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Words like violence, break ‘The Silence’

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When we’re talking about the best American writers of the past half-century, everyone’s going to have a different list, but there are certain names that will likely appear on most of them. One of those names is Don DeLillo, who has written some of the most impactful literature of his generation. Books like “White Noise,” “Underworld” and others are significant parts of the 20th century canon.

And he’s still going strong.

DeLillo’s latest novel – his 17th, but who’s counting? – is “The Silence” (Scribner, $22), a slim volume that takes a look at what it might mean for our precarious and codependent relationship to technology to be unceremoniously ripped away, leaving nothing but the quiet echo of our own thoughts. How has this proliferation of tech impacted our ability to engage with one another – and are we able to get back what was lost.

“The Silence” is a lightning-fast read – just 128 pages – but no less engaging for its brevity. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking, a quick-hit of a novel one assumes is intended to mirror the bite-sized rapid consumption encouraged by our current relationship to media both old and new.

It’s Super Bowl Sunday in 2022 – as big a secular holiday as exists in American culture. The Tennessee Titans will be facing off against the Seattle Seahawks as millions of people around the country – and the world – prepare for our massive football finale.

In an apartment on Manhattan’s east side, three people sit, waiting for two more. Max is the most interested in the game – he’s got a history of rather large bets on sporting events and this one is no exception, so he’s anxious to see how things are going to play out for him. His wife Diane, a former professor of physics, is less interested in the game and more interested in the company of their guest, one of her former students, a high school physics teacher and Einstein obsessive named Martin.

Their soon-to-be guests – Jim and Tessa – are on a flight from Paris to New York. Jim is tense about flying, while Tessa, a noted poet, is less concerned. However, Jim’s tension proves well-founded as … something happens. Panicked pilots and attendants, a lurching plane – what is to come? Are they about to be a headline?

Alas, it turns out that there’s far bigger news coming.

See, it appears as though everything electrical and electronic has simply stopped working. Television, the internet, cellular devices – all gone. The power is out. And it doesn’t look like it’s coming back.

Jim and Tessa have found their way to the party – even if there isn’t much of a party – but all five of these people are left to gradually come to terms with what this newfound absence might mean for them. Max is slowly losing himself in a projected version of the game, calling the action and reciting the commercials. Martin is fading into his Einstein obsession, digging deep into relativity and wandering so close to his idol that he even starts speaking in German. And the others each find ways to uneasily engage with the absence of understanding and their inability to use the usual means for gaining that understanding.

The minutes keep ticking away into the silence … and the temperature slowly drops.

“The Silence” packs a fair amount of punch considering its length – DeLillo has shown himself over the years to be a deft hand with a “less is more” approach, though he’s also unafraid to go big – and manages to evoke the fearfulness that comes with lack of connection and communication. DeLillo’s no stranger to themes of isolation either, and considering the current state of affairs, “The Silence” feels rather prescient.

(It should be noted that this book was completed mere weeks before the COVID-19 outbreak. There is a line here that specifically name checks the disease, but it appears as though that line was added after the fact – and reportedly not by DeLillo.)

Nobody does low-key existential dread and creeping paranoia quite like DeLillo, which is a handy skill set to have when we’re talking about society’s difficulties with adjusting to the exponential explosion of technological growth. He tackled similar themes in his previous book, though there is a simplicity to “The Silence” that rings differently from something like “Zero K.”

And it should be noted that DeLillo never really delves into his sci-fi premise – we never learn much about hows or whys. Rather, he chooses to focus on the aimlessness that sets in when we lose our tether to the world as we understand it. In today’s world, technology serves to anchor us, giving us a focal point from which our interactions radiate like spokes on a wheel. So what happens when the hub disappears? In “The Silence,” we get five people talking past the problem, so adamant on ignoring the elephant in the room that they practically forget there’s an elephant at all.

In truth, “The Silence” feels very much like a COVID-19 novel, despite being written beforehand. It’s a story of losing connection, of losing the ability to communicate with one another, of being left alone by a crisis that has no end in sight. Its relevance to the moment is accidental, but no less impactful because of that.

“The Silence” is a snapshot, a flash of interpersonal interaction in the face of global disconnection. It’s a book with a sci-fi high concept that it barely acknowledges, opting instead to show us the dynamics of individuals confronted with an ending they can’t possibly understand. And so, they just keep talking in the face of the impending and inevitable silence.

Last modified on Wednesday, 28 October 2020 11:42

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