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The Screen Went Blank

Tim Groenland

The Silence, by Don DeLillo, Picador, 128 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-1529057096

In the early months of the pandemic, like many others, I struggled not just to read but to decide what to read. Within the barrage of news, government directives, information and disinformation, amidst the scramble to adjust to a disorienting new reality, it was difficult to find a book that felt appropriate to this uniquely urgent, psychologically exhausting moment. Many contemporary novels suddenly looked like artifacts from an entirely different timeline, while the books that were being recommended as relevant seemed to promise little escape from the stressful new codes we all suddenly lived by; did I really want to open up a copy of Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year with my freshly-scrubbed hands and settle in for some comparative disease reading? I wanted both immersion and escapism, hyper-reality and critical distance, and I scanned the bookshelves for something that might resonate with daily life while somehow being a little less, as they say, on the nose.

One evening, after another exhausting day of juggling work and suddenly exponentially magnified parenting duties, I turned to the familiar pleasures of Don DeLillo. This decision offered the satisfaction of tackling a couple of remaining gaps in my reading of his novels (of which there were sixteen, at that point, not counting the pseudonymous Amazons [1980]) as well as the comforts of a sensibility somehow attuned to my psychological state. DeLillo’s style has evolved in the almost half-century since the appearance of his debut novel Americana, and his oeuvre is now long enough to have several distinct phases, but by and large his novels are bleakly comic in mood, cool and aphoristic in prose style, and less inclined to solicit empathy for their characters than to drift inside and around their anxieties in highly stylised reveries. The lucid-dream atmosphere of these books, with their alternating clarity of observation and sudden dreamlike swerves, seemed like a good fit for what we had collectively agreed to call strange and unsettling times.

The book I picked up was Ratner’s Star (1976), in which a fourteen-year old mathematical prodigy named Billy Twillig is summoned to a vast research complex to help decipher what may be an alien message. His colleagues in this endeavour are a collective of wackily-named eccentrics, several of whom – in a long-running DeLillo motif – pursue shamanic quests for quasi-mystical forms of knowledge into increasingly hermetic patterns of isolation. The novel is dense, satirical, exuberantly maximalist in comparison with the author’s later work, and gleefully impenetrable in a manner not often found outside of the 1970s. A capsule summary here can’t hope to illuminate very much, but suffice to say that the novel gave me much of what I sought: a tightly controlled prose style that offers exquisite rewards at the level of the sentence and paragraph, a nervous energy attuned to what DeLillo once called “the vast, babbling, spin-out sweep of contemporary culture”, and characters who converse in artfully strange, elliptical dialogue filled with gnomic pronouncements like “living defensively is the central theme of our age”.

In the novel’s second half, as the collection of scientists moves its operations to an improvised base underneath the earth, I found my attention arrested in a more unexpected way. As the Chinese-American scientist Maurice Wu is descending deeper into an underground cave system, he drifts, possibly under the influence of stimulants, into a meditation on how humans might be susceptible to diseases from bats:

… it was possible to get infected without even being bitten. It had been known to happen. There were cases on record. Because of the saliva in the air. Or because of the parasitic insects floating around. Or because of the guano. Or because of the urinous mist surrounding the colony itself. So this possibility alone was reason to think of a bat cave not as a place inhabited by bats, inviting to bats or even swarming with bats but rather as a place that was bat-infested.

The thought is not developed; this section of the novel is a collage of increasingly fragmented perspectives. But the sensation, for a longtime DeLillo reader, of coming across this suddenly relevant observation in an underground pocket of one of his more obscure novels, was strangely comforting. During those months when the news was thick with talk of saliva droplets, inter-species disease leaps and wet markets, it provided a reassuring confirmation: this reality, too, could fit inside the DeLilloverse.

We don’t necessarily read novels for their predictive power, and the language of literary “timeliness” and “urgency” has long since become a noxious mode of marketing cliché (“Has anyone written anything that doesn’t speak uncannily to our moment?” tweeted writer Elisa Gabbert recently). If we expected that DeLillo’s publisher would refrain from this kind of hyperbole, we might be disappointed by a blurb that shouts: “Never has the art of fiction been such an immediate guide to our navigation of a bewildering world.” Still, one of the consistent pleasures for many readers of DeLillo’s fiction is the sense of its author’s being attuned to frequencies of catastrophe that hum beneath the roar of the everyday, its prospect of oblique glimpses of disaster in systems just outside our field of vision: the toxic cloud on the horizon, the gunman in a lonely room, the ominous twitch in distant currency markets, the mushroom cloud in the desert.

In The Silence – a book whose title page describes it as a novel, although its brevity exceeds even that of Point Omega (2010) or The Body Artist (2001) – the disaster arrives early. As in 1977’s Players, the narrative begins on a plane. In the opening sentences of that novel, the aircraft lights go dim, causing the passengers to momentarily pause in collective awareness of the infrastructure keeping them aloft:

It’s as though they’re realizing for the first time how many systems of mechanical and electric components, what exact management of stresses, power units, consolidated thrust and energy it has taken to reduce their sensation of flight to this rudimentary tremble [. . .] The only sound is drone.

The lights come back on, and the only immediate disaster is one watched by the characters onscreen – a gruesomely funny film about a golf massacre that prepares us for the exploration of terrorism and espionage central to Players (and to the phase of DeLillo’s work to which it belongs).

The Silence returns to a similar starting point – we even get a similar soundtrack, a “single sustained overtone, the engine roar” – but takes us in a very different direction, subtracting these “systems of mechanical and electrical components” from human existence to examine what might remain. On the plane are a married couple, Jim (an insurance agent) and Tessa (described as “dark-skinned … [of] Caribbean-European-Asian origin, a poet whose work appeared often in literary journals”), returning from a Paris holiday to New York and a planned dinner with friends. Their banter, typically intimate and oblique, is interrupted by a rapid change in sonic environment (“they were drowning in noise”) and something that they quickly intuit to be worse than turbulence.

The next scene – it feels appropriate to speak of “scenes” here since the novel is filled with static tableaux and seems to draw upon DeLillo’s continuing interest in the dramatic form – positions us in the New York apartment in which the dinner is set to take place. The dinner, in fact, seems less important than the game – “Super Bowl LVI in the year 2022” – that is about to commence, and we find here a trio – physics professor Diane, her husband Max, and her former student Martin – in front of a “superscreen” watching “six U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds streaking over the stadium” as they await a kickoff that will never arrive. After some psychedelic visual interference, the screen goes blank, and every device in the vicinity is abruptly dead. The only clue to this development is a “snatch of dialogue coming from the blank screen” which the characters puzzle over (is it “English, Russian, Mandarin, Cantonese?”); as in Ratner’s Star, the claim is made that the words might be “not earthly speech” but “extraterrestrial”.

The characters accept the disaster, at first, with relative equanimity. They wonder whether the situation is grave or funny; they trade a theory or two (there is a half-hearted attempt to blame the Chinese); and the husband explores the vicinity, investigating the possibilities of local camaraderie:

“We stood in the hallway becoming neighbors for the first time. Men, women, nodding our heads.”
           “Did you introduce yourself?”
           “We nodded our heads.”

The rest of the novel is, more or less, an extension of this moment, a dramatisation of the confusion attendant upon systemic breakdown: less a postapocalyptic novel than one that hovers resolutely in the midst of the disaster.

It is here that claims for the novel’s timeliness have some unavoidable purchase. The Silence’s catastrophe is not, in certain obvious senses – or at least not yet – our catastrophe. (A side note: there is, in the galley version of the novel I read, a jarringly explicit past-tense reference to Covid-19; in this version of 2022, the virus appears to exist only in memory, which might be a little optimistic. According to a recent New York Times interview with DeLillo, however, this sentence was inserted into the galley version by “somebody else” to make it “more contemporary”. Whether this “somebody else” was his editor of several decades, Nan Graham, whom he has previously spoken of in the highest terms, was left unsaid – is it plausible that she might have been responsible? It seems hard to imagine an adventurous copyeditor sneaking a full sentence into the work of one of America’s most revered writers. At the time of writing, the mystery has yet to be resolved.)

In any case, the technological breakdown depicted in the book is quite distant from our still-hyper-mediated experience of the pandemic and seems, if we’re looking for recent historical reference points, to be influenced most clearly by the various forms of digital interference in the 2016 US presidential election. The novel was completed just before the arrival of the pandemic and could, at a push, be said to belong to an odd subset of post-Trump novels (including Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation and Ling Ma’s Severance, both from 2018) that, in different ways, present depictions of New York isolation that anticipate certain conditions of the circumscribed plague lifestyle. The spectacle of collective bewilderment in the midst of enormous social upheaval certainly feels current, and the reader might recognise the proliferation of confidently unhinged theories among the addled citizens (one neighbour suspects that “a strong magnetic field” is to blame) as well as the powerful urge to cling to familiar consolations: the first response of Max, a gambler, to the disappearance of televised sports is to demand “What is happening to my bet?” DeLillo’s characters react to the cataclysm by having reassuring end-times sex, or they think about having end-times sex only to find themselves standing in their underwear quoting dictionary definitions of capitalism, or they go for a nap.  

The football game itself, and Max’s obsessive response to its sudden disappearance, send us back through DeLillo’s bibliography into 1972’s apocalyptic End Zone, a cold-war-era novel powered by gleeful riffs on the parallels between American football and modern technological warfare. Like a character in that novel, Max rapidly mouths the clichés of a sports broadcaster in an increasingly frenzied play-by-play breakdown of an absent game (“this team is ready to step out of the shadows and capture the moment”). In End Zone, a character rejects “the notion of football as warfare. Warfare is warfare. We don't need substitutes because we’ve got the real thing”; nevertheless, the comparison remains powerful enough to sustain the novel, with DeLillo having all manner of satirical fun with descriptions of war gaming and nuclear strategising. In The Silence, though, Max announces that “We’ve gone beyond all comparisons between football and war … War is something else, happening somewhere else.”

The difference is key to both DeLillo’s aims and, perhaps, the historical moment: the idea that there might no longer be any more “real thing”, that fully digitised warfare might have entirely removed any graspable frame of reference for the catastrophe unfolding both in their living rooms and a diffused, ethereal “somewhere else” seems to turn the energy of the characters (and the novel itself) inwards. In a recent scholarly essay, Catherine Gander identifies the primary feeling in DeLillo’s twenty-first-century work as one of “historical suspension”: there is a recurring impulse (informed partly by a late-career interest in quantum physics) towards slowness and a resistance to linear time, often manifested in what she calls the aesthetic of “the still life”. DeLillo has claimed that The Silence had its genesis in a still image of a blank screen, and a sense of suspension is strongly in evidence here, as any definite movement by the narrative or its individual protagonists is quickly arrested. (Theoretical science, meanwhile, manifests itself primarily in the conversation of the two physicists, one of whom refers obsessively to Einstein).

Jim and Tessa arrive at the apartment, but seem merely to sink into the gathering introspection; Max goes for a walk, but returns quickly. As Max stands in the street, in a situation that might lead us to anticipate an extended crowd scene of the kind perfected by early DeLillo, we instead see his mind drifting to thoughts of crowds elsewhere:

Is it like this in other cities, people on a rampage, nowhere to go? Do crowds in a Canadian city spill down to join crowds here? Is Europe one impossible crowd? What time is it in Europe? Are the public squares swarming with people, tens of thousands, and all of Asia and Africa and elsewhere?

The novel’s second half begins by zooming out to an omniscient perspective from which it seems, at first, we might receive plot-advancing narrative information (“It is clear by now that the launch codes are being manipulated remotely by unknown groups or agencies.”) The chapter rapidly degenerates, though, into a roll call of disaster cliches that invites the reader to fill in the blanks: “cyberattacks, digital intrusions, biological aggressions […] starvation, plague and what else?” DeLillo seems less interested in the practicalities of social life amidst techno-collapse than in the ideas of regression and abandonment implicit in his premise. The rest of this brief section follows the questioning format, as the narrator reminds us that we are reading conceptual fiction rather than worldbuilding dystopian narrative and adopts a tone that has the familiar ring of disaster fatigue: “Are the oceans rising rapidly? Is the air getting warmer, hour by hour, minute by minute?” DeLillo might be as offline as it is possible for a novelist to be in 2020, but at this point in the narrative he seems to be doomscrolling along with the rest of us.

Amidst the planetary anxiety, it is difficult not to detect an end-of empire feeling (not least in the obvious symbolism of the sudden disappearance of the fighter jets). In Falling Man, set in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, a German character harangues his US companions on “American irrelevance”: America, he opines, “is losing the center. It becomes the center of its own shit. This is the only center it occupies.” This sense of decline seems significantly advanced in The Silence. After the distant desert landscapes that dominated Point Omega and Zero K, this book returns us almost entirely to a disaster-struck New York – but now, rather than a terrorist attack upon the imperial capital, we see what looks more like a manifestation of a decentred and global chaos. Even as it turns inward, the novel keeps glancing outward to the world in a disorienting range of allusions: the characters refer, often in the form of characteristic non sequiturs, to the World Cup (“a global competition”), a telescope in “North-central Chile” and an eclectic range of tongues and language families (“Indo-Iranian. Sino-Tibetan”). One character whispers “a list of nationalities” during sex.

As the hours pass, the characters trade theories and memories while the narrator interjects with descriptions of actions that often seem closer to stage directions (“In the second silence all heads turn towards Martin”). Observation is a constant motif here, as the characters alternately exchange sudden stares and then seem “determined not to look at each other”. As the technological silence deepens, meanwhile, it becomes increasingly filled with talk. In DeLillo’s novels, language itself tends to acquire talismanic properties, and its status here is threateningly enigmatic. Diane and her student fondle words like “cryptocurrencies” with an erotic longing (“somewhere within all those syllables, something secret, covert, intimate”); a line from Finnegans Wake is quoted, hinting at finality; Tessa says something in “a dead language, a dialect […] or something else completely”. Language may hold out hope for greater connection and knowledge, or it might, it seems, shut us out completely.

Midway through, the narrator wonders: “isn’t it strange that certain individuals have seemed to accept the shutdown, the burnout? Is this something that they’ve always longed for, subliminally, subatomically?” As the novel rushes towards its abrupt end, the ensemble cast trades a series of compulsive speeches that suggest they might fit this description. Martin, the physics student, utters the final monologue, sharing a vision of “Einstein’s Theory of Relativity causing riots in the streets” that might suggest an impending paradigm shift too vast for our social structures. He ends with the portentous announcement that “the world is everything, the individual nothing”. Max, the football fan, turns away, and the novel ends in suspension between this vision of human obliteration and the spectacle of what is, in our century, the most mystifying still life of all: the blank screen.

1/11/2020

Tim Groenland is a Government of Ireland postdoctoral fellow in the School of English at University College Cork, where he is researching the history of the New American Review. His first book, The Art of Editing: Raymond Carver and David Foster Wallace, was published in 2019 by Bloomsbury Academic.

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