It’s not coincidental, I think, that two major novelists have published books this year in which Albert Einstein plays a prominent role. In Ali Smith’s Summer, the proto-fascist schoolboy Robert Greenlaw searches for traces of Einstein’s presence in England and, through his reading of Einstein’s work, comes to understand better his place in space and time. Now, in his 18th novel, The Silence, Don DeLillo gives us Martin Dekker, an intense and inscrutable young man who is “lost in his compulsive study of Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity”. Both novels ask us to consider what Einstein would have made of the unique strangeness of our technological world, particularly how the internet has changed our relationship to time.
The Silence opens on an aeroplane. Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens are returning from Europe when their plane drops out of the sky. It’s the first indication of the “communications screw-up” that has caused all technology to grind to a sudden and catastrophic halt. Jim and Tessa escape the crash landing with scratches and – in the strange, dreamlike logic of this slight, surreal novel – make their way to the New York home of Max Stenner and Diane Lucas. The year is 2022 and it’s the day of Super Bowl LVI, when most Americans would be huddled around their televisions. Instead, there’s no television, no internet, and so Max and Diane sit with Diane’s former student, Martin, and wait. Jim and Tessa arrive, the day passes, Martin quotes Einstein. The story ends with no resolution, and little explanation as to what has caused the shutdown.
It’s clear – at least to the enigmatic Martin, who apparently has “access to world events” – that the failure of technology is one of the early shots in what may turn out to be the third world war. The whole novel feels like an attempt to answer the question posed in its own epigraph, a quote from Einstein: “I do not know with what weapons world war III will be fought, but world war IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” DeLillo is asking us to consider how much of our life is currently lived online, and how much of ourselves we would lose were we unable to access the internet. “What happens to the people who live inside their phones?” Diane wonders at one point. It feels like these explorations of technology and selfhood spring out of DeLillo’s previous novel, Zero K, which explored cryogenics and the possibility of “downloading” a person’s mind prior to death.
At barely 10,000 words, this book sits somewhere between a long short story and a novella, further evidence of the sparseness that marks DeLillo’s late-career writing. Previously known for the exhaustive length of his novels, he hasn’t written book over 300 pages since Underworld in 1997. The characters in the apartment in The Silence could easily be trapped in a kind of hell, where their attempts to speak to one another only accentuate the terrible isolation that each of them inhabits. It’s as if DeLillo has decided to bring Samuel Beckett into the Facebook age. It makes for a book that feels oddly heartless, with little to balance against the overwhelming monstrousness of the world we have created (on and off-line). Reading DeLillo’s post-Underworld novels has been a strange and melancholy affair, like watching an object of great brilliance recede, slowly, into the distance.
• The Silence by Don DeLillo is published by Picador (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply