A 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.
I 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.
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Review copy received via Edelweiss