Paranoid Chatter

Don DeLillo, The Silence

Picador, 128pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781529057096

reviewed by Gabriel Flynn

According to the philosopher Theodor Adorno, the ‘maturity’ of the late works of important artists ‘is not like the ripeness of fruit’. Late works, he says, ‘are not well rounded, but wrinkled, even fissured. They are apt to lack sweetness, fending off with prickly tartness those interested merely in sampling them.’

Few would likely recommend The Silence, Don DeLillo’s 18th novel and his prickliest yet, to a reader interested in sampling his work. The Silence is awkward, full of gaps, and contains only a few kernels of sweetness. Those few moments should be enough, however, to reassure dedicated readers that this is not the work of an artist losing their talent or their mind, but one for whom lateness means freedom to abandon the pursuit of harmony, resolution, and coherence, perhaps finally to abandon the novel as a form altogether. The paring back of DeLillo’s fiction that has been underway since 2001’s The Body Artist has its apotheosis here.

The novel’s closing words provide a statement of purpose, a poetics: ‘The world is everything, the individual nothing. Do we all understand that?’ This question hangs over The Silence. What future is there for the novel, the form of the individual life and the unique character, in an age where both are dying out if not already extinct? That question is not new – it is not new even to DeLillo – but The Silence might be his most uncompromising attempt to take it seriously.

The Silence is about five friends in New York City living through a failure of technology that causes television screens to go blank, mobile phones to die, and planes to fall to the ground: it might be World War Three, or it might just be ‘the total collapse of all systems’. We never know for sure. The friends are about to watch the Superbowl in the year 2022, but technology fails before the football game can start. Actually, all we know for sure is that the television broadcast is disrupted. Because DeLillo never gives us an omniscient view of the crisis, only the way his small cast of characters’ experience it while stuck in their apartment. The conceit makes for a claustrophobic novel; often, The Silence feels as though it could have been a radio play: little happens except for speech.

The novel’s opening scene sees Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens, husband and wife on a transatlantic flight to Newark. Tessa, a poet, writes in her notebook while Jim talks to himself or to everybody, channelling the whole lexical environment into speech: ‘Okay. Altitude thirty-three thousand and two feet. Nice and precise,’ he says, ‘Température extérieure minus fifty-eight C.’ Meanwhile, another couple, Max and Dianne, are awaiting Jim and Tessa’s arrival at the small Superbowl party they are throwing in their Manhattan apartment. With them is Martin, a former student of Dianne’s and an Einstein obsessive.

When the technology blackout occurs, Jim and Tessa’s plane crash lands and the TV in Max and Dianne’s apartment goes blank. Martin, the novel’s paranoid voice, begins to speculate on the possible causes: ‘It could be algorithmic governance. The Chinese,’ he suggests. Jim and Tessa have survived their crash landing and make their way to a clinic, where, in a long queue to have their injuries treated, they gauge the severity of whatever is going on. From there, they head to the Superbowl party, where Max is now commentating on the game that isn’t happening: ‘These teams are evenly matched more or less. Punting from midfield. A barn burner of a game,’ he says before his speech slips easily into advertising mimicry: ‘Wireless the way you want it. Soothes and moisturizes.’

While mid-career DeLillo might have delighted in revealing the plot that brought about the crisis, in The Silence it is deliberately vague. The plot seems unimportant, perhaps even unknowable. Instead, there is only paranoid chatter: ‘Is everyone at home or in darkened bars and social clubs, trying to watch the game? Think of the many millions of blank screens. Try to imagine the disabled phones. What happens to people who live inside their phones?’ Indeed, the dialogue in The Silence often approximates the schizophrenic quality of smartphone language; the manic shifting between registers, the constant non-sequiturs, the repetition of cliché.

Amid all of this disjuncture, there are still moments when we see DeLillo is a writer capable of producing harmonies and lightness, the absurd dialogue that has become his signature:

The young man said quietly, ‘I’ve been taking a medication.’
‘The oral route.’
‘Yes. We all do this. A little white pill.’
‘There are side effects.’
‘A small pellet or tablet. White, pink, whatever.’
‘Could be constipation. Could be diarrhea.’
‘Yes,’ she whispered.

These moments punctuate the incoherent chatter, reminding us that DeLillo is a writer capable of writing otherwise. In The Silence, he chooses not to. In a novel about the collapse of all systems, the novel itself is not spared.

Jim and Tessa finally arrive, and the first act closes with the five friends eating their half-time snacks before a blank TV screen. The second act then opens with a statement printed onto an otherwise blank page. It’s Martin speaking: ‘Nobody wants to call it World III but this is what it is,’ he says.

One idea the novel seems to communicate is that we are already speaking the language of our next great war. In the second act, the narrative prose of the earlier chapters gives onto unattributed speech composed of blurted sentence fragments: ‘Dark energy, phantom waves, hack and counter-hack,’ says one. ‘Bioweapons and the countries that possess them,’ says another. One paragraph reads simply: ‘Satellite tracking data.’ It turns out all of this is coming from Martin, the student, who is standing before all of the others in the dark room, ranting in his version of Albert Einstein’s English-speaking accent. Dianne wonders if these are quotations from Einstein’s 1912 manuscript or ‘simply noises floating in the air, the language of World War III.’

There is much fondling of this language and some of the novel’s greater pleasures are sonic and philological: When Dianne recounts a visit to a palazzo in Rome, Martin responds: ‘His raiment. I try to think of a rumpled garment embedded within the word.’ Martin is also the mouthpiece for DeLillo’s love of technical lexica, speaking in fragmented lists: ‘Wave structure, metric tensor, covariant qualities,’ he says in one moment before he and Dianne repeat the word ‘cryptocurrency’ to one another a few times.

From all of this formal dissolution and narrative confusion, a surprisingly moving final passage emerges, a series of short monologues, delivered in turns, while World War III rages on beyond the window. Dianne reveals that she has had a line from Finnegans Wake stuck in her head: ‘Ere the sockson locked at the dure,’ before telling herself, ‘Shut up, Dianne.’ These closing monologues begin to look like a meta-commentary on DeLillo’s writing, on fiction altogether, and Tessa makes this more explicit when she states: ‘I revisit old notebooks sometimes and it amazes me to read what I thought was worth writing.’

Why does Dianne tell herself to shut up? Why does Tessa lament the pointlessness of what she has written? Because the world is everything, the individual nothing: The Silence feels like DeLillo’s penance for 50 years of ignoring these last words and writing novels; a vain exercise, he seems to say, archaic, pointless.

According to Adorno, it’s the caesurae – the abrupt stops – which characterise Beethoven’s late style above all else. In these gaps, he says, ‘the work falls silent as it is deserted, turning its hollowness outwards.’ The Silence, full of gaps and abrupt stops, often feels hollow, like a novel that has been deserted by its author. Few readers will likely say it is their favourite DeLillo novel, but few could dispute that it represents the truest manifestation of his vision to date.

Gabriel Flynn 's story 'Rockets and Blue Lights' was shortlisted for the 2020 White Review Short Story Prize. He lives in Manchester.