In Don DeLillo’s New Novel, Technology Is Dead. Civilization Might Be, Too.
By Don DeLillo
A.D., for me, has come to mean not anno Domini but anno DeLillo, an unaccountable time after the annulment of time — after the fall seasons and spring seasons, after the sweeps-weeks and opening weekends, after the early and late editions, after the updates at 6 and at 10. This new era was inaugurated in 1971 with the publication of Don DeLillo’s “Americana,” and can be clocked only by the 16 talky, balky, furiously lucid, and ferociously sophisticated novels that followed, at a pace, and at a pitch of excellence, more reliable than pretty much anything else in contemporary American life. Now — if we can agree to pretend that we know what “now” is — the master has brought us “The Silence”: the latest installment in his chronicle of our unrelenting present.
It’s a strange task to set yourself: pointing the novel toward novelty and writing about the present, writing about what-is. Literature’s pace is traditionally more suited to what-was, what-will-be, what-isn’t: the court of Henry VIII, terraformed Mars, Westeros, Essos, Panem. When literature does treat of the present, it tends to do so in genre terms (thrillers, mysteries), or pop-politically (“Primary Colors”). For most writers, the more efficient vehicle for the present is nonfiction, the journalism that took from fiction more than fiction ever took from it: the books that purport to account for a reality that has trumped the imagination.
There is something quixotic about what DeLillo has done: writing about contemporary culture even as it collapses into subcultures, and even as the democratic dream of a collective center is derided as suspicious in identitarian terms. He has succeeded, by my estimation, chiefly by treating the topical not as a bid for relevance but as a yearning for commonality, mutuality, something to share. The news, for DeLillo, is the last culture that all of us share, and not the news as a set of agreed-upon facts, but as a disaggregated and constantly refreshable cache of sensation to be interrogated, debated and then forgotten.
DeLillo has never been content with merely reporting, however: He wants to tell us not just what-is, but how it feels, and it’s this ability to transcribe the moment’s emotion that constitutes his genius. Terrorism, financial collapse, nuclear and biochemical disaster: These phenomena might’ve occurred in “The Names,” “Mao II,” “Cosmopolis” and “White Noise” somewhat differently than they occurred in the world, but the reactions of DeLillo’s characters were often determinative. To read DeLillo on 9/11, or on the recession, or on a pandemic while in the midst of a pandemic with masks on our faces and gloves turning the pages, is to engage in a process of re-coherence, a mimetic experiment wherein the author’s clarity forces our own.
About to turn 84 years old, and after 50 years as a published author, DeLillo wants to clarify a universal calamity: mortality. That was the subject of his previous novel, “Zero K,” in which humans use technology to arrest aging and disease in an attempt at subverting death and effecting resurrection. “The Silence” is even more bone-hard and skeletally spare than its predecessor, though its subject is considerably broader. In it, humans deprived of technology resign themselves to death, and not just to individual death but to cultural death, the end of the world, the end of time.
“The Silence” is set in 2022, and though it’s not clear if Trump, or Biden, or anyone is president, at least the “plague” is under control, with international air travel resuming. Sports are also back with a more-or-less regular season, and — call your bookie — it’s Seahawks versus Titans in Super Bowl LVI. Jim Kripps, claims adjuster, and his partner Tessa Berens, poet, are flying home from what appears to be their first post-Covid-19 vacation, to Paris. Their plan is to head directly from Newark to their friends’ apartment to watch the game, but then the map-screen that Jim is watching gives out and the plane starts to fall from the sky.
Cut to that apartment, in uptown Manhattan, where three characters sit in the glow of another screen and wait for their guests: Max Stenner, a building inspector with a gambling habit, has bet a pile on the game; his partner, Diane Lucas, a retired physics professor, is less interested in football or her husband than she is in the third guest, her former student Martin Dekker, an otherworldly bookish solitary who teaches physics at a charter school in the Bronx and is almost religiously fixated on Einstein: the émigré American, the secular ecumenical Jew, the crazy-haired guy from the Apple ads.
At kickoff, with the threesome in the midst of discussing halftime cuisine, the world changes. Or, as DeLillo puts it, “Something happened then.” A Spectrum service disruption, a Con Ed mistake; a metaphor, an aporia, a sci-fi cliché: At the Stenner/Lucas apartment, the screen goes blank, the phones are dead, the laptops are “lifeless.” Technology no longer “works,” either by accident or through sabotage. Max wavers between suggesting that the electricity is just out in the building, or on the block, and Chinese cyberwarfare, “a selective internet apocalypse.” Diane proclaims, “It is extraterrestrial.” Martin, meanwhile, channels Beckett or Ionesco as he lectures on “space and time. Spacetime.” As Max keeps repeating “Jesus, or good Christ, or Jesus H. Christ,” Martin evinces a preference for the trinity of Einstein, Heisenberg and Gödel, or “relativity, uncertainty, incompleteness.”
Martin’s glosses on quantum physics lead to the proposal that something has happened not just to technology but to time itself: “Are we living in a makeshift reality? … A future that isn’t supposed to take form just yet?” Relativity theory proposes that no events, and certainly no perceptions of events, can be said to be absolutely simultaneous. In effect, there can be no present; time might be reversible, but it cannot be stopped, so the Now cannot exist except as fiction. Martin’s argument appears to be that without technology, this lack of a present — or the fictionality of the present — will once again become palpable to our experience. Without technology to connect us, we’ll become aware that each of us lives in our own discrete, individual present, which has nothing in common with those of our partners, our families, our neighbors, and it will make us insane.
As if to furnish proof, Max responds to Martin’s Einstein with Al Michaels or maybe Howard Cosell. He sits in his chair and stares at the screen and voices an imaginary play-by-play and color commentary to the game he’s been denied, the game he can’t even be sure is still happening: “This team is ready to step out of the shadows and capture the moment.” And: “During this one blistering stretch, the offense has been pounding, pounding, pounding.” And: “Ground game, ground game, crowd chanting, stadium rocking.” And “De-fense. De-fense. De-fense.” Between the calls of this fantasy football, Max even takes commercial breaks: “Wireless the way you want it. Soothes and moisturizes. Gives you twice as much for the same low cost. Reduces the risk of heart-and-mind disease.”
Into this roiling, claustral stage-business that travesties ESPN, PBS, TED Talks, cuck-porn and Dada (the greatest innovation of fin de siècle Zurich, after relativity) come the missing links from the book’s opening chapter. Jim, suffering a head injury, and Tessa, suffering Jim, arrive late but with the excuse of having survived a crash landing: “When everyone was seated, here, there, the newcomers spoke of the flight and the events that followed and the spectacle of the Midtown streets, the grid system, all emptied out.”
Part 2 of “The Silence” can now begin, and the end is nigh.
A writer of the present is almost always an apocalypst, and it’s the privilege of every generation to think itself the last, though the generations that wrote after the Bomb had a better justification for their panic. The novelists of DeLillo’s generation expected the end of the world through nuclear calamity, but of them only a few still remain alive to countenance the change: namely, the increased chance of the world ending not with a bang, or even a whimper, but in silence; the silent melt of the poles, the silent rise of the seas; the silent seethe of a breath-stifling plague; or, in this novel, the silence that follows the blackout of our external brains, those silicon-celled devices to which we’ve transferred our timekeeping and cultural artifacts, our medical and legal records, our genetic sequences, our nudes, our novels, our pasts. This is the eschaton through lack of access, but also through human atrophy, debility, the desuetude of critical function. Per Max: “We’re being zombified. We’re being bird-brained. … I’m done with all this. Sunday or is it Monday? February whatever. It’s my expiration date.”
The oddest stretches of DeLillo’s book revel in this dumbness, and dare the reader to decry it: Einstein’s statements are occasionally misquoted (such as the novel’s epigraph, which can be found on Wikiquote, but not in Einstein’s papers); the German Freitod is translated literally as “free death,” though it means “suicide”; when Martin is asked to say something in German he responds with what we’re to understand is a windy statement, and then when he’s asked to give a translation, he replies with a definition of capitalism that, as the writer Justin Taylor pointed out to me, comes not from Marx but verbatim from the American Heritage Dictionary. Elsewhere, the imprecisions are more oblique: Elements of relativity theory seem to be jumbled up with elements of Wittgenstein’s language theories (the seven-chapter form of the novel appears to owe something, though I’m not sure what, to the seven numbered sections of the “Tractatus”).
What tells me that these lapses are purposeful, intended as comic commentary on the tragedy of our forgetting, is the way they’re presented alongside more pernicious misimpressions: fake news, conspiranoia, theories of informational relativity. Among them: The world is a simulation run by time-manipulating aliens; time has accelerated, or collapsed, or we just perceive it in that way because “our minds have been digitally remastered,” or because we’ve been poisoned by “plastics,” or “microplastics.” What began as dialogue, gathered energy as trialogue, and peaked as pentalogue, soon topples like a Babel tower and disperses into monologues of unconsoled dissociation: five separate “friends” unable to communicate, unable to connect, unable even to remember, nattering to themselves like lunatics, haunting the hallways, counting the stairs.
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