In The Silence, Language Works in Unexpected Ways

from Simon & Schuster

Don DeLillo’s sometimes puzzling post-Underworld novels aren’t every reviewer’s – or reader’s — cup of tea. In fact, I wonder if that might not be why I found a copy of his just-published novel The Silence at a thrift store last week. Maybe this small book with a red and black cover – bearing the stark image of a glowing tablet computer and some plain white text – was abandoned by its original owner for not living up to expectations. After all, DeLillo is known for making the zeitgeist more comprehensible. Did the reader think s/he had been failed by an author who wasn’t explanatory enough, thorough enough, reassuring enough in this abbreviated effort?

The premise of the novel is this: On Super Bowl Sunday in 2022, electronic systems stop working. Screens, ranging from televisions to smartphones, become windows into nothing. The lights and heat go out. Planes fall out of the sky. But instead of making a speculative-fiction-style attempt to consider the consequences of such an event, DeLillo focuses on five people, mainly in New York City, on the day technology stands still.

As the novel opens, Tessa and Jim are on a plane returning from Paris, planning to watch the Super Bowl in the home of Max and Diane. The latter couple, along with Diane’s former student Martin, a high school physics teacher, are waiting for Tessa and Jim to join them. The game is about to start, and then screens go blank. None of the characters knows how widespread this event is, how long it will last, what the consequences will be. And neither does the reader.

Alex Preston at The Guardian called the novel “Beckett for the Facebook age,” but DeLillo is not nearly as much of an absurdist as Beckett was. Even so, the non-rational is present here: Tessa and Jim can’t remember being afraid as their plane went down (did it float down as some of the other passengers say?), even while they ride to the hospital in a van whose driver slows down to stay aligned with a jogger in the bicycle lane. Later Martin speculates about the effects of a medication he’s taking – maybe it releases a second self or could cause irrational fear and distrust of others – though we’re not told what kind of drug it is. There are a few other absurdist moments, but it’s the non-rational way language is used in The Silence that reminds me most of  Beckett’s work.

The failure of technology brings anxiety, but it also seems to activate language, and not always as a means of communication. Though there are patches of dialog, each character is given one or more monologues, maybe because this is the way we have come to speak online. We post in a forum or on social media, write in a blog or send an email, not always knowing who the audience will be or when the answer will come. And as is so often the case online, these people tend to pontificate, sometimes uttering the incomprehensible, saying what comes into their heads, not really knowing if they’re being understood. When Max says “…the current situation tells us that there’s nothing else to say except what comes into our heads, which none of us will remember anyway,” he could be talking about all the eminently forgettable online pronouncements that are quickly erased from memory, like a photo on Snapchat.

DeLillo shows us that certain kinds of language are a reaction to technology. Tessa and Jim, while they are onboard the plane, speak in ways that “seemed to be a function of some automated process, remarks generated by the nature of airline travel itself.” Jim seems compelled to read aloud the data from what Tessa calls his “sky-high screen,” showing speed and altitude and arrival time. The language of technology and science itself has a stimulating effect when Martin and Diane speak together. Martin describes Einstein’s manuscript to her, and she asks for more and more detail. We are told, “This was erotic in a way, this exchange.” And then later, the repetition of the word cryptocurrency has a similar effect.

Creative language is important throughout the novel, regardless of what happens in the outside world. Martin tells Diane that one of his students had a dream that centered around the nonsensical phrase “umbrella’d ambuscade.” And she later quotes a scarcely more intelligible sentence from Finnegan’s Wake, James Joyce’s rollicking modernist work: “Ere the sockson locked at the dure.” Tessa writes the line “In a tumbling void” as she works on a poem. Martin says he tells his students to watch black-and-white foreign films and listen to the dialog without reading the subtitles. Language has its uses, and they go beyond the rational.

As in Beckett’s Endgame, characters in The Silence speak in sometimes-incomprehensible ways as they try to come to terms with the possible end of world. The novel’s epigraph is a quote from Albert Einstein, who apparently said that however World War III is fought, World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones. In the second half of the novel Martin, who has an almost religious reverence for Einstein, says, “Nobody wants to call it World War III, but this is what it is.” His comment comes shortly after these lines from the omniscient narrator: “Cyberattacks, digital intrusions, biological aggressions. Anthrax, smallpox, pathogens. The dead and disabled. Starvation, plague and what else?”

In this novel about a failure of technology, DeLillo sometimes gives us language for its own sake, and the sheer beauty of the spoken word cannot be ignored here. But if contemplating the loss of electronic technologies brings language into sharp focus, we should use this tool (which could be described as our first technology) to think deeply about the possibility of global war and the extinction of our species. And we shouldn’t wait to do that until the screens go blank.

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