The word that most readily comes to mind when thinking of Don DeLillo — arguably the greatest living American novelist — is “master,” best defined in a literary context by Ezra Pound as those writers “who combined a number of … processes, and who used them as well as or better than the inventors.” It’s not an exact science; any literature after 1985 (the year that “White Noise” was published), should be marked as A.A.T.E. — that is, after the Airborne Toxic Event.
But the idea of combining processes gets to the heart of DeLillo’s art, which at its core is incorporative. The Zapruder film (“Libra”), TV footage of Ayatollah Khomeini’s funeral (“Mao II”), a radio broadcast of The Shot Heard 'Round the World (“Underworld”), and many other events both real and imagined deftly reorient readers in time and space as omniscience, or the fleeting interiority of his characters, grope at a collective malaise that can’t entirely be placed.
It is both curious and brazen, then, that “The Silence,” DeLillo’s 17th novel, is more preoccupied with what happens to human consciousness when such media apparatuses are inaccessible. Ostensibly centered around an emergency plane landing and a Super Bowl party in 2022, the novel is an investigation into what remains of contemporary life when the technological advances that have permeated much of society no longer exist. That the novel’s narrators are unsure whether the blackout is confined to New York City, or happening in other cities throughout the globe, only affirms the extent of the problem. Removing these distractions would in theory bring people closer together. It is the author’s shrewd insight to question whether there is enough of us left to bring to nondigital relationships at all.
Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens, a married couple, are sitting in business class on a flight back from Paris. He’s reading the flight stats on the screen above the overhead bin; she’s jotting down memories in a notebook. “Here, much of what the couple said to each other seemed to be a function of some automated process, thoughts generated by the nature of airline travel,” DeLillo writes. Yet a crucial difference is that it isn’t a news anchor or a flight attendant who is voicing the meaninglessness of the flight speed, the times in Paris and London, and the air temperature, but rather Jim himself. Fast-forward to the screen he’s been reading going black, and the “pilot speaking French, no English follow-up,” Jim checks Tessa’s seatbelt, then his own as he imagines “every passenger … looking straight ahead into the six o’clock news … waiting for word of their crashed airliner.” He calms his mind with thoughts of a flight attendant carting down the aisle with tea and sweets.
At the same time the electronics on the plane cuts out, Diane Lucas and Max Stenner, another couple, are watching pre-Super Bowl coverage in their Manhattan apartment with two empty chairs that are supposed to contain Tessa and Jim. They are joined by Martin Dekker, Diane’s former student who is currently teaching high school in the Bronx while compulsively studying Albert Einstein’s “1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity.” Max’s interest in football is the spread; Diane’s interest is in “neatly dressed, clean-shaven” Martin. When the TV forms “abstract patterns that dissolved into a rhythmic pulse, a series of elementary units that seemed to thrust forward and then recede,” they are left to fill the quieted space with their individual obsessions. Martin quotes Einstein, Diane tells him (and her husband) how smart Martin is, and Max wonders aloud about his bet before getting drunk on bourbon and narrating the game and the commercials as if nothing has happened: “Wireless the way you want it. Soothes and moisturizes. Give you twice as much for the same low cost, Reduces the risk of heart-and-mind disease.”
Meanwhile, at the darkened health clinic that Jim and Tessa get shuttled to after surviving their crash landing, the attendant balks when Jim shows her the huge gash on his forehead: “I have nothing to do with actual human bodies.” Yet with “her voice suggesting an intimate calm tinged with hysteria,” she feels compelled to share the name of her hometown, relatives, her ex-husband and lovers, and her reasonable concerns about the current situation. “The more advanced, the more vulnerable. … How do we know who we are?” she asks. “We know it’s getting cold in here. What happens when we have to leave? … Going home, living where I live, above a restaurant called Truth and Beauty, if the subway and buses are not running, if the taxis are gone, elevator in the building immobilized, and if, and if, and if. I love my cubicle but I don’t want to die here.”
Once the lights come back on, the woman’s voice returns to normal as she instructs Jim and Tessa where to go so that he can get care. Coming in the chapter directly following Max’s one-man show, the scene gestures toward the idea that, without being positioned in front of computer screens and all the attendant relationships and economies supported by them, humanity is effectively hollowed out.
It’s tempting to view “The Silence” as reflective of the COVID-19 era, but it’d be wrong. Martin suggests the Chinese are responsible, but that has been a xenophobic obsession well before the winter of 2020 (According to Scribner, the novel was completed weeks before the pandemic hit.)
In spite of its short length, the novel gets at something deeper and, in its emphasis on where individuals choose to direct their attention, something more quintessentially American. If you were magically freed from all your digital obligations, how would you occupy yourself? If you had the option, would you choose it?
Scribner, 128 pp., $22
J. Howard Rosier sits on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.