It seems that DeLillo has been figuring out a way to end it. Since 1971, he has launched fireworks over the dark parts of America, huge explosions of colour and possibility, and now, in this late, mournful work, we find him conjuring common experience again in a single room, this novel perhaps an abjuration. The silence of the title is not that arising from the quieted phones and the dead screens, but the silence within, as words themselves come to seem empty. ‘The current situation tells us,’ Max says, ‘that there’s nothing else to say except what comes into our heads, which none of us will remember anyway.’
Don DeLillo is no stranger to science fiction. His least-read book, Ratner’s Star (1976), about a young kid sent to live among 30 Nobel laureates who are trying to decipher transmissions from outer space, is a glorious mess. The Silence is an altogether more distilled experience, quite creepy by the end, but in the getting there very funny indeed.
“Conversation” might be a generous description. Each encased in their own obsessions and anxieties, the characters in The Silence do not so much converse as make verbal noise, talking at each other in sardonic televisual soundbites, or in meandering monologues that seem pitched far beyond the confines of the room in which they are spoken. Unfolding for the most part in a single setting, and eschewing plot and character in favour of gnomic utterance and broken dialogue, DeLillo’s 17th novel reads remarkably like an absurdist play.
The novel’s opening line of dialogue is a single word, “Look”. A tempting retort would be that there’s nothing to see here, but that is close to being literally true. When Martin, gazing out the window, intones, “Crowds dispersed. Streets empty,” it reads almost like a taunt; a reminder, from the echo chamber that constitutes this writer’s bizarrely Beckettian late period, of the muse he abandoned, and of a time when he deployed his peerless gifts of divination to show us everything we had missed about names and noise and the world.
Elaborated over a writing career that spans half a century — a career crowned with every honour save the Nobel Prize — Don DeLillo’s great project has been to explore a world where paranoia is not only warranted but healthy, a sane response to imminent threat, man-made or otherwise. He didn’t win the Nobel again this year, and may never, but his literary stature remains colossal. He’s revered as a writer and also as a prophet, a bard who sings our future into being.
The Silence may be engrossing, on account of its style alone, but it’s the poorest DeLillo in years. It ends with a string of monologues, in which this writer’s great rhapsodies fade into inscrutable things. (Diane concludes with a line from Finnegans Wake, then a flourish: “Ere the sockson locked at the dure. Just one more thing to say. To myself this time. Shut up, Diane.”) These people are broken automata, broadcasting only fear; it veers close to prose poetry.
Nobody speaks the way the characters in this novel do, nor are we asked to believe they would. They are, however, compelling and human, and their voices have a ritualised urgency. DeLillo is a master stylist, and not a word goes to waste. This is the novel as performance art, as expressionistic play. The Silence is like watching Melancholia by Lars von Trier or an opera by Philip Glass – it always feels “foreign”. There is also something of the mid-1980s distilled and transported here: something rapt and male, full of longing for the machine and for the end of days... This is a writer who has been getting things right for ever. DeLillo looks for the future as it manifests in the present moment: he has done this for whole decades in which other writers have struggled with, for example, the invention of the mobile phone (won’t it ruin the plot?). At 83 he makes many contemporary writers read as though they are thinking not even in the 20th but in the 19th century, one in which “the crowd” did not exist, except, perhaps, as proles.
DeLillo has never been content with merely reporting, however: He wants to tell us not just what-is, but how it feels, and it’s this ability to transcribe the moment’s emotion that constitutes his genius. Terrorism, financial collapse, nuclear and biochemical disaster: These phenomena might’ve occurred in “The Names,” “Mao II,” “Cosmopolis” and “White Noise” somewhat differently than they occurred in the world, but the reactions of DeLillo’s characters were often determinative. To read DeLillo on 9/11, or on the recession, or on a pandemic while in the midst of a pandemic with masks on our faces and gloves turning the pages, is to engage in a process of re-coherence, a mimetic experiment wherein the author’s clarity forces our own.
From this point on, the entire novella – really a long short story of approximately 15,000 words – is devoted almost entirely to three lines of discourse. The first is a range of suppositions from the five characters about the possible causes of the massive power disruption that led to the plane crash-landing. Some are plausible: a power station overload; “a selective internet apocalypse” initiated by the Chinese. Others are more bizarre, but most are congruent with the disasters and plagues of other DeLillo novels, most notably White Noise (1985), Cosmopolis (2003), Falling Man (2007) and Zero K (2016). They include: mass surveillance software overruling itself; phantom waves from an unknown source; an internet arms race “hack and counterhack”; satellites that “can see the socks we’re wearing”; autonomous drones, cryptocurrency manipulation, surging microplastics, germ warfare and a takeover by hidden networks “changing by the minute, the microsecond, in ways beyond our imagining”. DeLillo’s mastery of the fragmented nature of spoken language is displayed in these paranoiac blurts, which every year seem less paranoiac.
The general consensus — that DeLillo ain’t what he used to be — will only be strengthened by The Silence, which is a little too gnomic, too straight-faced, too close to late Coetzee. It’s last century’s DeLillo who will be remembered and reread. The writer of Underworld, his 800-page masterwork charting four decades of American history; the writer without whom Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace would be unthinkable. White Noise, Libra, Mao II, and his deliciously clever thriller The Names — these books are soaked in their own time, yet so astute about the human condition that they’ll feel relevant whenever you read them.
Often conversation drifts into an indistinct stream of techno-babble, with talk of an “internet arms race”, “wireless signals”, “cryptocurrencies” and “microplastics”. There’s something slightly nostalgic about the symbolic focus of the disaster too: the Super Bowl, an old school televisual spectacle of the kind that so exercised DeLillo in Mao II (1991) but which, now that we are so familiar with the weird fusion of intimacy, distance and temporal disruption that marks life online, feels remote.
Six months into an era of lockdown, where mass anxiety about “what is happening” is the new normal, The Silence is a tough read. DeLillo’s new work contains the sort of prescient, disturbing observations that are enough to make anyone seriously worry about our future in this troubled “realm of mortal existence”.