When every screen in the world goes vvvzzztt and then blank, “What happens to people who live inside their phones?” Such is the question the world’s resident doyen of hysterical realism and American mythology, Don DeLillo, poses and answers in his most recent book, The Silence. Both brevity and absurdity provoke numerous reflexive questions when the end of the world turns out to be shruggable—the conceivable becomes cautionary, because we fear he’s absolutely right about what we, the screen-adhered, could become.
Whereas DeLillo’s Zero K in 2016 opened with “Everyone wants to own the end of the world,” The Silence tells of people who are present for it but own nothing. Set in 2022, insurance-claims adjuster Jim and his poet wife, Tessa, are flying to Newark International Airport from France, with Jim fixated on all manner of numbers, from temperatures and altitude to miles and speed. “For all the hours of this flight, his name is a seat number,” DeLillo remarks, denoting a reductive existence most of us experience today, in various forms. In the first few pages via the ubiquitous air travel experience, DeLillo tacitly offers a summation of modernity in general: “everything [is] predetermined. 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.” Jim and Tessa survive their plane crashing and arrive at the Manhattan home of Max, a football fanatic, and his retired physics professor wife, Diane, for Super Bowl Sunday. Also present is Diane’s former student Martin. At the center of this unexceptional American gathering is a blank television at which they dumbly stare before blithely acknowledging the sudden global blackout that caused the plane crash and upended any and all digital communication. This is The Silence.
The five friends don’t strategize about what to do, where to go and how to get there, when to leave, or whom to take. Immobile in the darkness of what appears to be doomsday, they don’t share unrealized dreams or stories of lost lovers, personal successes and failures, or describe wondrous moments with their grandchildren. There are no tears. Yawns are faked. Where’s God? Instead, they spend their final hours fathoming who or what the “villain” is, or, “Who can we blame?” Whether it’s caused by “phantom waves,” “the neural interface,” “perpetual postmortem financing,” or “cyberattacks, digital intrusions, biological aggressions,” the cataclysm, with an unidentified genesis, is thought to be just a temporary irritant to normality: “Lights back on, heat back on, our collective mind back where it was, more or less, in a day or two,” says Diane. When life culminates in the desire to watch the Seahawks versus the Titans, and the sudden absence of bellicose men is what’s most disconcerting, apparent are the inadequacies of language, no matter how much these people talk to each other. Diane asks, “Is this the casual embrace that marks the fall of world civilization?” Yes.
In hand, the presentation of The Silence, with its simple typewriter font on paper, slim margins, and abbreviated chapters, juxtaposes the “tumbling void” created by computers, which have consumed the collective and turned out “white androids” who perform humanity after their willful transference of agency. DeLillo’s characters aren’t wholly developed, because they’re not supposed to be; the excavation of their survival instincts is complete after relentless exposure to “secure devices,” “encryption capacities,” “cryptocurrencies,” “tweets, trolls and bots,” and consumption of soda and soap paraded in unaired Super Bowl ads. Grid reliance has always been tentative with inherent, insidiously dangerous and dangerously insidious results, and while they’re recognized, they’re also not actively resisted: “We’re being zombified,” Max contends. “We’re being bird-brained.” Martin falls “into a pale trance. Was this a sickness, a condition?” Diane speaks of identifying the strangeness of “certain individuals” who have “seemed to accept the shutdown, the burnout. Is this something that they’ve always longed for, subliminally, subatomically?” How strange and sad that our poet, Tessa, offers nothing poetic about finality. No one wonders if The Silence is survivable, or, if survived, how life may be lived less dominated and dictated by a screen. We know the constancy of the unreal is degrading the real; what makes us innately happy is connection. Happiness is only mentioned once in The Silence when Jim stares at his in-flight entertainment and Tessa robotically directs him, “You’re happy about the screen. You like your screen.” Behind the screen, “personal perceptions are sinking into quantum dominance,” DeLillo warns, and Martin says, “Nobody wants to call it World War III, but this is what it is,” a nod to the novel’s epigraph from Albert Einstein, “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 Silence’s absurdity is not unlike Luis Buñuel’s 1962 film The Exterminating Angel, where partygoers can’t leave a house no matter what, with inertia inexplicably in control. Locked in is being locked out. How often do we address the seduction of convenience, why and when we buy it, and the obligatory nature of denaturing? Just how much sacrifice is required for our password-ruled lives? Chapter three opens with the observation that “Life can get so interesting lest we forget to be afraid.” These characters automate care, and how often do we automate care on social media? When we text, are we always our authentic selves or a DeLillo-ed version wherein we skim countless surfaces but label the act—confuse it with—connection? At this point, is it even possible to circumvent distractions and distortions? We know we aren’t examining our use of technology enough or the dangers of existing as a number. Inertia is everywhere, wrought of technology, all while technology advances us. DeLillo depicts destabilization at the macro level and disperses it at the micro level, where destabilization is most lethal within the self. Thematically, danger looms, but the characters’ analysis of its cause illuminates how fascinating destabilization can be, how realistic The Silence could be.
Unfurl a headline to observe how it’s lived in motion—and personally within the minutiae—is what DeLillo does in nearly all his often epiphanic work, whether he’s writing about assassinations, alien transmissions, financial ruin, toxic breaches, fame, fandom, terrorism, or disparate tragedies of the heart. The Silence has become notable for being stripped of his rhythmic revelations, but in doing this, he’s made this work his most pointed and grotesque. “What if we are not what we think we are?” Tessa asks, and our author’s answer is a commentary that sort of hurts because it’s sort of true: America is a vapid wasteland.
Conversations about the abstract among barely developed characters in chosen confinement make up many DeLillo novels, and his dispatches from everyday life are famous for evaluating both interiority and tangible realities, frequently with humor. Two of his notable works similar to The Silence are 2001’s The Body Artist and 2010’s Point Omega. The Body Artist reads like a prose poem as it explores the protagonist’s grief through confrontations with her illusions, and DeLillo delves into her ritualistic methodology for obtaining meaning after a tragedy: she keeps conversing with the supernatural presence in her home to return her to herself. He writes, “She framed his face in her hands, looking at him straight-on. What did it mean, the first time a thinking creature looked deeply into another’s eyes? Did it take a hundred thousand years before this happened or was it the first thing they did, transcendently, the thing that made them higher, made them modern, the gaze that demonstrates we are lonely in our souls?” Destabilization is quite beautiful, as DeLillo charts loneliness as the ultimate risk of connection. Point Omega features three New Yorkers dwelling in a desert who talk to contrive meaning in a world that’s decidedly devoid of it, and then tragedy hits. All their chatter is futile: “The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever. The true life takes place when we’re alone, thinking, feeling, lost in memory, dreamily self-aware, the submicroscopic moments. He said this more than once, Elster did, in more than one way. His life happened, he said, when he sat staring at a blank wall, thinking about dinner.” Again, DeLillo surveys mental landscapes not as a voyeur but as the skeptical but lyrical sage entrusted with formerly undisclosed, important information about the human condition. For The Silence, DeLillo’s mastery is evident in how he runs his trenchant observations about us and our environment appropriately and skillfully through a digital filter. The book is 128 pages of meta. As DeLillo puts it,
It was always at the edges of our perception. 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, drought, dense fog, foul air. Landslides, tsunamis, disappearing rivers, houses collapsing, entire buildings crumbling, skies blotted out by pollution. I’m sorry and I’ll try to shut up. But remaining fresh in every memory, virus, plague, the march through airport terminals, the face masks, the city streets emptied out.
Published during the COVID-19 pandemic, which exposed deadly deficiencies in communication, The Silence may predict The Future, which is, frighteningly, in DeLillo’s telling, 2022.
The Silence. By Don DeLillo. New York: Scribner, 2021. 128 pp. $22.00.