“Not an ordinary visual distortion” – The Silence by Don DeLillo

So we know, don’t we, that Don DeLillo is regarded as being “eerily prophetic about twenty-first century life” (New York Times). His ear is finely attuned in many ways to the agglomeration of detail in which we currently find ourselves souped in. He also has quite a way with a phrase, his writing being such that sometimes you find yourself stopping to admire a sentence or a paragraph for the sharpness of its thinking. I remember when I read Falling Man, I often found myself reading chunks aloud to myself simply because the cadence seemed so mellifluous.

The Silence, DeLillo’s 17th, is another short novel (in the vein of The Body Artist), so short as to feel like it hovers in the hinterlands between novella and short story and, like The Body Artist, I imagine it will frustrate as many people as it delights.

The novel opens with an epigram from Einstein – “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones” – and Einstein’s presence looms large over the book (one of the characters, Max, is a “compulsive” student of Einstein’s 1912 manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity, quotes from it regularly and regards the hand-annotated papers as holy writ).

The story itself opens on an aeroplane travelling between Paris and Newark. We meet Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens, and they talk like characters in a Don DeLillo novel:

“What does vitesse mean?”

“What?”

“Vitesse.”

“Vitesse. Speed.”

“Vitesse. Seven hundred forty-eight k per hour.”

They talk speed. Words. Is it scone to rhyme with moan or scone to rhyme with gone? They anticipate ‘the game’ that will be playing as they reach home.

“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 liminal aircraft space could be the defining DeLillo space. You’re everywhere and nowhere baby, as the song once went.

“Everything predetermined, a long flight, what we think and say, our immersion in a single sustained overtone, the engine roar, how we accept the need to accommodate it, keep it tolerable even if it isn’t.”

Then we switch: we’re in the apartment of Diane Lucas and Max Stenner. They are watching the game in the company of Diane’s former student Martin who she may or may not have a thing for. They talk American football. They talk soccer. And then “something happened”:

“The images onscreen began to shake. It was not an ordinary visual distortion, it had depth, it formed abstract patterns that dissolved into a rhythmic pulse, a series of elementary units seemed to thrust forward and then recede. Rectangles, triangles, squares.”

Technology dies. The TV. Phones. Their screens. The plane on which Jim and Tessa find themselves falls from the sky. They are understandably shaken up but they live. They all live. (At least for now.) There is a trip to the emergency room because Jim has a cut on his head. Eventually they make their way to Diane and Martin’s house. They all talk about what they’ve seen, what they think. Is this World War III? Martin shares the epigram with us again to make sure we see it at the heart of the book. People speak in ways which are defiantly DeLillo-esque:

“I can tell you this. Whatever is going on, it has crushed our technology. The word itself seems outdated to me, lost in space. Where is the leap of authority to our secure devices, our encryption capacities, our tweets, trolls, bots. Is everything in the datasphere subject to distortion and theft? And do we simply have to sit here and mourn our fate?”

Apparently we do. Jim and Tessa go for a lie down in Diane and Max’s bedroom. Martin leaves. Max goes for a walk. We get the sense he sees mayhem but it’s of the “Don’t ask” variety. Diane gets distracted by the mellifluousness of the word ‘cryptocurrencies’. She says it, to Max, to herself, a lot. People seem ambient in The Silence. They absorb. They reflect. They accept with weary resignation. There is a sense in which that thing which has happened is the logical outcome of the path we have taken.

“It was always at the edge of our perception. 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.”

Tonally, The Silence feels more like DeLillo’s plays than his novels. If you were to ask what actually happens in the book, the answer would be not a whole lot. And yet it remains an ardent pleasure to see where DeLillo’s head is at, to see what he is wrestling with, to see what his position might be.

Any Cop?: We’re ever so slightly on the fence about The Silence. It isn’t hard to recognise the weight of DeLillo’s genius, even here, but it’s curiously irresolute all the same.

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