Don DeLillo’s The Silence
Never has a font whispered like this.
“Let’s return to here and now,” says the character of Max Stenner in Don DeLillo’s new novel, The Silence (2020).
The Silence takes readers into a typeface that interfaces powerfully with the luminous prose of one of America’s most innovative and visionary writers. DeLillo’s new book, like Players, his fifth novel, from 1977, begins on an airplane. The plane, for DeLillo, is always a precarious place. In Players, the novel begins with an in-flight movie that introduces the reader to the themes of cinema and terrorism, ostensible threats to the disruptive storytelling mission of the literary novelist. In The Silence, like in so much of DeLillo’s later work, these earlier concerns mutate and synthesize. This is not to say that the movie has now become weaponized (as DeLillo apprentice, David Foster Wallace, suggested in Infinite Jest). It is to suggest that, in The Silence, the world of the screen is under attack.
After a near-death experience disrupts the placid airborne rapport of Tessa and Jim Kripps (a character whom DeLillo regularly refers to with both surname and forename), these two world travelers touch down in New York City on Super Bowl Sunday. Longtime readers of DeLillo will delight in his elusive return to football, a word stolen by Americans to describe a sport that bears little resemblance to the other football under DeLillo’s lense in The Silence: soccer.
In End Zone, DeLillo’s second novel, from 1972, the author satirizes American football by regularly comparing it to war. But, again, the themes have evolved in The Silence.
“We’ve gone beyond all comparisons between football and war,” Max, the host of the Super Bowl party, says to his wife, Diane, and their younger guest, Martin, as they wait for Tessa and Jim Kripps to arrive.
“World Wars in Roman numerals,” Max says. “Super Bowls in Roman numerals. War is something else, happening somewhere else.”
But then, just after American fighter jets perform their “ritual flyover” across the Sunday field, and just before the kickoff, something happens.
Something always happens in DeLillo. The disruption to the routine of people “stranded in rooms” is a constant variable in his work, like in most fictions. But it is in his deft handling of the novel event’s consequences—the space he creates in the wake of disruption—that DeLillo achieves his most profound effects.
In light of COVID-19, what happens at the small Super Bowl party in The Silence is more than unsettling, and occasionally remarkable. One of DeLillo’s great gifts is his ability to chronicle the tragedies and absurdities of contemporary life with an utterly defamiliarized voice.
“And isn’t it strange,” he writes, “that certain individuals have seemed to accept the shutdown, the burnout? Is this something that they’ve always longed for, subliminally, subatomically?”
The font of The Silence is just one of its strokes of disorientation. As Max, Diane, Martin, Tessa, and Jim Kripps confront the “blank screen” of a small room that may or may not be representative of a global phenomenon, DeLillo takes the reader away from the white noise. He strips the room of the rites of mediated entertainment and sentences the characters to the hollows of space and an imagination of what mysterious thing is happening somewhere else in the world. Like Wallace Stevens in his late poem, “The Planet on the Table,” DeLillo’s short novel seems to place the planet on the table of this small room in New York City on a Sunday night.
“It was not important that they survive,” Stevens writes in that poem.
The plot of survival, like one sees in so many dystopian novels these days, is not the territory DeLillo seeks to map. The Silence is not a story of rugged teenage heroines, bombed-out wastelands, or a brave interstellar search for a new world beyond our own. What many readers will recognize in the second half of DeLillo’s novel, I suspect, is an uncomfortable black mirror on the strange earthly spaces of these past months and years.
“I look into the mirror and I don’t know who I’m looking at,” says Martin, a young man who lives alone but is joined to these two couples on Super Bowl Sunday. Martin is the uncoupled, the loner allowed in like a reminder of life’s perpetual exceptions, such as the bachelor Max prefers to call “Jesus of Nazareth” or “the Nazarene.”
“The face looking back at me doesn’t seem to be mine,” Martin says. “But then again why should it? Is the mirror a truly reflective surface?”
Martin is a fascinating character. Max’s wife, Diane, certainly finds him to be so. Martin, like Diane, is a teacher and student of physics. He is obsessed with Einstein and a particular document: Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity. Some readers may not find Martin as alluring as Diane does. They may see in him what skeptical readers of DeLillo locate in many of his characters (like Martin Ridnour from Falling Man): an autodidact. When I was a younger writer, I once had an agent tell me, “Stay away from DeLillo.”
I think that agent cared for me. Perhaps he knew that many American readers have a hard time when confronted with adult characters who have ideas. But DeLillo, like so many francophone filmmakers, theorists, and writers (think Godard, Baudrillard, and Houellebecq), has always pushed back against America’s anti-intellectualism and has made a career out of finding space for theorizing voices, like Lee Harvey Oswald, whom many of his peers dare not touch. Martin’s musings on Einstein are not superfluous to this story, nor are they without a certain poetry all their own. I imagine many faithful readers of DeLillo will find in Martin’s voice an echo of Stevens’s “The Planet on the Table,” an artist reflecting on the body of his work.
Einstein’s theories, far from disembodied acts of autodidacticism, have visibly changed human perception and the contours of this planet. The theory that gave the people of Japan the wastelands of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may also be the vision that altered and continues to alter the spacetime imaginary of contemporary writers like DeLillo, as well as those fortunate readers who now have another opportunity to turn off their phones and their “neural interfaces” and face, once again, the great monk of American letters.