ONEAt some point in the editorial process, a line of villains crept into The Silence. The phrase was about airports, masks and Covid-19, and everything seemed excitingly topical except that Don DeLillo didn’t write it. “Someone else” might want the book to look more contemporary, he said in an interview with the New York Times. “But I said, ‘There’s no reason for that.’ So they took it out again. “
And now I’m full of uncertainty, maybe even a little scared. Who could do that? Are we sure it wasn’t the Russians? Was it a bot? Is there a virus now that infects new novels with lines about the virus? Did society itself write this novel in a shared electronic impulse while he slept (while we were all, let’s face it, slept) because something like that happens in a DeLillo novel that is part of his world – which, by the way, is also ours World – of “cyber attacks, digital interventions, biological aggressions”. What is the difference between the author and the machine, between the machine and the “common mind” and what happens when everything melts and dies at the same time?
Early in The Silence, we are introduced to a man and woman on a flight from Paris to Newark. “Up here in the air a lot of what the couple said to each other seemed to be a function of an automated process,” writes DeLillo (as if he hadn’t written the dialogue himself). The man is Jim, the woman is “Jim’s wife, dark-skinned, Tessa Berens, of Caribbean-European-Asian origin, a poet whose work often appeared in literary magazines”. Her skin tone, name, vibrancy, complex heritage, artistic calling are all interesting facts about Tessa. “She also spent time online as an editor at an advisory group answering subscriber questions on topics ranging from hearing loss to physical balance to dementia.” Information comes in packages, and it’s hard to know what’s important, what’s not, and how it feels like it was written through an “automated process” that writes a catalog copy for things you may need but don’t really understand. Since your eyes glide over it so easily, does any of these website descriptions make sense?
“A writer who made things right forever”: Don DeLillo. Photo: Nicolas Guerin / Contour / Getty Images
At first we’re not sure if this slightly flat super-feature is a feature of the novel or Jim’s way of thinking – but then Tessa seems a little strange too. He recites the “Time to Finish” he sees on his small screen as she discusses how to pronounce the word “scone”. Jim says the numbers out loud because they are “worth mentioning”. He wants to allow them to “live for a while,” “give an audible scan of where and when”. It is lonely to notice what the rest of the world cannot see. This interest in detail turned into a poetry about the texture of our lives in early DeLillo novels, an appreciation of what was manufactured and overlooked. In Jim’s attention there is the hint of sympathy for the machine doing this work on behalf of the travelers because accuracy is a form of loyalty and the screen stays true to facts too big to be forgotten. These people race around the planet, an experience so boring to them that amnesia is built in. Then the screen dies, the plane rattles, and you think no one will ever get bored again.
You would be wrong about that. Jim and Tessa planned to drive from the airport to their friends Max and Diane’s Manhattan apartment to watch the Super Bowl. This couple also hosts Martin Dekker, one of Diane’s ex-students, a man with flapping hands and an obsession with Einstein’s physics. When the screen in their apartment dies too, they get bored, among other things – if that’s the word for the strangely libidinized conversation between Diane and Martin about Einstein’s archived manuscripts, written in 1912 on special relativity. Max is so frustrated with losing the game that he makes an imaginary comment: “During this one blistering stretch, the offense hit, hit, hit.” This mimicry is all that remains of the heroic sports sequences of DeLillo’s underworld and endzone. The great game is reduced to something invisible: “Men hit each other, men hit each other on the lawn”. Max falls silent, drinks whiskey, leaves and when he comes back he won’t say what he saw outside.
Jim and Tessa, who recently crashed in Newark, are also being libidinized by the end of the world as we know it. They are driven to a hospital and have sex in a toilet cubicle “to sum up their survival and the depth of their connection” before queuing for the injured. You’re talking to a woman who can’t tell you what’s going on. All screens have failed, the collective mind has been lost. Above all, the woman would like to tell you the facts of her life: “Her first marriage, her first cell phone, divorce, traveling, French boyfriend, riots in the streets”. The third world war may have only just begun. The problem is, there is no longer any way to find out.
The Silence is a little over a hundred pages long so it’s not as common a novel as Underworld and not as funny as White Noise. Many of the same themes are repeated in a reduced form, with the novel illuminating the previous work with an intense, narrow beam. Sporty masculinity, educators, other languages, systems, paranoias, what is remembered and what is forgotten, the common mind; These are not presented in a Fritz of interconnectivity, but as mimicry, emptiness and finally as silence.
Nobody speaks like the characters in this novel, and we are not asked to believe they would. However, they are persuasive and human, and their voices have a ritualized urgency. DeLillo is a master stylist and not a word is lost. This is the novel as performance art, as an expressionist game. The Silence is like Melancholy by Lars von Trier or an opera by Philip Glass – it always feels “strange”. There is also something from the mid-1980s that was distilled and transported here: something ecstatic and masculine, full of longing for the machine and for the end of days.
As we all learned during the lockdown, the apocalypse isn’t always interesting, not always. The end of the world as we know it has its longues, so we don’t need a Covid-19 reference to wonder how DeLillo already understood “the mass sleep disorders of this unimaginable time”. This is a writer who got things right forever. DeLillo seeks out the future as it manifests itself in the present moment: he has been doing this for decades during which other writers struggled with the invention of the cell phone, for example (won’t that ruin the plot?). At the age of 83, he lets many contemporary writers read as if they were thinking not even in the 20th, but in the 19th century, in which “the crowd” did not exist, except perhaps as proletariat.
Mass media and the Internet pose a serious challenge to the individualism on which the novel form thrives. No wonder so many writers go back to history to get a sense of scope – especially in the UK who loves a historical novel – because history feels like a place where individual stories shine and the masses theirs Knew place. However, as the internet makes it clear and Covid-19 agrees, we are all masses now.
• • Anne Enright’s latest novel is an actress (Jonathan Cape). The Silence by Don DeLillo is published by Picador (£ 14.99). To order a copy, go to guardianbookshop.com. Shipping costs may apply.