Email This Article Print This Article

The Harrowing Silence of Lost Systems

Isavella Vouza

Eerily prescient, uncannily prophetic, literary clairvoyant: these are some of the epithets that are frequently attributed to Don DeLillo as a writer whose dystopian literary realities materialise in real life. They also apply to DeLillo’s latest 2020 novel, or novella, The Silence, which depicts a cataclysmic event in the very near future, whereby an unidentifiable reason has caused the breakdown of all electronic systems, from TV and radiators to digital communications like cell-phones. This irruption of the unexpected into daily life has some parallels with the current Covid-19 situation, which the novel’s publisher sought to explicitly – and slyly – leverage by making a superimposed addition to DeLillo’s original text. In the initial press distribution copy, a brief ‘Covid-19’ noun phrase was inserted into the book, and then subsequently retracted from the final copy. In his interview to The New York Times Magazine, DeLillo mentioned his own disapproval of this arbitrary insertion and categorically stated that ‘It wasn’t going to stay, that’s for sure’.

Although White Noise, DeLillo’s 1985 U.S. National Book Award for Fiction winner, with its reference to an ‘airborne toxic event’, has a clearer affinity with the current pandemic, The Silence depicts a world literally shutting down. The subversion of habitual reality or the ‘catastrophic event’ itself is not the narrative’s main focus, though; what underpins the novel is the question of ‘silence’ itself. DeLillo seems to imply that this harrowing ‘silence’ is not causally created by the systems’ breakdown but was always there, just concealed by the digital or electronic networks that have come to form part of quotidian life. How do people linguistically grapple with this gap that the absence of technology leaves and what are the repercussions when the ‘brain-computer interface’ is severed?

The Silence shows the world’s impermanence not from a theological perspective but from a technological one. Set in 2022, the novel spans a few hours prior to, during, and following the digital and electronic breakdown by focusing on five characters who are meeting for dinner in an apartment in Manhattan. Jim and Tessa, a married couple, are flying from Paris to Newark to dine with their friends in New York. The dinner hosts, former professor of physics Diane Lucas and her husband, a building inspector, Max Stenner, are waiting for Jim and Tessa’s arrival in their apartment together with Martin Dekker, Diane’s former student and a physics teacher obsessed with Albert Einstein’s 1912 manuscript on the theory of relativity.

The breakdown then takes place in enclosed spaces: those of the airplane and the apartment. Upon the system’s disruption, the characters vainly try to account for its cause: Is it a Chinese plot against Americans? Martin half-jokingly wonders. Do they live in a hyper-real environment where they are now ‘digitally remastered’? asks Tessa. These speculations surface some all-too-familiar and recurrent themes in DeLillo’s oeuvre, from conspiracy theories and the effects of technology to radical uncertainty and mass paranoia. This breakdown opens Pandora’s box regarding the nefarious economical, technological, and political realities at work in the real world, yet hidden in plain sight. DeLillo reveals a universe that does not seem our own yet is markedly familiar.

The system disintegration is signposted by way of screen disintegration, or ‘a screen’ that goes ‘blank’. The blank screen – the idea that galvanised DeLillo to write the novel in the first place– becomes one of The Silence’s overarching motifs due to its magnetic effect on some of the characters. In the beginning of the novel, Jim hypnotically stares at his small airplane screen and monotonously repeats the fluctuating information displayed on the screen such as precise ‘altitude’ or ‘temperature’. In a parallel way, Max is fixated to his ‘superscreen TV’ in his apartment and appears unable to stop staring.

Although the motif of human powerlessness in the face of technology and their utter addiction to it is a constant in DeLillo’s novels, screens in The Silence unleash more ontological questions about being and the world. The novel seems to suggest that screens, representing all electronic/digital systems, serve to cover humanity’s existential silence through their noise. As soon as screen noise – an allusion to TV’s ‘white noise’ from DeLillo’s titular novel – is muffled, the protagonists are compelled to acknowledge mystifying aspects of life that were ‘screened’ before. For example, Martin starts recognising the ‘global silence that marks our hours, minutes and seconds’, in other words the ubiquitous and relentless marking of time that was nonetheless imperceptible prior to the catastrophe. Equally, Martin problematises the omnipresence of systems that prioritise ‘surfaces’ to differentiate and categorise people: ‘Our systems of surveillance, our facial recognition devices, our imagery resolution. How do we know who we are?’. As these systems that ‘screen’ one’s ‘face’ prove insufficient to provide any understanding of one’s ‘being’, this silence forces characters to engage in self-discovery. However, this renewal of vision also makes the characters’ insecurity in the world even more pronounced. DeLillo represents this uncertainty through a plethora of aimless and meaningless words uttered by the protagonists as a way of showing their inability to attribute meaning to the world.

For a novel that is entitled The Silence, its characters try all too hard to fill it with words: purposeless dialogues, monotonous monologues, regurgitation of conspiracy or scientific theories, dead languages, mathematical divisions, even non-existent words like ‘umbrella’d ambushcaded’ are employed as a way to cover up the newly-created silence that the systems breakdown leaves. This need for language as a way of connection, however, is not necessarily a need for meaningful language; rather it becomes a way to fill the void that the breakdown leaves by way of mere sound. Diane describes her necessity to talk as a verbal diarrhoea, a ‘belch’ of words beyond her own power to restrain it. Unlike the male characters, however, women feel uncomfortable with this excessive talking and feel compelled to suppress it: in their monologues, both Diane and Tessa force themselves to ‘shut up’ (‘Shut up, Diane’ or ‘Shut up, Tessa’). As none of the male characters expresses a similar discomfort, this foregrounds a long perpetuated problem of women’s internalised uneasiness when occupying too much verbal time. Male characters even engage in meaningless monologues sometimes with utter disregard of their interlocutors. Martin for instance keeps reiterating scientific and conspiracy theories – from his science idol Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity to mass surveillance or ‘drone wars’ – as speculations regarding the breakdown’s possible causes. His theories, though, do not grant any epistemological comfort, neither to the characters nor to the readers. Rather, this regurgitation represents the contemporary zeitgeist of paranoia and even underscores the purposelessness of these theories, implying that the reason behind this disruption is subsidiary to the ways of coping with it.

Eerily enough, the breakdown of systems creates a rift in the habitual mode of speaking and acting, too, suggesting that the characters themselves also disintegrate. At some point, Martin becomes utterly mesmerised by his own ‘theory’ lesson to the extent that he completely relinquishes his self and starts adopting a foreign accent, in particular the way Albert Einstein would speak English. Shortly after, he starts explaining everything in an entirely different language, in German. More than merely imitating, Martin becomes immersed in his new character, an immersion that blurs the lines between an absurdist representation of a person who has become an amalgamation of someone else’s theories, and a speculative representation of a character-automaton.

In a similar vein, Max becomes a living automaton when, following the shutting down of the screen and the abrupt ceasing of Super Bowl’s transmission on TV, he continues the transmission himself, as if taking over the blank screen’s task. Max begins commenting on the absent game by regurgitating football-related terms such as ‘Avoids the sack, gets it away – intercepted!’, a scene that gets even more bizarre when he starts reiterating TV commercials by adapting his voice’s pace and tone. In this uncannily reverse scenario then, the screen (object) remains blank and Max (human) does the ‘transmission’ as a non-thinking entity.

Through the pre-existent theories or scenarios that Max and Martin merely transmit or reiterate, respectively, DeLillo surfaces the contemporary ‘deadened’ type of human who does not manipulate social (scientific or commercial) scripts but has uncritically memorised them. DeLillo therefore builds a carefully constructed ‘alienation effect’ through the dismantling of social norms and character originality, which becomes even more intense at the quintessential social-domestic setting of the dinner. Tessa’s absurdist conduct at dinner, for example, whereby she makes mathematical calculations in a ‘deadpan’ manner, ‘changing languages along the way’, comes to substantiate that, in a world deplete of meaning, actions and language lose their meaning, too. DeLillo gestures towards both the limits of knowledge through the protagonists’ inability to provide sufficient answers, and the limits of language. 

Georges Bataille says that ‘what tragedy teaches is silence’. This silence, however, ‘is nothing if it does not put an end to thought at least for a little while’. DeLillo has seemingly ‘paused’ his characters’ thoughts to the extent of suggesting that original thought is impossible. Their only consolation, DeLillo hints, is language. Not a purposeful, meaningful language, though, but language’s mere sound instead. In this absurdist scenario, reverting back to the sound of words instead of their meaning is an attempt to provide a sense of security. As soon as the screen goes blank in the apartment, Diane and Martin engage in a brief stichomythia, whereby Diane starts asking Martin more and more questions about Einstein’s manuscript. Diane reiterates the question ‘What next?’, ostensibly rushing to hear more information about Einstein’s theory, but actually longing for the comfort that Martin’s words provide through their materiality. This seductiveness of words becomes a direct tribute to DeLillo’s 1982 novel The Names, which similarly experiments with language’s dazzling potential. The sheer narration of the administrator at the hospital, where Jim and Tessa end up after their tumultuous flight, seems to comfort the flight passengers despite charting purposeless and trivial details of her life.

The Silence though is not meant to be a consolatory reading, a way to provide solace to the grand-scale discomforting events of today. The book brazenly refuses to give explanations – about the cause of the breakdown, the reason why it happened or whether the characters are real or automated – either. Instead, the book poses existential questions about the relationship humans have with the world through language, especially when any technologically-mediated noise is muffled. Perhaps this is why the novel seems not sufficiently developed. Yes, the characters are meant to be more caricatures than fully-formed entities, but the overall impression that the novel leaves is that of incompleteness. The Silence is a valued addition to DeLillo’s oeuvre, but certainly not as conspicuous or ground-breaking as his former novels.


Isavella Vouza is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St Catherine’s College, Oxford.