On the Unexpected Hopefulness of Don DeLillo’s The Silence
Not the Likeliest of Feelings in 2020
My fiancée told me there would soon be nothing new to watch. Nothing new for shows and movies, she meant, because of pauses in filming for quarantine. She said this after we’d scraped ourselves from our work laptops, in the squinty wake of a weekday, as we convened in front of the smart TV, where I scrolled with a marble focus.
Movie previews for movies I will never watch—I like these, as well as the first five minutes or so of reality shows I have no interest in. I like to think of this as a disciplined skim. “The perfect crime,” Sinatra said, “is killing time.” Our great biological gift, an answer to the manufactured anxiety of the marketplace: to piss away an hour. It makes me think of a DeLillo passage from White Noise: “May the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to a plan.” It makes me think: but how does one kill time at the end of the world? Moreover: should one kill time at the end of the world? And how can one be sure that what appears to be the end is, actually, irreversible?
These questions shiver in the atmosphere of Don DeLillo’s new novel, The Silence. In case you’ve not come across the one-liner yet: Super Bowl night 2022, and all digital technology inexplicably shuts down—planes crash, screens blank—bringing five uncertain people together in an Upper East Side apartment. Together they wait for answers to arrive. None do. From the world outside the apartment there’s no attempt to explain. Unmoored, the characters joke, doubt, babble, worry, question, remember, and monologue of the mysteries of being human. “And one of the students recited a dream he’d had,” a young physics teacher tells the group. “It was a dream of words, not images. Two words. He woke up with those words and just stared into space. Umbrella’d ambuscade. Umbrella with an apostrophe d. And ambuscade. He had to look up the latter word. How could he dream of a word he’d never encountered?” It’s this focus on the quietly unknowable in the information age that sustains an air of fearful wonder in The Silence. Yes, despite the blockbuster premise of DeLillo’s eighteenth novel, the stage remains small, the spotlight stilled on the characters’ conjuring of their unrehearsed lives. The result? Something special. DeLillo’s take on the apocalypse reads as if Beckett rewrote The Decameron: spare yet total, antic yet tragic, bleak and beautiful.
True: all of the formal properties which have come to define DeLillo’s work are on display in The Silence.
Also true: like all of DeLillo’s novels, the plot of The Silence is deliberately thin, not the source of drama but the tension around which to arrange dramatic ideas.
Indelibly true: there’s nothing new about imagining the destruction of our sad planet—not for the nightly news, or for novels, or even for DeLillo. One need only look back to the opening line of his previous, Zero-K, for evidence of his own self-awareness of the subject: “Everybody wants to own the end of the world.”Language radiating outward, lifeward, remains a focus in all of DeLillo’s work.
However, in previous DeLillo novels, when confronted with modern dangers—whether it be a shooting on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange in Players; a serial killing language cult in The Names; global terrorism in Mao II; impenetrable signs from space in Ratner’s Star; an aphasia-causing drug in Great Jones Street; collapse of financial markets in Cosmopolis—characters fortify their isolation, often engaging in acts of violence, or an internal poetry only known privately. “I liked the idea of losing myself in an obscure part of the world,” says Gary Harkness, in End Zone, of his choice to go play small school ball in Texas, a choice made after he accidentally kills an opposing player while at Michigan State and then stays in his childhood room “for seven weeks this time, shuffling a deck of cards.” In The Silence, though, when confronted with the sudden failure of their technology, the characters do the exact opposite: sit, together, understanding nothing, speaking, listening.
It’s a choice that makes The Silence feel like an advancement, a rare furthering of vision. And it results in a natural merge of form and content, better allowing DeLillo to isolate the raw material of the form, the language, through speech fragments and monologues, in the same way a painter might with color. It’s a structural logic reminiscent of DeLillo’s post-Underworld pair, the meditative Point Omega and The Body Artist, a structural logic more hopeful than the summary might suggest. Since if all plots trend deathward, as DeLillo tells us in Libra and White Noise, then that which refuses to serve the plot—the digression, the pause—is a form of narrative breath, pure textual life. On this view, what could be further away from death than the total stasis of Godot, an indefinite wait? The exact shape of The Silence.
Of course, language radiating outward, lifeward, remains a focus in all of DeLillo’s work. Consider the following passage from his debut, Americana, which appears when the corporate star turned auteur, David Bell, offers a statement on the film he left his job to create: “I haven’t reduced the value of language at all. I’ve reinforced it, in fact. What I’ve reduced is movement, the kind of movement that tells a story or creates a harmony. I want language to evolve from static forms.” There’s a sense of something elemental in Bell’s phrase, particularly in the verb “evolve,” that suggests a special human struggle. But why static? Static forms are unmoving forms, and unmoving forms might be injured, or restricted, or stilled, or dead. It implies an uncertain ontology, static. To have language evolve from these forms, as Bell says, means it’s possible to actualize through language. Self-actualize, as well. To speak: to be. We can become who we are by what we say and how we sound—no matter our current state. On such a view, then, silence can be a long pause, the wait before another beginning.
A more urgent question, though, might be why this feels like a meaningful focus for a novel, especially now. I find answers in the same Bell passage, answers that support the continued relevance of DeLillo’s work. The need for language to be “reinforced” through art feels necessary when language is under attack by corporate and political forces, and although such attacks are not new to history, it doesn’t seem hyperbolic to say there’s never been a threat to a true use of language like that from our current chief babbler.It’s an ability of DeLillo’s both philosophic and poetic, to stare at the familiar thing, to see the familiar new.
The Silence is the first DeLillo novel set in a future year, a detail that might seem superficial, but it becomes curious when considering how the book relates to our current political moment. 2022, for DeLillo, appears to be a post-Trump world. There’s no mention of the current president, even though there is a mention—what must have been a late addition—of COVID-19. It seems safe to say that DeLillo did not predict the current pandemic, so if the uncertainty and stasis that the characters experience in his latest seems to fit the quarantined life, perhaps that’s because we’ve been living in a sort of quarantine for some time.
This is what occurred to me as I thought about the novel’s absent reference to Trump: how we’ve willed our own quarantine for years through the same technology that shuts down in The Silence. And can we imagine the current president being the current president without Twitter and Facebook? The hacking of the previous election, without the technology to be hacked? To consider the shutdown of this technology, then, examines the forces responsible for the existence of a Trump presidency, a more ambitious goal for a novel set in the future, I think, reducing Trump to a symptom rather than a cause. It also makes labeling The Silence as an apocalyptic novel seem suspect, since it’s the technology dividing our species that comes to an end. It allows DeLillo to consider what remains for us, as humans, when not defined by scrolls and screens.
“I had never looked at coffee before,” says Jack Gladney, in White Noise, after he describes the filling of a pot as a “philosophic argument rendered in the terms of the things of the world—water, metal, brown beans.” It’s a common type of passage for DeLillo’s work, one that presents the drama of seeing deeply. Much has been made about DeLillo chronicling the emptiness of contemporary life—but much less has been made about his characters’ consistent ability to find beauty amid such emptiness for nearly five decades. Gladney’s description of coffee being made, his realization that he had never truly seen this thing, this process, this idea, until now, provides a solid example. It’s an ability of DeLillo’s both philosophic and poetic, to stare at the familiar thing, to see the familiar new. A process, it occurred to me, directly opposed to how we consume reality now: the scroll. It’s the scroll, the meaningless swipe through words and images, that makes this deep seeing necessary, a form of simple resistance, a way to kill time meaningfully, since it’s only in these moments of private study that algorithms can’t engineer our minds toward transactions. Rereading this passage from White Noise, it surprised me to think that, during quarantine, surrounded by familiar things, there is so little I have actually seen.
I never go to the Met to see something new. I like to look at the same paintings by Rothko only, to stand and stare and wait for some time in front of those big canvases of worked-over color.
This was my intention—with the Met reopen, indulge the familiar unknown—when my fiancée and I decided to take the Q to the Upper East Side on Labor Day weekend. On the corner of Park Avenue and 83rd Street I stood small beneath the shining cliffs of windows, waiting as if it was rush hour for the stoplight’s digitized numbers to tell me to cross even though there was no traffic. I walked with my eyes down even though there was no one nearby whose face I needed to avoid. And although there was no normal city roar—no sirens, no music, no fleeting speech, no horns—I said nothing as we walked, aware only of the sound of my own breath against the fabric of my sliding mask. It was a holiday weekend. I had to remind myself of this, since it partly explained why the city was so empty, even more empty than I expected from the reality of a highly-contagious fatal disease.
The Met was limited to 25 percent capacity, but the lobby seemed to be at a swarm. It was the largest crowd I’d joined in six months. Masked faces, no words, unblemished floors. We were moving across carpeted stairs, past portraits and statues and clumps of real breathing people. Soon we found ourselves inside a high-ceilinged room with statues of heads, torsos, posed bodies, stone caskets. Greeks? Romans? Not Egyptian. How could I definitively rule out Egyptian? Through the many ceiling windows blocks of sunlight slanted down on the masked New Yorkers wandering between the brilliant sarcophagi. Who were these people? Not the statues, but the living. Tourists. Residents. How do they make money? It occurred to me that the slope of the surgical mask made a person’s face look unfinished, skeletal. The mask, like a watch for the face. Time, how much time did this particular face have left? I walked between statues and caskets, at least six feet away from the living, aware that I had never before been to this particular exhibit.
My favorite DeLillo passage is in Underworld. “I’ve always been a country of one,” begins Nick Shay, who then tells the reader of the word that he claims explains everything, the same word his wife says explains nothing: “lontananza. Distance or remoteness, sure. But as I use the word, as I interpret it, hard-edged and fine-grained, it’s the perfected distance of the gangster, the syndicate mobster—the made man. Once you’re a made man, you don’t need the constant living influence of sources outside yourself. You’re all there. You’re made. You’re handmade. You’re a sturdy Roman wall.”
But I did not think about this passage as I walked toward a Roman sarcophagus in the Met. I learned it was Roman because I read the description. It looked like it was made of old bone, this particular sarcophagus, with its protruding design that showed a laboring crowd in varied poses, the story of Endymion. The description said the sarcophagus was dedicated to someone named Arria by her daughter Anninia. But what sort of “dedication” was a casket? Did Arria see it as passive aggressive encouragement from her daughter to hurry up and die? And where was Arria? If the sarcophagus was dedicated to her, shouldn’t she be in it? And if not, was it because, dismayed at her mother’s ingratitude, Anninia took the coffin-gift back, donated it to history, and buried Arria in a hole in the desert? How could I know?
I asked my fiancée to take a picture of me next to the sarcophagus because I did not want to forget this, but what I remember most was something you can’t know from the picture.
What I remember most was the feel of my face against my mask, almost unnoticed, from my smile.