Don DeLillo has truly perfected the art of causing me existential dread, or extreme anxiety and paranoia, or the belief that my life or the world are ending any second – or maybe all of the above. The Silence, released just yesterday, is an incredibly brief novella where DeLillo ponders on what would happen if all the world’s technology were to shut down. Will there be mass panic? Will humanity be left to contemplate life and death with no distractions? Will animalistic traits, nostalgic memories, and paralyzing fear, all set in? This is what he sets out to find, and given that it’s Don DeLillo, the answer is already obvious.
Knowing that he is now 83 years old, the synopsis worried me that he was about to start trekking into cranky old-man territory and preach about humanity’s downfall due to our cell phone and TV addiction. It’s something that one of my favorite authors, Phillip Roth, fell into a couple of times in his later works, and it made for many eye-roll-inducing reads. Luckily, DeLillo did not stumble into this trap, and instead took a postmodern approach on why we truly use technology, looking at it objectively from a psychological standpoint. What I mean by this is that at a surface level, yes, DeLillo is showing us how people would cope without technology, but at a deeper thematic level, he is showing us characters who are plagued by thoughts of death, now without distraction to assuage their fears.
At their core, almost every DeLillo novel since White Noise has been about coming to terms with this fear of death. White Noise used medication, Mao II used war and journalism, Underworld used a little of everything, The Body Artist used love, Cosmopolis used wealth, Zero K used science, and now The Silence uses technology. His philosophy about death is hard to come to terms with which is probably why he gives me a mini-crisis every time I read one of his novels. Yet I keep coming back for better or worse.
Here is his conclusion on how we would cope. Jim seemed only comfortable with numbers on a screen, reading them off to distract him from his anxiety of being on the plane and worrying that it would crash. Tessa had a more natural distraction, writing, which allowed her to cope better afterward but still not fully. Tessa and Jim then seem to revert to sex, independent of time or place like animals would do. Max seems to be one of the most impacted. He cannot cope without the game and he reverts into acting it out, drinking to numb his mind, and counting steps on flights of stairs. This counting steps sets him back in time to relive his childhood, but even that seems to induce paranoia as he remembers the number of steps always changing; a pervasive sense of dread transforms his nostalgia into a nightmare. Diane can’t even seem to cope, as she fears what is happening outside and yet cannot go see. She also reverts into taboo sexual tendencies and cheats on her husband while he is gone. And finally, Martin rambles through scientific thoughts, but only dread-inducing theories such as a fabricated sense of reality and a new world war.
It’s all intriguing and quite honestly a brilliant way to answer his original question, but it does fall flat compared to his best works. It seems that since Underworld, despite still being one of the best writers of our time, his talent to write mind-blowing, beautiful passages has dropped off some, and that his writing has come to read like a self-parody of his greater works. He still writes excellent passages such as the characters’ monologues at the end, yet now there are those awkward, amateurish ones like the random inclusion of cryptocurrency or the umbrella’d ambuscade. The brevity of The Silence also leaves me wanting something more; he asks the question and answers it immediately, leaving me satisfied with the answer yet disappointed with its development.
See my Goodreads review here: Goodreads
See other book reviews or what I plan to read next here: Book Reviews