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Book Review | Don DeLillo’s new novel is stimulating yet unsatisfying

Don DeLillo’s slender new novel, The Silence, is occasionally illuminating and often enigmatic but ultimately, there’s an air of incompleteness about it.

November 14, 2020 / 08:14 AM IST

In a 2004 essay on late style, Edward Said unpacks the way in which the work of artists and writers acquires a new idiom as they grow older. The accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity, but upon examining the work of Lampedusa and Cavafy, among others, Said finds “an increasing sense of apartness and exile and anachronism”.

His conclusion is that late style can render disenchantment and pleasure without resolving the contradiction between them. These equal forces push in opposite directions, but are balanced by the artist’s mature subjectivity, “stripped of hubris and pomposity, unashamed either of its fallibility or of the modest assurance it has gained as a result of age and exile”.

One is reminded of these words when reading the 83-year-old Don DeLillo’s slender new novel, The Silence. The final effect is that of a puzzled disenchantment and a willingness to probe the reasons for it – but with a diminished force that, unfortunately, skews the balance that Said admired.

DeLillo has said in an earlier interview that in writing this piece of fiction, he was “trying to imagine what has been torn apart and what can be put back together, and I don’t know the answer”. It’s a statement that can be applied to the spirit behind much of his work.

The Silence is set in the year 2022, and it starts with a couple on a flight from Paris back home to New York. As with DeLillo’s other recent novels, the prose is bare-bone clean and the dialogue spikily stylised.  Obsessing over temperatures and landing times on the screen in front of him, the husband says: “This flight. All the long flights. All the hours. Deeper than boredom.” To which the wife replies: “Activate your tablet. Watch a movie.”

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All of a sudden, there is a shocking and mysterious occurrence that causes the screen and other systems to shut down. This is the pivot on which the novel turns as it seeks to understand how we negotiate the world with and without mobile phones, tablets, and all the other digital helpmates that flesh is heir to. As a healthcare assistant incongruously says some time later, “Is everything in the datasphere subject to distortion and theft? And do we simply have to sit here and mourn our fate?”

After surviving the plane malfunction and receiving first aid, the couple make it to a friend’s apartment in Manhattan where the others have been prevented from watching a football game because the TV screen, too, is on the blink. Much discussion ensues, some bombastic, some artful, on the apocalyptic nature of what has just happened.

There are other stabs at timeliness. One character speculates that the Chinese have “initiated a selective internet apocalypse”. Further, “remaining fresh in every memory, virus, plague, the march through airport terminals, the face masks, the city streets emptied”. It is a world of abandoned subways, stalled elevators, empty office buildings, and barricaded storefronts.

The characters soliloquise over causes and consequences. One of them wonders: “Will people in the streets become flash mobs, running wild, breaking and entering, everywhere, planet-wide, rejecting the past, completely unmoored from all the habits and patterns?” This see-saw between modernity and atavism is familiar; in White Noise, for example, we’re told: “The greater the scientific advance, the more primitive the fear.”

A sense of paranoia, another one of DeLillo’s enduring themes, is also present. A character, who happens to be gripped by Einstein’s theories, takes pills with side effects: “Could be the feeling that others can hear your thoughts or control your behaviour.” Later, another wonders: “Are we an experiment that happens to be falling apart, a scheme set in motion by forces outside our reckoning?”

Much of this is just touched upon, not delved into. Similarly, artificial intelligence, mass surveillance, and climate change are also glanced at. At times, DeLillo seems to enjoy the sheer sensation of polysyllabic words in vogue: cryptocurrencies, microplastics, two-factor verification. His old satirical touch does occasionally surface -- the venue of the football game, for instance, is the Benzedrex Nasal Decongestant Memorial Coliseum.

The Silence is occasionally illuminating and often enigmatic but ultimately, there’s an air of incompleteness about it. In DeLillo’s 1982 The Names, a character says that if he were a writer, he would enjoy being told the novel is dead: “How liberating it would be to work in the margins, outside a central perception.” With The Silence, more than in the past, this is what DeLillo seems to be reaching towards.

Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
Sanjay Sipahimalani
first published: Nov 14, 2020 08:14 am

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