Don DeLillo, The Silence

The SilenceThe Silence by Don DeLillo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the ultimate Don DeLillo novel. I don’t mean to argue from the actuarial figures that it is likely to be the octogenarian author’s last; rather that, as Rachel Kushner grandly has it on the back cover, “The Silence seems to absorb DeLillo’s entire body of work and sand it into stone or crystal.” This the summa of DeLillo’s themes and motifs. There are sports and airplanes, terrorism and paranoia, movies and technology, anxiety and prophecy, magic and dread. Yet the impulse toward narrative is gone, as is most of the desire to describe. The Silence is like a poet’s last volume, not a story but a self-elegy in auto-curation: to appreciate it, we will need to have been caring all along about the rag and bone shop of his heart.

This novel is also a piece for voices—its characters channel staccato essays as they live through the apocalypse. They are not characters in the round, though, as in a traditional novel, but Beckettian placeholders for what remains of the human being—language and flesh—when any sense of self or soul has gone. Is The Silence really a novel? It is set in a big typewriter font with generous spacing and margins, and it comes out at 115 pages, counting part divisions; a long short story in length, but a closet drama in genre.

The premise: on Super Bowl Sunday, 2022, all the screens go dark. Telecommunications seem to fail. The TVs, computers, and phones are blank: “‘Nobody wants to call it World War III but this is what it is,’ Martin says.” We have five characters. First we meet Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens, a married couple, on a plane from Paris to New York. He is obsessed with the screen in front of him that marks the plane’s transatlantic progress (“Altitude, air temperature, speed, time of arrival”), while she—a poet—writes obsessively in her notebook. DeLillo is always good on the comic, quotidian intimacy of marriage, as in Tessa’s reaction when the plane begins to shake and drop out of the sky: “‘Are we afraid?’ she said.”

Tessa and Jim are awaited in New York, for a Super Bowl watch party, by trio of characters: another older couple, Max Stenner and Diane Lucas, and Diane’s former student, Martin Dekker, a physics teacher obsessed with the 1912 manuscript of Einstein’s special theory of relativity. There is a hint, a penumbra, of realist novel here: Diane’s professorial aspirations, perhaps her attraction to Martin, with Jim’s fractious temper in the background. Yet nothing comes of it. Nothing will come of nothing, and DeLillo is interested in the nothing beneath the networked social world.

“The more advanced, the more vulnerable. Our systems of surveillance, our facial recognition devices, our imagery resolutions. How do we know who we are?”

This nothing’s extermination by the network’s omni-extension of information is briefly mourned early in the novel, before the network itself goes down, when Tessa tries to recall a bit of trivia, and then it comes to her from “nowhere”:

She found this satisfying. Came out of nowhere. There is almost nothing left of nowhere. When a missing fact emerges without digital assistance, each person announces it to the other while looking off into the remote distance, the otherworld of what was known and lost.

The nowhere beyond consciousness and its devices has always has been DeLillo’s cheif interest. He didn’t have to wait for social media and the smartphone to comment on the transformation of the human by surveillance and control grids; he saw it already, long ago, not only in the shape of corporate power and government conspiracy, but in the everyday currency of the consumer culture. He wasn’t ever exactly a social critic, though, railing like a Sontag or a Lasch against the derangement of man, nature, and culture by the technopomps of a posthuman future. For one thing, “surveillance and control grids” were always latent in language, which is to say in human nature itself. We were born into this dilemma, long before Bell Labs and the CIA and Google. For another thing, with DeLillo as with an earlier Italian visionary, the way out is the way down: a passage out of the grid and into the ineffable numinous can be found in the technoculture as in language—especially in language. Or else why write? If the word from elsewhere or nowhere was “Toyota Celica” in White Noise, it is, in The Silence, more conventionally venerable:

She knew that the name Jesus of Nazareth carried an intangible quality that drew him into its aura. He did not belong to a particular religion and did not feel reverence for any being of alleged supernatural power.

It was the name that gripped him. The beauty of the name. The name and place.

What else? There are bodies. Tessa and Jim implausibly feel themselves compelled to have sex in a clinic bathroom after their near-death experience in the plane’s crash landing. This is more an enactment of a movie cliché than a parody of one, I think, but DeLillo’s deadpan saves the scene:

Someone was knocking on the door, then speaking into it. Show some consideration. Another voice then, accented. Tessa whispered a list of nationalities as they completed the act…

Showing that DeLillo’s ear is still good and his eye still open, this is perhaps most a 2020 book not because of the smartphones or the general catastrophe but because little marks these characters as individual humans—except that Tessa, the poet, the notebook scribbler, devotee of the analog in a world soon to be bereft of the digital, is marked by race. That is, the narrator remarks her race and not that of the other and therefore presumably white characters. Because it is what sets this poetic novel’s poet apart from its other and blanker characters, race becomes the final marker of the human as such:

She was Jim’s wife, dark-skinned, Tessa Berens, Caribbean-European-Asian origins, a poet whose work often appeared in literary journals.

[…]

Diane thought she was beautiful, mixed parentage, her poetry obscure, intimate, impressive.

[…]

Tessa Berens studies the backs of her hands as if confirming the color, her color, and wondering why she is here and not somewhere else in the world…

Otherwise, it is as Martin Dekker says: “The world is everything, the individual nothing. Do we all understand that?” If The Silence exhibits the proverbial serenity, the mind of winter, said to characterize an elder writer’s final fictions, it is in the resignation to this claim. The very form of the novel is resigned in its lack of narrative progression and character depth and development. One element often present in DeLillo but absent from this book is the work of art as registration of and protest against both nothingness and the rationalized grid that would master it. Art here has shrunk down to Tessa’s notebook scribbles. In early and middle DeLillo, we could always infer some rage against the disappearance of the single human person, of the soul, of the psyche—some residual Catholic faith in free will or American creed of individualism. Here is awareness—and more 2020 resonance—but no rage:

And isn’t it strange that certain individuals have seemed to accept the shutdown, the burnout? Isn’t this something that they’ve always longed for, subliminally, subatomically? Some people, always some, a minuscule number among the human inhabitants of planet Earth, third planet from the sun, the realm of mortal existence.

Late DeLillo demurs from such a fight with the inevitable shutdown and burnout. The silence from which there can be no reprieve awaits; in the meantime, chatter and fragments about ultimate things.