"Cyberattacks, digital intrusions, biological aggressions. Anthrax, smallpox, pathogens. The dead and disabled. Starvation, plague and what else?”
If this line from Don DeLillo’s new book, The Silence, sounds familiar, that is because his fiction has long been the harbinger of humanity surviving dangerous times. This 17th novel from the prolific, award-winning American writer is set on Super Bowl Sunday in the year 2022, and reads like a disaster-slash-apocalyptic play, written in pared-down prose.
Written before the Covid-19 pandemic held the world hostage, the premise deals with a shutdown of another kind — a technology blackout — and its impact on our already frayed social fabric.
“What happens to people who live inside their phones?” reads a line from the book — a line that seems prophetic for our times. The interesting paradox is that, while the disastrous event in this story locks people out of their screens, the crisis we are facing right now ensnared us into them in order to maintain human connection. The question lingers, though: since we are not allowed to have much of a life outside of our screens at the moment, will we emerge from this pandemic even more conditioned to rely on technology in order to forge connections with other people?
At the beginning of the story, we meet Jim and his wife Tessa — of “Caribbean-European-Asian origins, a poet whose work appeared often in literary journals” — embarking on a flight from Paris, France, to Newark in the United States. The pair is at that point at the end of a vacation where they have begun to find each other’s company overwhelmingly tedious. “Here, in the air, 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.”
The dull flight suddenly becomes victim to an inexplicable and abrupt technology blackout, forcing it to make a turbulent emergency landing. Jim and Tessa have suffered minor injuries, and they are told on the ground, by the clinical administrator tending to them, that there has been an inexplicable mass technological crash that has brought the subways, trains and all forms of transport to a grinding halt.
A pared-down disaster novella from master storyteller Don DeLillo, about a technology blackout and its effects on the social fabric, piques curiosity but fails to quench it
From the airport, Jim and Tessa make their way to an apartment in Manhattan where their friends, Max and Diane, are hosting them for dinner. The latter couple has been together for 37 years, “not unhappily but in states of dire routine.” Diane wryly likens herself and her husband to “two people so clutched together that the day is coming when each of us will forget the other’s name.”
Also in attendance is Martin, one of Diane’s former students with an odd fixation with the physicist Albert Einstein and a proclivity for rambling about physics and civilisation’s impending doom.
Max is all geared up to watch an exciting Super Bowl football match. His wife, Diane, describes his state on Super Bowl day: “Max doesn’t stop watching. He becomes a consumer who had no intention of buying something. One hundred commercials in the next three or four hours.” With the technology wipe-out, Max now sits in a daze in front of a blank television screen. Pretty soon, and probably as a result of withdrawal symptoms, he goes off on an erratic discourse about the game, punctuated with a litany of commercial jargon.
The story reflects on the aftermath of a shutdown, an experience that will resonate with how the world reacted to the consequent lockdown after the pandemic. The third-person narrator wonders how it is so strange that certain individuals seemed to passively accept the shutdown. “Is this something that they’ve always longed for, subliminally, subatomically?”
The Silence is written in a curious, flat effect, perhaps to mirror the emotionally disconnected, technology-dependent world in which it is set. All the characters in the story seem to converse in their own echo chambers, talking past each other rather than with each other. There are rarely dialogues, mostly monologues.
For me, the highlight of this book is the terse, compactly packaged observations. DeLillo is precise and forthright in his writing — landline telephones are described as “a sentimental relic”, while the nervousness over the blackout finds expression by forcing “a brief stab of laughter.”
The limitations of a slim novella based on a high-concept idea are that, while it can be a potent experience for the reader when done right, reading this book is akin to watching the teaser of an engrossing disaster flick. The premise is intriguing, the setting is geared for high-powered action and the ensemble includes idiosyncratic characters. You somehow get the gist of the plot, but promising dramatic energy gets lost by the wayside because of an utter lack of nuance.
One aspect that DeLillo touches upon — but does not explore to its full potential — is how an aberration such as a technology disruption throws harsh light on dysfunctional, yet prevalent norms of society. Social connection virtually threatens to crumble in the absence of technology that we now so often use as a mediator. I bet everyone has at least once tried to overcome awkward silences at dinner tables by resorting to scrolling through a phone, or we may have tried to drown the silence out by turning on the television.
When you want to talk to your mother, but cannot come up with an appropriate topic, what better way to break the ice than by showing her a funny video on your phone? It almost makes one wonder how on earth we managed to ever interact smoothly before the advent of technology.
DeLillo has long been writing about the ways in which technology reshapes our communication, and this novel is no different. Here, his focus is on how people cope with the absence of technology on which they have become increasingly reliant. In the absence of it, the anxieties of the protagonists start kicking in and they start to wonder: what if the world outside has completely rearranged itself?
The dilemma of a post-apocalyptic novel such as The Silence being published in 2020 is that, while the present-day circumstances amplify its resonance, they also substantially diminish its impact. The pandemic and its aftermath have put everyone through the wringer, so at least while I was reading this story of a mysterious mass shutdown, it did not elicit great curiosity or feeling. Fiction pales in the face of our uncertain reality.
Consumerism. Lack of social connectedness. Overdependence on technology. Corporatisation. DeLillo — as well as other literary heavyweights — have regularly exploited these ideas to write prescient, state-of-the-nation novels and, in this arguably minor work of his, DeLillo presents these ideas in a succinct, albeit partly fleshed out, way and fails to bring something new to the table.
This work of fiction poses a number of timely questions about our current social fabric and the future of humanity, but, much like the pandemic-ravaged world right now, the plot bumbles along with neither a clear purpose nor neat end in sight.
The reviewer is a Karachi-based book critic writing for several international publications
By Don DeLillo
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, December 27th, 2020