The Silence by Don DeLillo review – the machine stops

Planes go down and screens go dark in this slim apocalyptic tale from a master stylist

At some point in the editorial process, a rogue line crept into The Silence. The sentence was about airports, masks and Covid-19, and it all seemed thrillingly current, except that Don DeLillo didn’t write it. “Somebody else” may have wanted the book to seem 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 am filled with uncertainty, perhaps even a little bit of dread. Who could do such a thing? Are we sure it wasn’t the Russians? Was it a bot? Is there a virus now infecting new novels with lines about The Virus? Did society itself, in some communal electronic impulse, write this novel while he was sleeping (while we were all, let’s face it, sleeping), because that is the kind of thing that happens in a DeLillo novel, part of his world – which is also our world, by the way – of “cyberattacks, digital intrusions, biological aggressions”. What is the difference between the author and the machine, between the machine and “the mass mind”, and what happens when all that merges and dies, at the same time?

Early in The Silence we are introduced to a man and a woman on a flight from Paris to Newark. “Here, in the air, much of what the couple said to each other seemed to be a function of some automated process,” DeLillo writes (as though he had not written the dialogue himself). The man is Jim, the woman is “Jim’s wife, dark-skinned, Tessa Berens, Caribbean-European-Asian origins, a poet whose work appeared often in literary journals”. Her skin tone, her name, her wifeliness, her complex heritage, her artistic vocation are all, we might agree, interesting facts about Tessa. “She also spent time, online, as an editor with an advisory group that answered questions from subscribers on subjects ranging from hearing loss to bodily equilibrium to dementia.” Information comes in packages, and it is hard to know what is important, what is not important, and what feels as though it was written by some “automated process”, one that writes catalogue copy for stuff you possibly need but don’t really understand. Does any of that website description – as your eyes slide so easily across it – make sense?

Don DeLillo
‘A writer who has been getting things right for ever’: Don DeLillo. Photograph: Nicolas Guerin/Contour/Getty Images

At first, we are not sure if this slightly flat over-particularity is a function of the novel or of Jim’s mindset – but then Tessa seems a little odd too. He recites the “time to destination” he sees on his little screen, while she discusses how to pronounce the word “scone”. Jim says the numbers aloud because they are “worth noting”, he wants to allow them to “live a while”, to give “an audible scan of the where and when”. There is a loneliness in noticing what the rest of the world does not see. This interest in detail became, in early DeLillo novels, a poetry about the texture of our lives, an appreciation of the manufactured and overlooked. There is, in Jim’s attention, the suggestion of sympathy for the machine that does this work of noticing on the travellers’ behalf, because accuracy is a form of faithfulness, and the screen is loyal to facts too big to forget. These people are hurtling around the planet, an experience that is for them so boring that it has amnesia built into it. Then the screen dies, the plane rattles, and you think that no one will ever be bored again.

In this, you would be wrong. Jim and Tessa planned to go from the airport to the Manhattan apartment of their friends Max and Diane in order to watch the Super Bowl. This couple are also hosting Martin Dekker, one of Diane’s ex students, a man with flapping hands and an obsession with Einsteinian physics. When the screen in their apartment also dies, they become, among other things, bored – if that is the word for the oddly libidinised conversation between Diane and Martin about Einstein’s archived manuscripts, written in 1912, on the special theory of relativity. Max becomes so frustrated by the loss of the game that he starts to give an imagined commentary: “During this one blistering stretch, the offense has been pounding, pounding, pounding.” This mimicry is all that remains of the heroic sporting sequences of DeLillo’s Underworld and End Zone. The great game is reduced to something unseen: “men hitting each other, men slamming each other into the turf”. Max falls silent, drinks whisky, leaves and, when he comes back, he will not say what things he has witnessed outside.

Jim and Tessa, recently crash-landed in Newark, are also libidinised 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 joining a queue of the injured. They speak to a woman who cannot tell them what is going on. All the screens are down, the collective mind has been lost. The woman wants, more than anything, to tell them the facts of her life, now: “her first marriage, first cellphone, divorce, travel, French boyfriend, riots in the streets”. World war three may have just started; the problem is, there is no longer any way to find out.

The Silence is just over a hundred pages long, so it is not as commodious a novel as Underworld, and not as funny as White Noise. Many of the same themes recur in a pared-down form, the novel illuminating the previous work with an intense, narrow beam. Sporting masculinity, educators, other languages, systems, paranoias, what is remembered and what is forgotten, the mass mind; these are presented, not in a fritz of interconnectivity but as mimicry, emptiness and, finally, silence.

Nobody speaks the way the characters in this novel do, nor are we asked to believe they would. They are, however, compelling and human, and their voices have a ritualised urgency. DeLillo is a master stylist, and not a word goes to waste. This is the novel as performance art, as expressionistic play. The Silence is like watching Melancholia by Lars von Trier or an opera by Philip Glass – it always feels “foreign”. There is also something of the mid-1980s distilled and transported here: something rapt and male, full of longing for the machine and for the end of days.

As we all learned during lockdown, apocalypse is not always interesting, not all the time. The end of the world as we know it has its longueurs, so we do not need a Covid-19 reference to wonder how DeLillo understood already “the mass insomnia of this inconceivable time”. This is a writer who has been getting things right for ever. DeLillo looks for the future as it manifests in the present moment: he has done this for whole decades in which other writers have struggled with, for example, the invention of the mobile phone (won’t it ruin the plot?). At 83 he makes many contemporary writers read as though they are thinking not even in the 20th but in the 19th century, one in which “the crowd” did not exist, except, perhaps, as proles.

Mass media and the internet pose a serious challenge to the individualism on which the novel form thrives. No wonder so many writers reach back into history for a sense of circumference – especially in Britain, which loves a historical novel – because history feels like a place where individual stories shone, and the masses knew their place. As the internet makes clear, however, and as Covid-19 rushes to agree, we are all the masses now.

Anne Enright’s latest novel is Actress (Jonathan Cape). The Silence by Don DeLillo is published by Picador (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.

Contributor

Anne Enright

The GuardianTramp

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