American novelist Don DeLillo sits at the precipice of post-modern mastery. Best known for the 1985 novel “White Noise,” which won him the National Book Award, his referential and strange style combines with sometimes inhuman and puppeted character dialogue to act as a mouthpiece for his own strikingly powerful ethos and ideas. “White Noise” exemplifies these traits. It was his eighth novel.
“The Silence,” published last October, is his seventeenth. DeLillo is approaching the end of his career, and on more than one occasion while reading through “The Silence,” I wished it would have ended earlier. “The Silence” embodies all of his worst impulses, crystallized into an uncomfortable mass. Any cutting wit or humor that had been present in “White Noise” has been washed away by the bland premise of his newest work: what if, suddenly, all the world’s technology went dark?
The novel follows two sets of couples and a fifth wheel straggler as they try to navigate this strange new world. Or rather, it follows them to an apartment in Newark, NJ where the older couple, by a couple generations, waits in preparation for a Super Bowl party. The younger couple, Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens, are on their way back from a Paris trip. Their plane crash-lands, and after a hurried, desperate sex scene in the bathroom —– the relief of surviving after a plane crash being too overwhelming to bear (the last human moment we’ll see in the novel) —– they rush to the Super Bowl party. The older couple, Diane Lucas and Max Stenner, are waiting for them, along with Martin Dekker, a former physics graduate student of Diane’s.
For the next 80 pages, the characters talk in circuitous routes, mostly discussing Albert Einstein. Dekker is the worst offender for this kind of dialogue. After Stenner leaves to wander around the new world, Dekker begins spouting lots of physics terms. It's hard to understand him as really saying anything meaningful beyond voicing DeLillo’s own contrived philosophical thoughts. In this way, Dekker is just an editorial agent. As a character, he doesn’t seem much bothered by the titular silence descending on the world, the total technological blackout. He is inhumanly stoic. Max, mercifully, eventually returns, ending Dekker’s ramblings, although nothing seems to have been gained from his journey out. The novel ends, the premise unexplored, the silence unheard.
In some ways, “The Silence” is a boomer’s fantasy, a global comeuppance for a generation that moved too fast. The premise is never explored, and it’s never explored because DeLillo clearly doesn’t really understand technology. That’s obvious from the novel. He can’t pull anything of substance from the concept. There are no situations where the lack of technology is made painfully, existentially apparent, where its loss is felt. And besides, his main technological props are the airplane and the TV, technologies that are today somewhat relics. Smartphones are only briefly mentioned. So, he contorts the novel’s characters, trying to find something to say and saying nothing. The novel ends up lacking human realness. It is composed purely of ideas: no character, no substance, nothing which one would normally read fiction for. It is a Foucaultian puppet show, but without any of Foucault’s depth or charisma.
In previous DeLillo novels, the characters would editorialize at times, but they never felt fully like puppets. They spoke meaningfully about real problems and their resulting predicaments, while literally strange, seemed to capture some ephemeral human angst. There was something underneath his style. But “The Silence” is a distorted pane of glass, with nothing underneath. At certain angles, the impression of substance is given. But looking plainly for any length of time you’ll soon realize it's nothing. Just silence in the aftermath of real meaning.