systems are not the only things that seem to glitch; it’s the characters, too.
At one point, Max, the professor’s husband, mimics the speech of a Super Bowl broadcast, spouting football commentary and commercial jargon as if, when the airwaves were scrambled, his speech box was tuned to a new frequency. His odd speech is not an isolated incident, either. In general, the stilted speech and disaffected behavior of the characters is incongruous with this unsettling event. “Is it natural at a time like this to be thinking and talking in philosophical terms as some of us have been doing?” asks Tessa, a poet. “Or should we be practical? Food, shelter, friends, flush the toilet if we can?”
Paranoid thinking abounds and it shows in the characters’ clipped dialogue. Much of what they say is incomplete and comes across as a cacophony of SEO buzzwords associated with the deep web (“cryptocurrency,” “dark energy,” “quantum dominance”) and obscure references (a telescope in northern Chile and footnotes to “Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity”).
Because of this quality, the work feels unfinished. Its philosophical demeanor presents like a TED Talk — a pontificating voice, rehearsed gestures, long pauses to digest. But digest what? One senses there is something of substance lurking below the surface, but, ultimately, it is underdeveloped. Instead, we are given a thin philosophical broth.
Nevertheless, from what I can distill, “The Silence” is about language fighting for primacy in a world inundated with images and screens. It’s as if the characters forgot how to converse without the social lubricant of TV murmur in the background. Sure, a screen’s Technicolor voltage and algorithmically optimized content lures our wandering eye, but why would an inexplicable digital rupture not be concerning? Why is it the characters cannot even be bothered to go look out the window to survey “the current situation”?
The lethargic characters, the clipped, echoing dialogue and the philosophical banter are all very reminiscent of Samuel Beckett, a masterful minimalist whose work strongly resonates with the peculiar psychological toll of quarantine. But whereas Beckett did so much with so little, leveraging these constraints to create a dense network of connections for readers to parse, DeLillo severs these connections before they can bloom.
“The Silence” by Don DeLillo, Scribner, 122 pp., $22