A Review of
The Silence : A Novel
Reviewed by Simon Travers
Don DeLillo has published his seventeenth novel, a short work entitled The Silence. Although DeLillo chooses the descriptor ‘novel’ for the work, it could be as well categorized as a novella, prose poem, meditation or screenplay treatment. The Silence is clearly DeLillo; it is a story of a Manhattanite couple preparing for Super Bowl Sunday 2022, hosting friends and a former student who is obsessed with Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity. However, the book tends towards the mysterious and ruminative. The Silence is not a literary sound and light show because it is a novel about what happens when the lights go out.
As the main characters, Max Stenner and Diane Lucas, wait for the game to start and their friends, Jim Krippa and Tessa Berens, to arrive, all screens and electric devices short out. We know this event is bigger than New York City as it impacts Jim and Tessa’s flight home from Europe. It is implied that the event may have happened with violent purpose from hostile powers. Martin, the former student, implies that this might be the start of World War III. Who can tell? All the news networks are down. In the first part of the novel, the reader moves back and forth from following Jim and Tessa as they survive their flight and cross New York City and Max, Diane and Martin waiting for something to happen in the apartment. In the second part of the novel, the characters gather in the dark and talk.
In his classic book, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster comments that, ‘More than any other Discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us.’ The Silence reads like the start of an unintended group fast. It is really tempting therefore to view this novel in the light of the unintended group fasts of lockdown in 2020. That connection makes good copy but it is not quite accurate. For this reviewer, what stops The Silence from qualifying as a lockdown novel is that all the action takes place in one night. It is beyond it to capture lockdown as a continual grinding present, a world the author can only hint at by speaking of ‘the wrong kind of normal.’ It would not be a surprise if DeLillo’s next work captured that process, but The Silence does not. It works with the shock, the mental readjustments, the denials, imaginations and visceral instincts our bodies experience when something we thought we could not do without gets taken away. As a result, The Silence would make a fine companion for the season of Lent.
So what is being fasted? On the surface, electricity, but as ever with DeLillo, the answer is deeper. The most admirable, DeLillo-ian quality of this book is that the author is still capable of reaching beyond partisan divides to place a finger on problems large enough to plague both of America’s houses. As the characters in The Silence are forced into fasting electricity, the controlling veneer of ease that is fixed upon the vast complexities of contemporary society is revealed.
Here is a world where it is possible to cross continents in hours safely by stepping into an airplane, where all you have to do is open and pour a whiskey that is aged for 10 years while you press a button that lights a screen broadcasting high definition imagery of a live event happening thousands of miles away into millions of other households. It is a world where there is a button on the telephone that can organize a bet for thousands of dollars on a football game between two teams with hundreds of personnel, but the pre-match analysis only revolves around who has the better starting quarterback. Everything looks easy and nothing is. This even gets reflected in the choice to print The Silence with a post-apocalyptic courier style font, which suggests the world had to go back to the manual typewriter but reveals the computer technology and collaborative effort required to achieve the verisimilitude.
Like most things in 2020, The Silence’s ability to reach beyond its limited scope to touch the tension of how easy our world appears compared to how complex it is provokes political questions. How do we respond when a just and compassionate society requires more than just a vote or a retweet? How do we learn to trust expertise that enables simple actions like staying at home or wearing a mask to make a difference? When ease promotes selfishness and guarantees disillusionment, why wouldn’t people indulge in paranoid conspiracy theories when things do not go the way they hoped? In provoking these kinds of questions through concentrated, allusive, measured text, The Silence often works as a kind of poetry.
While those questions are raised in the mind of this reviewer, DeLillo takes the narrative in a different direction in the second part of the book. With all the characters gathered, stilted conversation ensues. The structural conventions of the first part of the book such as chapters, epigrams, and descriptive text are rejected. Instead, it feels as though the silence has settled over the characters and that it takes every effort to break this silence, which is then rapidly restored.
In breaking this silence, some characters choose to theorize while others are more concerned with practicalities. We see doubt and confusion, sexual affirmation and humiliation, a desire for bed, home, warmth, and humanity. While there are reports that people are spilling onto the streets, these five characters remain together sitting and talking in the dark. They could be cowboys or cavemen. The Silence by Don DeLillo confronts the false ease of a vastly complicated technological world, but it also embraces the simple humanity of people made from the same stuff as every generation of their pre-digital ancestry.