If you are reading this in the ever-lengthening middle of the Covid-19 pandemic, I will assume it has been a while since you’ve been on an airplane. This makes the beginning of Don DeLillo’s new novel, The Silence, all the more intriguing and unsettling at the same time—a combination very much in keeping with the fused-together, competing effects that DeLillo’s work has long had on readers.
This story opens with an older East Coast couple returning to New York on a transatlantic flight. Jim Kripps “wanted to sleep but kept on looking” at the endless array of data points about time, distance and temperature displayed on the screen on the seatback in front of him. He knows better than to spend the flight this way: “Sleep was the point. He needed to sleep. But the words and numbers kept coming.” Meanwhile his wife, Tessa, a poet and editor, wonders how much longer until the flight attendant serves scones, which in turn occasions a discussion between them about how to pronounce the name of the baked good.
DeLillo presents this banal, listless decadence with a light and mordant touch. Here are people with lives so materially full that this is how they pass, and pass through, existence. They know it, and acknowledge they could both seek more for and of themselves and their time and place, except, as Tessa laments to herself, curiosity and discovery have been defeated by the technological suffusions of the contemporary world: “There is almost nothing left of nowhere.”
But those scones never arrive. Instead, the plane goes into extreme turbulence that leads to a crash landing, and more ominously still, all the screens go blank, on and off the plane.
DeLillo’s fiction always features a great deal of deadpan satire and cultural critique.
Since the 1970s, Don DeLillo has been the wry and cool Jeremiah of American life. His novels have enjoyed popular appeal and critical acclaim for exposing the personal and civilizational tensions of living amid endless material excess, unremitting cultural decay and permanent existential dread—either because the excess is all there is to live for thanks to the decay, or because none of it matters in the face of looming, large-scale disasters.
In White Noise (1985), a passive-aggressive professor tries to support a middle-class family life and organize an academic conference while an “airborne toxic-event” looms, posing a potential mortal threat made worse by government obfuscation and alarmist media coverage. In Underworld (1997), DeLillo’s most ambitious undertaking, various characters come to terms with the trajectories of life during and after the Cold War in some 700 pages that involve extended and intertwining storylines focused on nuclear missile technology and nuclear waste disposal, the World Series and the private longings and worries of both J. Edgar Hoover and a Bronx nun named Sister Edgar.
DeLillo’s fiction features a great deal of deadpan satire and cultural critique. The main character in White Noise is a professor of “Hitler Studies”; religious figures, especially nuns, show up in several books and are always more self-aware, worldly and caustic than simplistic and sweet, perhaps owing in part to experiences DeLillo had through his mid-century American Catholic upbringing and later education at Fordham University. You don’t laugh outright so much as snicker during a DeLillo novel, just as you tend to shudder more than wince, especially because of his gift for implicating his readers in the very situations and behaviors he conjures.
This is especially the case when it comes to our disordered relationships to technology, the major focus of The Silence. To demonstrate as much, DeLillo suddenly removes technology from daily life and then asks the question, “What remains for us to see, hear, feel?” The provisional answers begin to take shape while Jim and Tessa are flying to New York to join their friends Diane, a retired professor, and Lucas, a building inspector, who are “waiting in front of the superscreen TV” in their Manhattan apartment for Super Bowl LVI to start on a Sunday night in 2022.
Diane and Lucas are accompanied by a former student of hers, Martin, who seems capable only of making small talk about theoretical physics and Einstein’s reflections on Jesus of Nazareth as a “luminous figure.” Meanwhile, Diane and Lucas try to make sense of the sudden technological failure that caused every screen they own to fail. A Chinese attack on American infrastructure? A natural cataclysm? Simply a failed power station? Eventually a bruised and equally confused Jim and Tessa join them. Accepting that they won’t be able to identify the source of the total technological breakdown, they begin to undertake the more demanding work of considering its effects on themselves and others. It is here that DeLillo’s novel becomes especially timely and provocative.
DeLillo’s commitment to the status and prospects of the human person, under any kind of extreme condition, remains alive and affecting because of its assured ambivalence.
The novel’s publication in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic intensifies DeLillo’s representations of people living, uncertainly, “‘in the grip of serious threat’,” who keep remembering life as it was. Self-confined to the apartment and peering outside for clues and evidence, the characters eventually learn that the technological breakdown is worldwide and affects not just phones and other screens but also the cessation of all technology-powered warfare. This makes for an uneasy kind of peace, and also new life: “People begin to appear in the streets, warily at first and then in a spirit of release, walking, looking, wondering, women and men, an incidental cluster of adolescents, all escorting each other through the mass insomnia of this inconceivable time.”
It is good for book and reader alike that The Silence is not a Covid-19 novel but instead thematically adjacent. This creates space both to forge differential connections and identifications with our own erstwhile “inconceivable time,” and also to imagine this same present situation without recourse to our assorted devices. Following DeLillo’s characters in their cerebral, off-kilter deliberations about what to do with the suddenly available abundance of time and no screens, it is impossible not to realize how much of our time is filled in by technology these days, whether for information gathering or avoidance of reality.
DeLillo was born in 1936, and it is tempting to dismiss his new novel’s exposure of our techno-addled tendencies as so much octogenarian literary ranting. Likewise, compared with his prior work, including his recent series of short and simply plotted novels, The Silence is a slim and stark story that borders on scant storytelling. The characters are little more than hyper-ideated voices attached to upper echelon coastal demographics.
That said, DeLillo’s deeper commitment to the status and prospects of the human person, under any kind of extreme condition, remains alive and affecting because of its assured ambivalence. Near the end of the story, for example, gloomy Martin turns especially nihilist, declaring that whether the streets are empty or full, screens black or pulsing, “The world is everything, the individual nothing. Do we all understand that?” DeLillo then tells us “Max is not listening.” Instead, he’s reclined in front of the blank television. What’s he waiting for? Has he given up? Right now, we can imagine ourselves in his place, facing the same questions and seeking answers.