How would you survive without technology?
The Silence, Don DeLillo, Picador.
Don DeLillo finished this novella before COVID struck, but it speaks to this year’s turbulent events, where we might wonder if we are experiencing a foretaste of future calamities and are disoriented by the present. (One character muses presciently about ‘the facemasks, the city streets emptied out’.) In the book, DeLillo plays on what it might feel like during a power failure, or other greater calamity, especially if our paranoia is stoked by Hollywood disaster movies – how long will this last? Is it inconvenience, anomaly, or the new reality? Is Covid our new reality, a collapse of sorts? Do we return to ‘normal’?
In The Silence, the disaster the characters – a group of friends in Manhattan gathering for the American football final, the Super Bowl (a topic that recalls DeLillo’s early novel End Zone) – experience is more than a power failure. It seems to be a complete failure of IT systems – no phone, internet, TV, GPS, and subsequently no power grid. (And of course, as we all do, when the power goes down, they wonder, is it only this building, this street, this suburb, this city?) One consequence is that a couple returning from Europe and planning to meet up for the game is involved in an airplane crash-landing caused by some sort of system failure. (The couple make it eventually to their friends’ apartment after visiting a medical clinic on the way.)
The focus of the gathering is meant to be football, but, typically for DeLillo, the focus becomes the non-human forces that control us. One of the characters stares at the now-blank TV screen, waiting for the game to resume and begins commentating (a game he can’t see), as if he is so used to technology that he needs the narration to continue, even in technology’s absence, in its silence. When he goes out onto the street with other bewildered New Yorkers, he notes the lack of people gazing into screens. The ‘digital addicts’ can’t get their fix. (It won’t be incidental that the book is printed with a typewriter typeface, as if authored by someone in a post-electronic future.)
The receptionist at the medical clinic speaks, in typical DeLillo fashion, like some sort of prophetess, asking, effectively (and more poetically than I am putting it), how do we know who we are without the validation of technology? The book’s characters mention the feeling of connection technology engenders, but the hosts don’t know their physical neighbours in the apartment building.
The book’s epigraph is from Einstein, where he notes, in his own fashion, that technology advances until its own collapse is inevitable. It’s like a virus that spreads until capable of killing its host. This is a possible ending for a technology that numbs. One of the characters opens the book by reading information off an in-flight screen, unable to take it all in sufficiently to make sense of it, a bit like watching the American election campaign, where there is a lot of noise but it’s hard to figure out what it all means, these relentless ‘words, sentences, numbers’.
Stylistically, the book is typical DeLillo, with the lists of threes like incantations, as in White Noise, and the fascination with jargon (‘Internet arms race, wireless signals, countersurveillance’; ‘pamphlets, booklets, entire volumes’). Characters talk, unrealistically and with ludicrous seriousness, as if searching for a quote, a slogan, an epitaph. It’s a kind of deadpan which a character thinks might just be ‘pretentious nonsense’. And they talk as if commentating – narrating – but talk past each other, filling the void with pseudo-profundities. At one stage, DeLillo writes that one character is not even listening himself to his babbling. His characters talk, characteristically, as if in a delirium – more frenzied in earlier DeLillo, more minimalist in later DeLillo (like how avant garde twentieth century art aiming to move beyond simple reproduction of reality initially favoured garish colours, then later switched to monotone and sterile). But in both, it’s as if some kind of meaning might emerge organically from the surface noise, as the European traveller in The Silence hopes when he is watching the flight statistics scroll through on his in-flight screen.
One character is an expert on Einstein’s 1912 manuscript on special relativity, but he focusses on the style and the footnotes, and talks about it in almost religious terms, while there is nothing about what the theory means, as if the extended focus on the words obscures or diverts, rather than illuminating the meaning. Similarly, he shows an interest in Einstein’s interest in Jesus, but not what Jesus might stand for – the name ‘gripped him’, but he ‘did not feel reverence for any being of alleged supernatural power’.
As with his other novels, the characters aren’t exactly warm and easy to identify with; it’s more that the negative might throw the positive into relief, the negative being the depthless yet relentless nature of information technology, the unspoken positive being the need to get beyond words to something meaningful, or at least speak words that might mean something. While at the medical clinic, one of the European travellers says, as if suddenly remembering an important fact, about walking to their friends’ apartment, ‘They’re our friends. They’ll feed us.’
Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com