Don DeLillo has been a catastrophist for so long that we only really get excited when life’s catastrophes go way beyond his predictions. That happened with 9/11, when the attack on the Twin Towers and their collapse in broad daylight made his warnings suddenly appear to have been too vague in meaning and too small in scale. His subsequent fictional account, Falling Man, seemed from the first page like the drowned-out speech of a sandwich-board preacher who has only just learned about the Bowls of Wrath. It isn’t for DeLillo to go scampering in the wake of abominations: his great instinct, all along, has been to give shape to dreadful events before they happen, before the people who might carry them out are even born, and to seem to know their source in our public as well as our secret dreams. He has watched the culture with an avidity that makes readers feel that they weren’t fully engaged with modern life until they picked up his books. His sentences stay with you, sounding out a common destiny.
No electrical appliance is innocent. ‘The little radio made its noises,’ we’re told in Great Jones Street, ‘fierce as a baby, never listening to itself. This was America’s mechanical voice, its doll voice, coughing out slogans into the dawn, testing itself in the event of emergency, station after station fading away into the suffering breath of the national anthem.’ The same goes for mechanical, motorised or digital devices. In Zero K, characters are carried along in the ‘veer’, an elevator that goes sideways, bringing an odd sensation ‘of angled descent, the feel of being detached from our sensory apparatus, coasting in a way that was mental more than physical’. DeLillo likes lifts. In Cosmopolis, 28-year-old Eric, a super-rich fund manager, can travel from the summit of his $104 million triplex in a choice of private elevators; one moves at quarter speed and plays Satie on the way down. In Underworld, machines are ‘a culmination’, never just machines. ‘And this made my rental car a natural match for the landscape I was crossing,’ he writes. Later in that book, an aircraft in flight is ‘a provocation too strong to ignore’. And, still later, a child’s video camera, which happens to capture a shooting by the Texas Highway Killer, proves to be a sinister modern history machine. ‘You know about families and their video cameras,’ DeLillo writes. ‘You know how kids get involved, how the camera shows them that every subject is potentially charged, a million things they never see with the unaided eye. They investigate the meaning of inert objects and dumb pets and they poke at family privacy. They learn to see things twice.’ It might be an aspect of the paranoid sublime – that great 20th-century topic – but DeLillo can’t see a machine without wondering at its hidden experience. If our machines now tell us who we are, this isn’t news to him. ‘Our newspaper is delivered by a middle-aged Iranian driving a Nissan Sentra,’ Jack Gladney says in White Noise. ‘Something about the car makes me uneasy – the car waiting with its headlights on, at dawn, as the man places the newspaper on the front steps. I tell myself I have reached an age, the age of unreliable menace. The world is full of abandoned meanings.’
In The Silence, all electrical devices – indeed, pretty much all powered objects – go on the blink. Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens are on a flight from Paris to Newark. Jim is making a fetish of all the information on the inflight screen; his wife is making notes about what they did on their vacation. He works as a claims adjustor for an insurance company. She’s a poet. They’re flying Business. They’re travelling at 476 miles an hour. They have a date to watch the Super Bowl at their friends’ apartment when they get to New York. When things are dodgy in DeLillo, which they always are, it tells first in the tone. The couple crossing the Atlantic are both slightly flattened out by the anxieties of living. ‘All I want to do is get home and look at a blank wall,’ she says. Then the plane starts to bounce, then it shakes, and there’s a loud knocking in the undercarriage. Suddenly, there’s an outage. (Not his word, but it seems right to me.) The screen goes blank. Turns out a screen going blank isn’t at all like looking at a blank wall. ‘Are we afraid?’ Tessa says, and the answer, of course, is that we’re all afraid, if appropriately primed, and DeLillo is nothing if not an expert in fertilising your dread.
Diane Lucas and Max Stenner are waiting for them in New York. They’re sitting in front of a super-screen TV in their apartment on the East Side. It’s a Sunday. Max is a betting man: he has certain punts on the outcome of the football. He is also a mansplainer: ‘The money is always there, the point spread, the bet itself …’ He and Diane have been married for 37 years. They have another guest for the Super Bowl – Martin Dekker, a former student of Diane’s who now teaches high school physics in the Bronx. Martin’s a bit strange, a desexualised motormouth who issues vague pronouncements and is engaged in a sonorous and ‘compulsive’ study of Einstein’s 1912 manuscript on the special theory of relativity. He has the well-earned tone of apprehension so familiar to DeLillo fans – well-earned, but not by him. Then the TV goes funny, a dance of rectangles, triangles and squares, before going blank. Martin immediately has a theory: it’s the Chinese, initiating a ‘selective internet apocalypse’. The shock of every gadget failing brings a threat of absolute silence broken only by the endless theorising of the characters. This is odd. Martin mentions gravitational waves, supersymmetries, and talks more than is necessary about Einstein. He uses the phrase ‘additional theorem of velocities’. While Max thumps the arm of his chair and worries about his stake, Diane has a go at saying the sort of thing you imagine she thinks might please her former student. ‘Is this the casual embrace that marks the fall of world civilisation?’ she asks as they stare at the grey screen.
The plane crash-lands. Jim gets a cut on his head. Their phones are dead. They go to a weird clinic where people make remarks, remarks which seem pungent, as if DeLillo is making a point about verbal reflux in a time of chaos. (As if remarks are all that literature has left.) The book has a real first-wave pandemic feel to it – people are scared, people aren’t sure how to protect themselves – and it doesn’t make much sense that Jim and Tessa, post-crash-landing, still make their way to the Super Bowl party. If you’d just escaped a plane with a wing on fire, would you be up for nuts and beers? Their friends are staring at the blank screen. Max has poured himself a bourbon and is speaking the language of the game, to nothing, to nobody. As the novel moves along (it’s little more than a hundred pages in all), splutter, interference, starts to be picked up from previous DeLillo novels: when the plane bounces and plunges, we think of the four-mile drop from the sky in White Noise, that somehow hilarious near crash-landing (‘We’re going down! We’re a silver gleaming death machine!’). The mention of a mysterious pill recalls Dylar, the psychopharmaceutical in that same novel, and, when Martin is described peering into the middle distance in a measured way, we remember the subway passengers in Libra, staring nowhere, ‘a look they’d been practising for years’. Like a long, late poem by Wallace Stevens, The Silence can seem like its own quiet battle with stillness, a thing of refrains and echoes.
This should be no surprise. Leaving the old stability of reality begetting fiction, we have long since lived in a world where fiction begets fiction, and fiction begets reality. Don DeLillo didn’t invent the neighbourhood but he has been one of its more contented, long-term inhabitants, exploring the way plots and mass imaginings were central to Western life in the second half of the 20th century. He helped define that aspect of the culture, and for twenty years he has been spreading his own message, in books not as original as his best but which add grace notes and fresh cadences. The DeLillo style represents a certain way of thinking about American complexity, as a toxic bubble of unstable facts and menacing fictions. Last spring, the New Yorker ran a story called ‘White Noise’ by Emma Cline, in which Harvey Weinstein is staying at a friend’s house in Connecticut. It is the day before his trial and he pads into the garden, where he sees the man next door, dressed in old-fashioned pyjamas, picking up his newspaper. He is Don DeLillo. The men exchange pleasantries and Cline has her fictional Weinstein contemplate the necessity of producing a film of ‘the unfilmable book’ White Noise, which will surely prove to be his great comeback. ‘Now is the PERFECT TIME to do this MOVIE,’ he types into his phone: ‘we as a nation are hungry 4 meaning.’ He later imagines the other neighbours, the ‘sleeping citizens, dreaming in their beds, unaware of Harvey and Don DeLillo vibrating on a higher frequency’.
DeLillo has been broadcasting on that frequency since 1971. It is therefore either a final consummation, or a late slant on disaster, that The Silence is essentially an argument in favour of closing down the talk, high-end or otherwise, in favour of the digital static that appears in his late work with the force of inevitability. When Jim and Tessa finally reach the apartment where their friends are staring at a blank screen, it feels as if they have arrived at the far end of culture’s graveyard, technology’s reckoning. The high phrases beat out like the faint signal from a lost satellite or a distant planet. ‘Martin resumes speaking for a time’ while Tessa says something in a dead language. Martin ‘sounds either brilliant or unbalanced’. Diane tells herself to shut up. ‘From the one blank screen in this apartment to the situation that surrounds us,’ Tessa says. ‘What is happening? Who is doing this to us? Have our minds been digitally remastered? Are we an experiment that happens to be falling apart, a scheme set in motion by forces outside our reckoning?’
The answer must be yes. In the novels up to and including Underworld, DeLillo provided wonders of radical talk and comic invention, souped-up engines of media examination and exposures of capitalist reality. In that great novel, he had a faith in the power of sentences to replenish the imagination. ‘Time binds us to ageing flesh,’ one of its narrators says. ‘Not that he minded growing old. But as a point of argument, in theory only, he wondered what we’d learn by going deeper into structures beneath the standard model, down under the quantum, a million billion times smaller than the old Greek atom.’ DeLillo had the energy, the breath and the words then. He saw, long before most writers did, that truth would be devalued and so would privacy. The rock star Bucky Wunderlick, in Great Jones Street, is hiding out in a dingy apartment – ‘returning the idea of privacy to American life’ – when a reporter turns up. Bucky won’t let him use a tape recorder or take notes. ‘You want some kind of accuracy, don’t you?’ the reporter complains. ‘Make it all up. Go home and write whatever you want and then send it out on the wires,’ Bucky says. ‘Make it up. Whatever you write will be true.’
It seems that DeLillo has been figuring out a way to end it. Since 1971, he has launched fireworks over the dark parts of America, huge explosions of colour and possibility, and now, in this late, mournful work, we find him conjuring common experience again in a single room, this novel perhaps an abjuration. The silence of the title is not that arising from the quieted phones and the dead screens, but the silence within, as words themselves come to seem empty. ‘The current situation tells us,’ Max says, ‘that there’s nothing else to say except what comes into our heads, which none of us will remember anyway.’