by don delillo
scribner, 128 pages, $22
To say that Don DeLillo dislikes television would be an understatement. He actually seems to think it’s imperiling our souls.
DeLillo’s novel White Noise—which won the National Book Award in 1985 and secured his reputation as one of the best contemporary American writers—was originally supposed to be called Panasonic. No doubt anticipating the reticence of his publisher’s lawyers to upset the Japanese corporation of the same name, DeLillo defended his working title as “essential” for its ability to capture the uneasy “sound-saturation” that fills the book. “The paradox of television,” he wrote in a proposal archived with his papers at the University of Texas’s Harry Ransom Center,
is that the audio may have a deeper impact than the video. There’s something insidious and soul-wearying about all those voices, all that repetition and all that jargon. If you really listen, it can kill you. It’s like some diseased stream of consciousness.
Over the next decade, DeLillo apparently decided that the visual dimension of television could be pretty lethal for souls, too. In his magnum opus Underworld (1997), Sr. Edgar—one of two nuns who bring food to “the Wall,” a poor housing development in the Bronx—is surprised on her last visit there to see a television:
One of the stern mercies of the Wall, a place unlinked to the usual services, is that TV has not been available. Now here it is, suddenly. You touch a button and all the things concealed from you for centuries come flying into the remotest room. It’s an epidemic of seeing. No conceivable recess goes unscanned.
DeLillo wrote and rewrote this scene at least a dozen times, although that’s not unusual for him, as his papers show. In one draft, Sr. Edgar continues,
They show us the earth from space and think they’re enlightening us, giving us a new perspective. But we’re not prepared to understand the earth from space. This is the business of higher beings. They press in our face things that we’re not meant to see.
This is hardly a new argument, that there are limits—terrestrial and otherwise—to what human beings should see and know. John Milton made a case for such limits in the seventeenth century: “Heav’n is for thee too high / To know what passes there; be lowlie wise: / Think onely what concernes thee and thy being.” Alexander Pope made it again in the eighteenth century: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; / The proper study of mankind is man.”
What’s more distinctive of our age, perhaps, is the fact that DeLillo ultimately opted not to make this argument explicitly in his fiction. His reasons, I gather, had to do with artistic integrity. If moral and intellectual limits had ceased to hold cultural currency in the United States by the turn of the last millennium, then it would have been a failure of fictional realism to depict a contemporary United States in which they still did. In one interview, with Thomas LeClair in 1982, DeLillo expressed frustration with readers who would prefer to find a clear “moral center” and a straightforward “nineteenth-century heroine” in his work. The people in his fiction, DeLillo explained, “float in a particular social and cultural medium. A modern American medium. Half-heartedness and indifference are very much to the point.” Any “reductiveness” in his fiction thus “belongs to character and setting, not to the author’s view of things.”
You will want to know all of these things—DeLillo’s views on television, the limits of human knowledge, and fiction—before you start reading his newest novel, The Silence. You certainly won’t get many straight answers from the book itself. Without reference to his other writings, you may feel as though you’ve been given a map without a key. The present-day American medium, as DeLillo sees it, must be very reductive indeed. But the author’s vision remains intact.
The Silence takes place on Super Bowl Sunday 2022. Just before kickoff, all screens everywhere go blank. The electrical grid suddenly collapses. Smartphones die in their owners’ hands, and even landlines are suddenly without a dial tone. Gasoline-powered vehicles apparently still work. But everyone used to seeing “the earth from space,” as Sr. Edgar put it—which is to say, everyone with access to the twin miracles of satellites and smartphones—is brought bumpily back down to “planet Earth, third planet from the sun, the realm of mortal existence.”
The plot is simple, and the cast of characters is small. Two couples, married despite their mismatched last names, and one odd man out—odd in more ways than one. Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens are on a flight back from Paris when the plane begins to shake. They’re still 1,578 miles out from Newark—we know precisely because Jim is resisting sleep by reading aloud the altitude, speed, exterior temperature, and distance-to-destination indicators on their in-flight television screen, while Tessa jots down her memories of their vacation in a notebook—as the engine knocks and row after row of screens goes blank. Jim’s thoughts shift from the snack he had expected to be served before landing to imagined coverage of their downed plane on the nightly news. “Are we afraid?” Tessa asks. “He let this question hover, thinking tea and sweets, tea and sweets.”
The crash isn’t shown, but afterward Jim and Tessa somehow make it to Newark, then to a Manhattan clinic to attend to a gash on Jim’s head, and then on to a Super Bowl party on the Upper West Side, as originally planned. Their hosts are Diane Lucas, a retired physics professor, and Max Stenner, a building inspector with big money riding on the big game. Also in attendance is Martin Dekker, a former student of Diane’s, now a physics teacher himself at a high school in the Bronx. Martin has spent the last year immersed in a facsimile edition of Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity and has started to disappear into the book, which he can quote in two languages. Even before the blackout, Diane observes how the young man “barely occupied a chair, seemed only fitfully present” and wishes he would “return to earth.”
In an apartment lit by candles, with its “stove dead” and “heat beginning to fade into the walls,” this unlikely quintet huddles around a blank television screen, wondering what has become of their devices and what will become of them.
And that’s it. End of plot. Nobody else comes to Max and Diane’s apartment, and aside from two brief ventures by Max, first downstairs and then around the block, no one leaves. What has brought modern technology to its knees is never revealed, and on the whole all five characters are remarkably unchanged by such a remarkable turn of events. In many ways The Silence leaves the reader feeling, like the people who inhabit its pages, adrift.
And yet it’s not a pointless voyage. The heart of the book lies in its dialogue and descriptions, its choppy meditations on how technology is altering human experience in the twenty-first century. Every scene asks—and answers in a new way—the same question: Where will each of us be when the lights go out, and what resources will we be able to call on then? If you’re lucky, The Silence suggests, you’ll have the bonds of marriage and community, and the habit of art, to keep you sane. If you’ve been storing up your treasures in money and intellectual abstractions, good luck.
Tessa and Jim aren’t exactly relatable, but they’re the closest thing to normative that The Silence offers. She’s a poet and editor for an online medical journal; he’s a claims adjuster for an insurance company. Their chitchat on the flight is inane enough for one to balk initially at its inclusion in a work of serious literary fiction. Tessa explains why she’s jotting down her recollections: “It’s a question of looking at the notes years from now and seeing the precision, the detail.” Jim explains why he’s staring at the in-flight tracker: “It helps me hide from the noise.” The narrator adds the kind of cryptic pronouncement DeLillo is famous for making: “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.”
The couple debate the pronunciation of “scone” and try to remember the first name of the man who invented the centigrade temperature scale. A moment after the conversation wanders away from Mr. Celsius, the name comes to Tessa. “Anders,” she says. “She found this satisfying. Came out of nowhere. There is almost nothing left of nowhere.”
Banal as it is, Jim and Tessa’s dialogue establishes both the limitations of trying to hold a conversation in a metal tube hurtling through the sky, as well as their own contrarian commitment to experience, in real time and in memory. Jim doesn’t write anything down, but like Tessa he pays close attention. “He alone would remember some” of their flight, Jim thinks to himself, even before it becomes memorable to everyone:
middle of the night, in bed, images of sleeping people bundled into airline blankets, looking dead, the tall attendant asking if she could refill his wineglass, flight ending, seatbelt sign going off, the sense of release, passengers standing in the aisles, waiting, attendants at the exit, all their thank-yous and nodding heads, the million-mile smiles.
Rereading the opening chapter, I began to wonder whether their predicament—how to form meaningful sentences and lasting memories when you’re moving at an inhuman speed—is really limited to air travel at all.
In their habits of speech and small gestures, Jim and Tessa also demonstrate a commitment to one another. When the screens go blank, he checks her seatbelt before tightening his own. When they leave a long line at the Manhattan clinic to go have sex in the bathroom, it seems a strange choice, yes, but the narrator is dead serious in affirming the couple’s closeness: “They finished dressing and looked at each other for a long moment. This look summed up the day and their survival and the depth of their connection.”
Neither Jim nor Tessa speculates much about what exactly has happened, preferring instead to keep their feet on the ground and their eyes focused on whatever—or whomever—is in front of them. They attend patiently to others who try to solve the mystery. “Whatever is going on, it has crushed our technology,” says the woman in charge of triage at the clinic, demonstrating how cryptic pronouncements are not restricted to the narrator in DeLillo’s fiction. “Where is the leap of authority to our secure devices, our encryption capacities, our tweets, trolls and bots. Is everything in the datasphere subject to distortion and theft? And do we simply have to sit here and mourn our fate?” Tessa responds, “We’re here to listen,” and for the next several minutes they do just that, as the woman recounts her life story while waiting for the lights to kick back on so she can inspect Jim’s wound.
More than once, Tessa looks forward to being back in their apartment, where she can get a break from overstimulation: “All I want to do is get home and look at a blank wall.” Indeed, home is framed as the only place left on the planet where one can be alone with one’s thoughts, defenses completely down. For Tessa, it is “the place, finally, where they don’t see each other, walk past each other, say what when the other speaks, aware only of a familiar shape making noise somewhere nearby.” I’d wager that the Kripps-Berens household does not possess a TV.
Things are different at Max and Diane’s. A “superscreen” television provides the focal point of their apartment, even after the power goes out. The more Max stares into it, willing the screen back to life and wondering what’s become of his bet, the more Diane starts eyeing her former student. When their marriage wobbles, it isn’t clear whether the true interloper is Martin—whom Diane briefly propositions while Max is out for a walk, in a moment even stranger than the clinic lavatory scene—or the TV itself.
Both Max and Martin seem to channel, in a darkly comic and almost supernatural way, cultural forces larger than themselves. A gambler and devoted watcher of television, Max narrates the game he wishes he were seeing. He even does the commercials: “Wireless the way you want it. Soothes and moisturizes. Gives you twice as much for the same low cost.Reduces the risk of heart-and-mind disease.” The football calls start off normal enough—“Avoids the sack, gets it away—intercepted!”—but quickly segue into something grim. “Here on the sidelines, this team exudes confidence despite the spate of injuries,” Max says in a high-pitched, feminine voice, holding an invisible microphone. “I talked to the coordinator, offense, defense, whatever. He’s happy as a pig in shit.” The advertisements, too, become creepy and unhinged. This time in a “squeaky” voice: “Sometimes I wish I was human, man, woman, child, so I could taste this flavorful prune juice.” And then, “Play resumes, quarter two, hands, feet, knees, head, chest, crotch, hitting and getting hit. Super Bowl Fifty-Six. Our National Death Wish.”
Martin, meanwhile, doesn’t know much about football, but he knows an awful lot about other American inventions that could similarly be seen as indicative of unconscious and destructive desires. Relativity seems to have been for him a gateway into the study of every potentially sinister technology developed over the last century. Martin is the one who throws out the vast majority of theories as to what has happened: “hidden networks,” “some kind of natural breakdown or foreign intrusion,” “bioweapons,” “germs, genes, spores, powders,” an “Internet arms race, wireless signals, countersurveillance,” “data breaches,” “cryptocurrencies,” “drones.” He might be responsible for generating other hypotheses, too, but when Martin is in the room the line between omniscient narration and free indirect discourse is often impossible to distinguish. Either way, what’s crystal clear is that the pale young man is thrilled to put his obsessive knowledge of harmful technology and opaque systems to use, even if it means the end of the world: “All my life I’ve been waiting for this without knowing it.”
Although initially entranced by Martin’s apparent insight into their predicament, the other characters tune him out, one by one. We should heed their skepticism. There are surely hidden gems in his flights of dark fancy—I’ve read enough novels by DeLillo to know that seemingly haphazard details always reveal something—but The Silence likely contains red herrings, too. Reviewers have noted that the book’s techno-babble is littered with apparent mistakes: the Einstein quote that serves as the novel’s epigraph is apocryphal; Martin’s definition of capitalism comes not from Marx, but from the American Heritage Dictionary. My hunch is that these errors are deliberate.
Here, again, that early DeLillo interview proves helpful in understanding what he might be up to now. “Making things difficult for the reader is less an attack on the reader than it is on the age and its facile knowledge-market,” where “everybody seems to know everything,” DeLillo told Thomas LeClair.
The writer is driven by his conviction that some truths aren’t arrived at so easily, that life is still full of mystery, that it might be better for you, Dear Reader, if you went back to the Living section of your newspaper because this is the dying section and you don’t really want to be here.
Almost forty years later, the knowledge-market is more facile than ever and DeLillo’s prose more elliptical. The Silence is a book that gives up its meaning only slowly and with effort, and it continuously points us toward the end of something—an era, some lives, a way of living.
The novel ultimately leaves readers with only one clear message: When technology ushers in some kind of horrible collapse, no one should be remotely surprised. “It was always at the edges of our perception,” Tessa muses.
Power out, technology slipping away, one aspect, then another. We’ve seen it happening repeatedly, this country and elsewhere, storms and wildfires and evacuations, typhoons, tornadoes, drought, dense fog, foul air. Landslides, tsunamis, disappearing rivers, houses collapsing, entire buildings crumbling, skies blotted out by pollution.
Instead, we might think about being prepared. Food and water are an afterthought, at best, in the novel. More pressing is what we’ll have left to talk about with one another when “there’s nothing else to say except what comes into our heads” and nowhere else to go but home.
Cassandra Nelson is an associate fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. Passages used by permission of Don DeLillo and the Harry Ransom Center. All rights reserved to Don DeLillo for his own use and disposition.