Don DeLillo Silence Review – Beckett for the Facebook Era | Don DeLillo


IIt is no coincidence, I believe, that this year two great novelists have published books in which Albert Einstein plays a leading role. In Ali Smith’s Summer, the proto-fascist schoolboy Robert Greenlaw looks for traces of Einstein’s presence in England and, through his reading of Einstein’s work, comes to better understand his place in space and time. Now, in his eighteenth novel, Silence, Don DeLillo gives us Martin Dekker, an intense and inscrutable young man who is “lost in his compulsive study of Einstein’s 1912 manuscript on the theory of special relativity. Both novels ask us to consider what Einstein would have done with the singular strangeness of our technological world, particularly how the Internet has changed our relationship with time.

Silence opens on a plane. Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens are returning from Europe when their plane falls from the sky. It is the first indication of the “communications failure” that has caused a sudden and catastrophic shutdown of all technology. Jim and Tessa escape the landing with scratches and – in the strange dream logic of this light and surreal novel – make their way to the home of Max Stenner and Diane Lucas in New York. The year is 2022 and it’s Super Bowl LVI day, when most Americans would be huddled around their televisions. Instead, there’s no television, no internet, so Max and Diane sit down with Diane’s former student Martin and wait. Jim and Tessa arrive, the day goes by, Martin quotes Einstein. The story ends without a resolution and little explanation as to what caused the arrest.

It is clear – at least to the enigmatic Martin, who apparently has “access to world events” – that the failure of technology is one of the first blows of what could turn out to be World War III. The whole novel seems to be an attempt to answer the question posed in its own epigraph, a quote from Einstein: “I don’t know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” DeLillo is asking us to consider how much of our life is currently lived online and how much of ourselves we would lose if we weren’t able to access the internet. “What happens to the people who live inside their phones?” Diane wonders at one point. It seems that these explorations of technology and individuality stem from DeLillo’s earlier novel, Zero K., who explored cryogenics and the possibility of “unloading” a person’s mind before death.

At just 10,000 words, this book is halfway between a long story and a short story, further proof of the scarcity that characterizes DeLillo’s late-career writings. Previously known for the exhaustive length of his novels, he has written no more than 300 pages since Underworld in 1997. The characters in the apartment in Silence they could easily be trapped in some kind of hell, where their attempts to talk to each other only accentuate the terrible isolation that inhabits each of them. It’s as if DeLillo has decided to bring Samuel Beckett into the Facebook era. It’s a book that seems eerily heartless, with little to balance against the overwhelming monstrosity of the world we’ve created (online and offline). Reading DeLillo’s postUnderworld the novels have been a strange and melancholy affair, like watching an object of great brilliance slowly go away in the distance.

• Silence by Don DeLillo is published by Picador (£ 14.99). To order a copy go to Shipping costs may apply

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