The Silence: DeLillo Mails It In



By Don DeLillo

Scribner and Sons, 120 pages.


Read my review of Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind. Now imagine a crappy novel that covers a lot of the same turf and you have Don DeLillo’s The Silence. It’s not really a novel at all–more like a short story inflated like an unappealing Christmas lawn blowup.


Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens are returning from Paris in time to watch the Super Bowl with friends. As they approach New York, there’s a bump, and systems shut down. They survive a crash landing and encounter the mayhem of a downed power grid, stalled elevators, closed subways, and barricaded story fronts. An airport authority remarks, “Whatever is going on has crushed our technology.”


Married couple Diane Lucas and Martin Dekker and an acquaintance named Max Steiner munch upon prepared food. When the football broadcast goes off the air, “Max looked at the screen as he ate and when he finished eating he put down the plate and kept on looking.” Diane and Martin sit in the dark with no heat, no email, no working appliances, and no word on when Jim and Tessa will arrive.


On the street people wander in confusion, but the city is mostly silent. Jim and Tessa eventually make their way to the apartment and a five-way conversation ensues that’s like a pretentious version of the Barry Levinson film Diner. Their chatter is the only thing that breaks the silence. They speculate on the phenomenon: “cyberattacks, digital intrusions, biological aggressors… minds [being] digitally remastered?” It doesn’t help that Martin is a conspiracy nut fond of invoking (but not grasping) Einstein’s Theory of Special Relativity. Diane is a rational physicist, Tessa an alarmist, and Jim and Max mostly silent partners, as it were.


That’s it and “it” is utter rubbish. Earlier I said it’s not a novel, and I stand by that. I may, however, have slighted short stories. This is a lazy work from DeLillo and is easily the worst of his 17 books. At its best, The Silence reads as if DeLillo simply published his ideas for a book; at worst, it’s like the first treatment of a John Carpenter movie. I half expected to hear one of the characters say, “There’s something in the fog!” No one did. Too bad; that would have been more interesting than the conversations that actually do take place. If I thought the world was ending, I wouldn’t waste my remaining time with anyone as boring as Jim, Tessa, Diane, Martin, and Max.


Silence can be the subject of an enthralling work. One example of this Jose Saramago’s brilliant Seeing (2014), in which an election is held, citizens record blank ballots, and stunned officials parade through streets where curtains are drawn and no huzzahs greet them. DeLillo gives us nothing of that ilk. Instead, he gives us a book that would not have been published from an author of a lesser reputation. It comes perilously close to being contemptuous of his audience–a smugness borne of the belief that his name alone is all that is needed to sell books. There are those who will fawningly read anything DeLillo writes, but you can abstain. As in Saramago’s Seeing, you can vote through silence. There are scores of more worthy books to read.


Rob Weir

No comments: