‘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 here. DeLillo is up to something else, something about our unnerving dependence on technology. “What happens,” the narrator asks, “to people who live inside their phones?”
Apparently, they become raving loons. It turns out that the distance between “Can you hear me now?” and “What’s left to live for?” is about seven minutes. Deprived of television and Internet access in this rapidly cooling apartment, Diane and her former student devolve into a bizarre series of non sequiturs about Jesus and Einstein. Diane thinks Martin “sounds either brilliant or unbalanced.” But that is not a tough choice. Martin starts rambling off a list of words: thaumatology, ontology, eschatology, epistemology, phenomenology, teleology, etiology, ontogeny. “He could not stop himself,” the narrator notes. Then he drops his pants, and Diane asks him to say something in German.
I began to wish I were on Jim and Tessa’s plane.
Undisturbed just a few feet away, Max stares at the blank TV screen, narrating the game and the commercials that no one is seeing. This is a Super Bowl party as reimagined by Ionesco.
Given the novel’s dramatic posing, it’s not surprising that Simon & Schuster is releasing the audiobook with a full cast that includes Laurie Anderson, Jeremy Bobb, Marin Ireland, Robin Miles, Jay O. Sanders and Michael Stuhlbarg. Surely, if theaters ever reopen, “The Silence” will be staged by some exceedingly earnest director and accompanied by music by Philip Glass.
Meanwhile, Jim and Tessa have miraculously survived and been taken to a hospital, where they have sex in the restroom, which is not standard treatment for injuries sustained during a plane crash. But clearly, this is no ordinary night. The trauma nurse asks Jim, “Is everything in the datasphere subject to distortion and theft?” (I’m almost certain my health insurance doesn’t cover that.) If she’s not much of a nurse, at least she hits upon the central theme of “The Silence”: “The more advanced, the more vulnerable,” she says. “Our systems of surveillance, our facial recognition devices, our imagery resolution. How do we know who we are?”
Our dangerous reliance on technology is a well-trod concern — trod brilliantly, in fact, by DeLillo’s own earlier novels. In these latter days, it’s not possible to articulate something profound about society’s fragility by striking a series of eccentric affectations. After “The Road,” “Oryx and Crake,” “Station Eleven” and other unnerving dystopias, “The Silence” feels like Apocalypse Lite for people who don’t want to get their hands dirty.
DeLillo refers to “the human slivers of a civilization,” but the plot of this novel is so attenuated that it conveys little of that precarious condition. As the hours tick by, these characters swing erratically from domestic banality to absurdist spectacle. Never have five people reacted with such existential dread to missing the Super Bowl. If they’d run out of guacamole, they might have jumped out the window.