In his latest slim novel, The Silence (Scribner), Don DeLillo attacks technology and its domination over every aspect of our existence. The story begins in the near future of February 2022 on a transatlantic flight from Paris to New York. Jim Kripps, a claims adjuster, and his poet partner, Tessa Berens, are returning from a post-COVID vacation to Paris. Jim’s attention is glued to the overhead itinerary map when the plane loses power on its descent into Newark Airport. A crash landing sends Jim to the hospital with a minor head injury, and then the two proceed to uptown Manhattan to join their friends for a Super Bowl party.
Meanwhile, in Manhattan, Max Stenner and his wife Diane Lucas are awaiting Jim and Tessa’s arrival. One guest, Martin Dekker, a bookish physics teacher at a Bronx charter school, has already arrived. Martin is a former college student of Diane’s, who is obsessed with Einstein. Max has “big dollars” riding on the Titan-Seahawks game, and is enthralled by the “commercials, stations breaks and pregame babble” on his big-screen television.
Then, as DeLillo states, “something happened.” At kickoff, the images shake and dissolve into abstract patterns and the screen goes black. The void extends beyond the television to phones, laptops and the electrical grid. As the massive power outage interrupts the Super Bowl, our characters’ world descends into silence. Various conspiracy theories are bantered about (a ConEd mistake, sabotage, an alien invasion), and when Jim and Tessa finally arrive they are just coming to terms with their near-death experience.
This is the disturbing plot of The Silence. It is lean and spare, and feels like an Edward Albee play where the characters are ready to explode. However, The Silence is packed with deeper messages that will rattle readers and force them to consider the larger universe.
BLACKOUT AND BREAKDOWN
Within the context of this calamity, each character’s essence is revealed. Martin becomes the prophet of doom, philosophizing about the world’s collapse. Diane yearns for human connection, and questions her early retirement from teaching. Max doesn’t want to know the cause of the blackout, he’s a nuts-and-bolts building inspector — just fix the problem so the game can resume. Jim and Tessa are rooted in the reality of jet lag and trying to get home.
The characters have become so dependent upon technology that they are incapable of communicating without it. Each curls inward to cope with the outage, rather than reaching out to connect with their partners, neighbors and families. But there is an overwhelming feeling that the end is nigh.
DeLillo masterfully manipulates the blackout as the common denominator linking the characters to the reader. Power outages are a shared real-world event and everyone can empathize with the isolation generated by the lack of electrical power. Our homes become prisons of darkness, and we are cut off without any news from the outside world. There could be riots, explosions, plague, starvation or cyber-attacks, but we would never know.
AN EERILY RELEVANT EVENT
In The Silence, DeLillo not only plays upon our paranoia, but he also amplifies it through the characters’ dialogue and inner monologues. He’s identified our fears and pushes the reader to the limit. The Silence is no ordinary blackout. It is a blackout on steroids. And it’s coming for you.
Although The Silence was written just prior to the current pandemic, the novel is eerily relevant to our present circumstances. We neither understand COVID-19 nor its present impact upon society any more than Max, Diane, Martin, Jim and Tessa can understand the blackout. Nor can we speculate how it will affect our future. However, DeLillo is hopeful. When questioned about the long-term effect of the pandemic during a recent New York Times interview, he responded, “We may feel enormous relief, but for many people, it’s going to be difficult to return to what we might term as ordinary. … Those ordinary things are going to seem extraordinary.”
DeLillo doesn’t write genre fiction, or stories that make the reader feel good. He writes because he has something prophetic to express about culture and our lives. Or about terrorism, financial collapse, or nuclear and biochemical disaster. He writes to make us think so hard that our brains hurt. At the age of 83, over his seventeen novels, DeLillo has summoned the darker currents of our American experience. In The Silence, he warns about “the dependence of the mass on energy,” and if readers are wise, they’ll heed his oracle to prevent what he terms may be “World War III.”