‘The Silence,’ by Don DeLillo book review


The story takes place in 2022. In the opening pages, Jim and his wife, Tessa, are flying home to New York from a vacation in Paris. Hours of sitting have made them both tedious. “In the air,” DeLillo writes, “much of what the couple said to each other seemed to be a function of some automated process, remarks generated by the nature of airline travel itself.” Jim rambles; his wife humors him. They are “filling time. Being boring” — re-created here with distressing verisimilitude.

Suddenly, the passengers hear “a massive knocking somewhere below them.” Turbulence shakes the plane hard. Panicked voices blare over the intercom. As the chapter ends, Tessa asks, “Are we afraid?”

The novel picks up in a New York apartment where Diane and Max, a long married couple, are waiting for their friends to arrive from Paris for a Super Bowl party. So far, the only guest is Martin, one of Diane’s former physics students. For the past year, Martin has been “lost in his compulsive study of Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity,” which makes him just as much fun to be around as you might expect.

No sooner does the football game begin than the TV screen goes blank. The phones are silent. The computer is dead. Martin suggests that the Chinese government may have launched “a selective internet apocalypse.” Diane makes a joke about aliens and imagines “all the people watching intently or sitting as we are, puzzled, abandoned by science, technology, common sense.”

This opening sounds all the usual alarms of worldwide diaster: planes falling from the sky, cities plunged into darkness. The fires will surely start soon, and marauding masses will lay waste to society in an orgy of greed and murder.

We won’t get such messy calamity