The Silence by Don DeLillo

Reviewed by Rod McLary

While Don DeLillo would reject such a classification, it is generally thought that his novels are postmodernist in that they explore postmodern themes such as ‘rampant consumerism, underground conspiracies and the promise of rebirth through violence’.  His latest novel The Silence is no different – its primary theme is the breakdown of society through an undefined and seemingly catastrophic event.

Set in New York in 2022, The Silence is structured in two parts.

Part One chronicles the coming together of five people to watch the Super Bowl LVI.  The characters are Diane Lucas a retired physics professor and her husband Max Stenner, Diane’s former student Martin Dekker, and Jim Kripps and his wife Tessa Berens.  The latter couple are flying back to New York from Paris and, after landing in Newark, they will join Diane and Max and Martin in their apartment.

Hints of the parlous state of society emerge in the descriptions of Jim – ‘but for all the hours of this flight, his name was his seat number’ [6] – and Tessa who is an ‘editor with an advisory group that answered questions … on subjects ranging from hearing loss to bodily equilibrium to dementia’ [7].  The descriptions of Max and Martin are no less evocative – ‘Max was accustomed to being sedentary, attached to a surface, his armchair, sitting, watching’ [19]; and Martin who ‘barely occupied a chair … a man lost in compulsive study of Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity’ [23].

While these three sit and watch the pre-game and wait for the arrival of Jim and Tessa, the television screen suddenly goes blank.  At the same time, their mobile phones, their landline and laptops are all rendered lifeless – New York turns dark.  Diane says – perhaps presciently – ‘is this the casual embrace that marks the fall of civilization?’ [35].

As Jim’s and Tessa’s plane nears New York, it begins ‘to bounce from side to side’ [15] with ‘a massive knocking somewhere below them’ [16].  Tessa says to Jim: ‘Are we afraid?’ [17].

The plane lands relatively safely but not without injuries to the passengers.  At the clinic to which Jim and Tessa are taken, the attendant says to them in an explanation of the blank computer screens in front of her ‘Whatever is going on, it has crushed our technology’ [59].

Part Two begins with what may be an explanation.  Its first sentence is:

It is clear by now that the launch codes are being manipulated remotely by unknown groups or agencies.  All nuclear weapons, worldwide, have become dysfunctional. [77]

In a chilling sentence isolated on a page by itself, Martin says: ‘Nobody wants to call it World War III but this is what it is’ [79].

Referencing the more extreme views of certain people, Martin asks ‘Do a select number of people have a form of phone implanted in their bodies?’ [80].  A serious question Martin claims as he goes on to speak of ‘satellites in orbit that are able to see everything’ down to ‘the socks we are wearing’ [90] – a form of paranoia or a description of reality?

Through the speech and thoughts of the five characters, the author explores the innate fears and prejudices of people generally and raises – but does not answer – questions such as ‘what if we are not what we think we are?’ [87]

In this spare but compelling short novel, Don DeLillo anticipates the state of the world should the computer systems fail us.  By setting out the responses of the five characters to this event, he gives them each the opportunity to speak to each other and to themselves of their fears and preoccupations and by doing so explores the nature of the western world: its preoccupations with consumerism, over-reliance on technology, the disconnect between ourselves and each other, and ultimately, our capacity for self-destruction.

The epigraph to The Silence is a quote from the Einstein manuscript referred to above –

I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.

 The quote implies that the novel’s catastrophic event is a world war and anticipates that one of its outcomes will be a total loss of technology – and apparently this is the state in which the novel’s characters find themselves.  Frightening as that may be, it is echoed by the book’s last sentence regarding Max: ‘Then he stares into the blank screen.’ [116]

The Silence is an unsettling book to read but one well worth reading and re-reading.

Don DeLillo is the author of seventeen novels.  He has won the National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, the PEN/Saul Bellow Award and the William Dean Howells Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  In 2013, Don DeLillo was awarded the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction.

The Silence

[2020]

by Don DeLillo

Pan Macmillan

ISBN 978 15290 5709 6

$29.99; 116pp

 

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