DECEMBER 1, 2020
GREAT WRITERS TEACH US how to read them, and so, with Don DeLillo, we know the drill by now. Plot? Don’t worry about it. As he famously told us, “All plots tend to move deathward,” so it’s best to pick apart those strands of cause and effect that fool us into thinking story equals significance. There are more relevant things to do with narrative, better ways to represent what it feels like to be alive in time.
Setting? Don’t worry about it. A sentence here, a phrase there, is enough. These days, write the word “Manhattan,” or the phrase “sitting in an airplane,” and the mind is immediately clotted with images from the cultural ether, and if it’s not, there’s always Google. Description is filler.
Character? Don’t worry about that either. Not really. Characterization — the contours of individual emotion and psychology, the striving for meaning, love and loss — is sort of beside the point, given the, uh, current dire circumstances. Better to give us people with nondescript names (Nick Shay, Jack Gladney, Diane Lucas) living conventionally undramatic lives, observing and enduring the dire circumstances. Character “action,” character “dialogue,” character “choice” — that old novelistic business is mostly a distraction from the main thing.
Theme? Language? Now we’re talking. This is where the dire circumstances come in; these are the elements of fiction most pertinent to the main thing. And the main thing is dread. From the beginning, DeLillo’s novels have been dire: counterculture-addled hipsters roaming a crazed 1960s landscape in Americana; super-alienated yuppies plotting to bomb the New York Stock Exchange in Players; the shock of terrorism in The Names, Mao II, Cosmopolis, and Falling Man; the rampant paranoia pervading Great Jones Street, Running Dog, and Libra; nuclear and ecological anxiety in End Zone, White Noise, Underworld, and Point Omega; the vivid sense of ontological displacement caused by mass and digital media in White Noise and Valparaiso; the longing for transcendence, for God, and the anxious silence that echoes in the wake of that longing (every novel since The Names). Dread always hovers: a dread that pulls at the heart, telling us we can’t know anything, that we are helpless, that our suffering is pointless, that there are systems out there, forged by a complicity between technology and capitalism, that are so large and powerful that we’re reduced to paralyzed “human slivers,” as a character in The Silence puts it. Dread is the predominant phenomenological mood in DeLillo’s work, and it directs his language, the hard, flinty poetry of a writer who seems to surmount despair only by his trembling, always self-doubting sense that within language there are mysteries that promise revelation, perhaps a shred of redemption. “Somewhere within all those syllables,” the narrator writes, “something secret, covert, intimate.” DeLillo’s a fallen Catholic, but the Word is not a joke to him; he’s still waiting to hear it, if only in the silence that follows his fervent call for it.
I read The Silence in circumstances that made me more alive to its pervasive sense of dread than I could possibly want. I live in Altadena, just north of Pasadena, in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains that have been blackened by the Bobcat Fire, which has burned 100,000 acres. For 10 days, I lived under evacuation warnings and breathed in ash-and-gunk-saturated air that made everyone I know look up and struggle to describe the smoke-shrouded marmalade sun; naturally, everyone came up with “apocalyptic.” On top of this, of course, there is COVID-19: the broken routines, the inability to plan a future, the mounting sickness and death, the manifold worry for loved ones, the foreboding that we may not come out of this for years. And on top of that, there’s Trump and the election: the fear that if he loses, he’ll scream fraud, refuse to accept the results, and inspire a genuine insurrection among gun-wielding Trump cultists who’ll ignite a race war. Worse still, if he wins, he’ll continue to deny the climate change that has been a significant factor in the fires, continue to ignore the science that could help us emerge from COVID-19, and further degrade our democracy and step up the current creep toward authoritarianism. If this isn’t the dread that DeLillo’s been talking about all these years, I don’t know what is.
The Silence evokes all this and more. The book is about a large-scale catastrophe — basically, the grid goes down, the entire system of wired and wireless computerized communication shuts down all at once — and people are left with what the hell just happened? and what do we do now? What is fascinating about how DeLillo deals with this high-concept idea is that he intentionally bleeds it of dramatic excitement. A plane and its computer system go down when the grid collapses, but people suffer only minor injuries. A character goes outside onto the streets of New York City to see how the catastrophe is affecting people; we expect to see scenes of mass mayhem, but DeLillo only briefly mentions a small riot, street fights, a bit of panic. When the character gets back to his friends and they ask him what he saw, he says, “You don’t want to know,” and shuts up. We never really find out any more than the characters do, and that’s because DeLillo’s just not that interested — he knows his readers have seen so many movies about mass panic that we can easily imagine all this for ourselves. Three-quarters of the novel is spent in a single room — a bourgeois apartment in uptown Manhattan, where the five main characters have gathered to watch the Super Bowl on a TV that’s stopped working. They sit, fidget, drink whiskey, occasionally take a glimpse out the window, munch on Super Bowl food. Mostly they experience dread and articulate it as best they can. This is not to complain. This is what DeLillo knows how to do better than any American novelist alive.
The sudden collapse of the grid — the confusion brought on by the dead telecom systems, satellites, TV, and computers — forces the characters into reaction, of course. One middle-aged couple, Jim and Tessa, a businessman and poet, respectively, initially respond by retreating to an airport bathroom stall and having sex. Max, a 60ish man who loves his sports and his gambling, can barely believe his Super Bowl’s been cut off: he stares at the gray TV screen, downs whiskey, and mimics the sounds of play-by-play announcers and commercials. His companion, Diane, a physics professor, flirts mildly with an old student she’s invited to the party, a 30ish high school physics teacher named Martin who’s obsessed with a manuscript that Einstein wrote when he was working on the special relativity theory. Martin, abstracted by his high-mindedness, can’t respond to Diane’s attentions. That’s about it for the story’s objective “action” and the characters’ “behavior.” We have confusion, incipient panic, some ironic attempts to dispel it, and a few wry comic moments.
The rest is talk and atmosphere, the characters filling the silence of the grid’s collapse with speculation about its possible causes and consequences, and with DeLillo slowly painting a picture of a room full of people discovering there is no metaphysical floor beneath their feet. Several characters suggest that they’ve all been waiting for this, in a way, haven’t they? — apocalypse has been in the air for decades now. Words and phrases that invoke disaster and catastrophe pepper the conversation: “Cyberattacks, digital intrusions, biological aggressions”; “Dark energy, phantom waves, hack and counterhack. Mass surveillance software […] Satellite tracking data.”; “Data breaches […] Cryptocurrencies.”; “microplastics.” All the advanced buzzwords of our technocapitalist era. Lest you think DeLillo, by tossing out these terms, is just throwing everything he can think of into a noisy vat of apocalyptic paranoia, understand that he uses the terms the way most of us hear them in real life: as signifiers for things we know are important, potent, and frightening, but which are surrounded by a mystery so deep that they make us feel baffled and helpless. Say the word “microplastics” and follow its aura: those four syllables connote processes that reduce an already ecologically damaging inorganic compound into an even more damaging one. We know what happens to plastics when they break down in the oceans: they gather, broken down into billions of tiny pellets, into islands the size of Texas — the size of Texas — and float in the Pacific Ocean, causing massive damage to sea life and threatening the oceans in a way that’s been literally unimaginable until the world we live in allowed it to happen. We all know about this stuff now; hearing the word, we all feel the bizarreness, the guilt, and the helplessness of such knowing. Pile on the mysteries of “cyberattacks,” “data breaches,” and “cryptocurrencies,” and the dread intensifies.
Late in the book, Tessa the poet wonders,
What comes next? […] Power out, technology slipping away, one aspect, then another. We’ve seen it happening repeatedly, this country and elsewhere, storms and wildfires and evacuations, typhoons, tornadoes, drought, dense fog, foul air. Landslides, tsunamis, disappearing rivers, houses collapsing, entire buildings crumbling, skies blotted out by pollution. I’m sorry and I’ll try to shut up. But remaining fresh in every memory, virus, the plague, the march through airport terminals, the face masks, the city streets emptied out.
The other characters pitch in with more questions — DeLillo allows them final monologues that are in the end expressions of profound bafflement — but no one knows what happens next, and it’s left to Martin, the obsessed Einsteinian physicist, to supply the novella’s dark summation: “The world is everything, the individual nothing. Do we all understand that?”
Back in the 1840s, Ralph Emerson wrote his angry “Ode, Inscribed to William H. Channing,” which includes the famous lines, “Things are in the saddle / And ride mankind.” Emerson’s early critique of American materialism, with its rustic horse imagery, sounds positively comical compared to DeLillo’s icily abstract conclusion in The Silence, but it’s part of the same continuum, a two-centuries-long complaint by observers of the American scene that by now has crescendoed into a jeremiad. “Nobody wants to call it World War III but this is what it is,” Martin says elsewhere in the book. What is happening in The Silence is not a war pitting communism versus democracy; it’s not about a clash of civilizations. It’s about the system of technocapital (“the world”) crushing us (“the individual”) in its unassailable logic, and The Silence is about how that war feels. The intimations of the sacred — whisperings of the Word — that DeLillo has given us in other books are almost entirely absent from this one; this absence suggests a sadness and pessimism about the American and planetary future that is without precedent in his work. But it is a beautiful book in the way tragedies can be beautiful: testaments to the strength of those who can face the dread with an inspiring honesty and integrity — which is another thing great writers teach us.