by Don DeLillo (2020)
Don DeLillo turns 84 here in a few weeks. For nearly 50 years (his debut Americana arrived in 1971), and particularly following the publication of White Noise in 1985 when he gained widespread attention and a National Book Award, he has been known as an interrogator of the dystopian present. His books can feel like science fiction, but it’s surprising how they really dwell in the here and now, with only the slightest twist.
DeLillo’s latest is no exception. It takes place on Super Bowl Sunday, 2022, but, especially given the year we’re having, it feels like today. When the book begins, Jim, a claims adjuster (DeLillo really knows how to pick jobs like that for his characters) and Tessa, a poet, are flying to Newark from Paris. Once they get to the airport, they intend to quickly make their way to their friends’ apartment to watch the big game. It’s not going to be an easy trip.
We go to that apartment in Manhattan where a thrilling trio (I’m kidding — they are so boring and isolated from each other) is waiting for Jim and Tessa. Here we meet Max and Diane and a young physicist named Martin. They’re engaged in the substantial but meaningless pre-game babble and are already looking forward to the half-time food.
Just around the time of the kick-off: “Something happened then.” In their apartment — all over the world — electronics fail. Televisions shut off. Phones fail. Laptops go lifeless. Planes fall from the sky.
While this is not a new premise — the failure of technology is a familiar trope of dystopian novels all the way back — in the hands of DeLillo it has the potential to be more than a thought experiment. Again, while this has not happened yet in our world of 2020 (which I wouldn’t be surprised to learn is an alternate reality DeLillo concocted and figured out how to get us all really immersed), DeLillo knows how to make it familiar, how to bring our own anxieties, our own isolation and despair, to the table.
I found it fascinating, as usual. DeLillo is exploring the idea that technology has fundamentally transformed the way we experience the present. Without it, our perception of reality and of each other will change again, only this time we might not be able to handle it. The meaninglessness we subject ourselves to on our screens is a great way to mask the meaninglessness we could not otherwise bear.
If this sounds a bit like White Noise, I think that’s entirely fair. However, I will say that The Silence is quite a different form, and naturally a lot has happened since 1985. For one, The Silence is a small work, at only somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 words (I’ve seen both and didn’t bother to do the math myself). It’s eerie and unpleasant. Unpleasant in a few ways: first, naturally, DeLillo’s world and its small population are disconnected from each other. But also, this is an unpleasant read because it’s so empty, soulless . . . deliberately, I think, but nevertheless.
DeLillo begins the book with Jim looking at the flight information on the screen. Of course I know the feeling. Again, it’s familiar. It’s super dull, but DeLillo still manages to make it hum with the airplane engine’s drone and Jim’s anxiety.
The man touched the button and his seat moved from its upright position. He found himself staring up at the nearest of the small screens located just below the overhead bin, words and numbers changing with the progress of the flight. Altitude, air temperature, speed, time of arrival. He wanted to sleep but kept on looking.
Heure à Paris. Heure à London.
“Look,” he said, and the woman nodded faintly but kept on writing in a little blue notebook.
He began to recite the words and numbers aloud because it made no sense, it had no effect, if he simply noted the changing details only to lose each one instantly in the twin drones of mind and aircraft.
“Okay. Altitude thirty-three thousand and two feet. Nice and precise,” he said. “Température extérieur minus fifty-eight C.”
This goes on for several pages. It’s incisive: the focus on the words we’ve all heard a thousand times — overhead bin, upright position; the desire for sleep that cannot overcome the compulsion to look at information that becomes meaningless within seconds.
Several pages later (no, it’s not exciting, but I couldn’t look away), Jim is still looking at the screen. While we know why, under the surface, because we’ve been there, it’s articulated quite well by DeLillo.
“Time to destination one hour twenty-six. I’ll tell you what I can’t remember. The name of this airline. Two weeks ago, starting out, different airline, no bilingual screen.”
“But you’re happy about the screen. You like your screen.”
“It helps me hide from the noise.”
Everything predetermined, a long flight, what we think and say, our immersion in a single sustained overtone, the engine roar, how we accept the need to accommodate it, keep it tolerable even if it isn’t.
This opener is dull; it’s unsettling. It’s pretty perfect for what I think DeLillo was going for.
Yes, it’s brilliant, I say now, though I don’t pretend it wasn’t hard going as a read. As I mentioned above, this is a small book. I read it twice and skimmed once. I didn’t enjoy it at all for its story or plot or suspense. But that seems beside the point. I don’t think DeLillo cares if we enjoy it in that conventional way. He’s not writing a thriller, after all. It’s almost the opposite: this is about the anxiety, not the thrill, of a collapse that uncovers meaninglessness. This collapse is not the difficult birth of a better age.