Very Quick Review: THE SILENCE by Don DeLillo (Scribner)

DeLilloD-SilenceUSA very short novel, with little time to develop

Don DeLillo completed this novel just weeks before the advent of Covid-19. The Silence is the story of a different catastrophic event. Its resonances offer a mysterious solace.

It is Super Bowl Sunday in the year 2022. Five people, dinner, an apartment on the east side of Manhattan. The retired physics professor and her husband and her former student waiting for the couple who will join them from what becomes a dramatic flight from Paris. The conversation ranges from a survey telescope in North-central Chile to a favorite brand of bourbon to Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity.

Then something happens and the digital connections that have transformed our lives are severed.

What follows is a dazzling and profoundly moving conversation about what makes us human. Never has the art of fiction been such an immediate guide to our navigation of a bewildering world. Never have DeLillo’s prescience, imagination, and language been more illuminating and essential.

I’ve not read much of DeLillo’s fiction. I was intrigued by The Silence, however, because of the premise. This was a very quick read, and while interesting I think the synopsis oversells it quite dramatically.

Put simply, there is not enough time for the novel to do anything that the above synopsis promises. It was not dazzling, nor especially profound. Indeed, the conversations between the characters are all pretty mundane and often divorced from what’s going on. Is this realistic? Perhaps. I just feel that if all electronics were to suddenly stop working, we probably would be a little more freaked out. As it happens, the characters DeLillo chooses to write are “quirky” — one is obsessive about football (it’s set during the Super Bowl in 2022), and adjusts to the blackout by vocalizing/fantasizing the experience of watching a Super Bowl, while his companions natter about Einstein’s manuscript (which seemed very divorced from events, but was quite interesting, if brief and kind of thin). The “ranging” conversation doesn’t delve into any of the topics that are brought up, really, just mentioning them and a couple of related comments, before moving on to something else — it’s more like a lazy evening in the university dorm, rather than a profound discussion between a professor and former brilliant student.

DeLilloD-SilenceUKI did enjoy the first chapter a lot, which gave me hope for a genuinely insightful and thoughtful examination of people living during a time of crisis. The portrait of a couple on a plane, I thought, was very human and real: the husband, clearly nervous about flying, obsessively reading everything that pops up on the flight information screen; while his wife patiently listens and offers calming platitudes while writing in her journal. It was excellently written, and through sparse prose DeLillo gives readers a very good sense of the couple’s dynamic and characters. But after that chapter, things became very vague and not especially interesting.

I had very high hopes for The Silence, but ultimately I finished this wondering what the the synopsis writer had been smoking, and where I could get some. While it was well written, it ultimately didn’t really do anything for me. I honestly don’t see how it can be described as “an immediate guide to our navigation of a bewildering world”: it is, rather, a description of five people who happened to find themselves in a bewildering situation and muddled through. For one night. (Although, the two on the flight did, indeed, have a harrowing experience, all of which happens “off screen”.)

Given DeLillo’s long-lasting popularity and accolades, I am sure he is capable of writing engaging and incisive examinations of human nature and interaction. I just don’t think The Silence delivers on what it promises.

*

Don DeLillo’s The Silence is due to be published by Scribner in North America (October 20th) and Picador in the UK (October 29th).

Follow the Author: Goodreads
Review copy received via Edelweiss

4 thoughts on “Very Quick Review: THE SILENCE by Don DeLillo (Scribner)

    • Good question. Sometimes, it can be spot on. But, I’ve definitely noticed a shift in back-cover blurbs of late – there’s a lot more praise creeping in, and it’s becoming more and more effusive. Which, to me, nearly always rings hollow or desperate. I’d rather get sparing praise in the copy and good description/synopsis. Some recently have just been way over the top, which grates.

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  1. You say you haven’t read much DeLillo, and yet you “had high hopes” for this novella. If would be difficult, in my opinion, to give an honest opinion/review when you aren’t familiar with the style and themes of his more ambitious works. It would be akin to judging John Updike on a late short story without being familiar with his novels.

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    • I completely disagree. If a reader can have high hopes for a debut, it’s only logical that they can have high hopes for a new book by an established author. Therefore, complete knowledge of an established author’s back catalogue is absolutely not required in order to have high hopes for one of their new novels. That this one was disappointing is also not a result of lack of experience with the author’s earlier works. If any new book by an author can ONLY be enjoyed in the context of their other work (while not being part of a series), then that’s a problem. This is a stand-alone novel, and therefore should be able to be enjoyed on its own merits. For me, it didn’t work. I’ve had similar experiences with authors by whom I’ve read multiple novels.

      The synopsis was over-done, and the novel failed to live up to my expectations. Ergo, it just didn’t work for me. More experience with the author’s back catalogue, I think, would not have changed my opinion.

      Similarly, I think maybe you wanted a different word than “honest”. Everything I wrote was honest – that is the opinion I have of the book that I read. Reading more of his work would not have made my review any more “honest”, it just might just have allowed me to make some comparative comments.

      As for your Updike short story analogy: Richard Russo is best known for his novels (particularly the Pulitzer-winning Empire Falls). I discovered him through his short fiction, but have since read some of his novels, more of his short fiction, and also a lot of his non-fiction. I enjoy all of it equally – I think of him as one of my favourite authors, hands down. And yet, despite this, I found his latest novel Chances Are… to be not as good as his other work that I’ve read. But, I did nevertheless enjoy it very much. Because I’ve not read ALL of his books, does that mean I am somehow “wrong” for forming my own opinion after reading the book? No. Having read some of his other work, I can recognize certain shared themes that he likes to revisit and examine, but this doesn’t prevent me from considering Chances Are… on its own merits. That I can put it in the context of Russo’s other novels is just an additional component of my experience with and enjoyment of his work. It is not essential to form an opinion of any of his novels.

      The same is true of DeLillo (and I imagine pretty much every other author who doesn’t write series fiction). After all, not loving one of his novels does not mean another of his books won’t be more enjoyable or satisfying for me. In fact, I know someone who LOVES White Noise, but thinks the rest of his novels are kind of crap.

      People’s experiences with novels or fiction of any length are individual. There is no “right way” to be a fan or a reader. All that matters is that we’re open to trying new or new-to-us authors.

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