A Review of The Silence by Don DeLillo

The Silence begins with the following epigraph from Albert Einstein:

“I do not know with what weapons
World War III will be fought,
but World War IV will be fought
with sticks and stones.”

Perhaps overused, even clichéd, it is all the more ominous for its inarguable truth. Though at the same time there is a micro-kernel of hope there, suggesting as it does that at least a couple of bands of tattered human beings will survive the third world war, the prelude to a kind of sine wave of human evolution as imagined in Olaf Stapledon’s mind-expanding Last and First Men. Looking at it another way, the rebrandishing of sticks and stones is the penultimate stage before the omega point in which “consciousness is exhausted. Back to inorganic matter. This is what we want. We want to be stones in a field,” from DeLillo’s Point Omega.

This new short story (novelette at best) is even more sparse than DeLillo’s post-Underworld work, starting with The Body Artist. (By the way, has anyone ever noticed the slim volumes that follow fat tomes? Other than The Body Artist, there’s the post-Infinite Jest collection Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and the post-Women and Men novella The Letter Left to Me. Can you name other instances?) The longest novel DeLillo has written since has been Zero K at about 275 pages, with lines that are recognizably that laurate of terror, such as “Everybody wants to own the end of the world” and “I’m someone who’s supposed to be me.”

In The Silence, DeLillo feels at his quietest, mostly whispering, perhaps appropriate when considering the title, as though the silence is sacred and words are something of a blaspheme amid the blankness. The sparsity evokes at times a play (like Valparaiso), and I could certainly see this story being performed on a shadowed stage, especially considering the book ends with each figure giving a semi-non-sequitur soliloquy in a room that might as well be empty, less than solipsism (“He wasn’t listening to what he was saying because he knew it was stale air”). The most animated language comes from a character whose bible is a facsimile of Einstein’s relativity manuscript, and he becomes both a disciple of that bygone genius who’s an example of an actual prophet (predicting as he did solar light-bending) and his ventriloquist—a rain dance in hopes of a mana of knowledge, the smallest savor of scientific salvation, perchance? There’s also a reference to Finnegans Wake, a different kind of bible written in a post-Babel babble, maybe the only kind of book that should be written when “the word itself seems so outdated to me, lost in space.”

Continuing with the Einsteinian prediction of returning to an Australopithecus atmosfear, DeLillo demonstrates in more ways than one that we are in the infancy of our species, babies with atom bombs, and so it’s no mistake that the technological blackout this story is centered around occurs amid the anticipation of a football game. In Carl Sagan’s posthumous essay collection Billions & Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium, there is a wonderful essay titled “Monday-Night Hunters”. It begins so:

“We can’t help ourselves. On Sunday afternoons and Monday nights in the fall of each year, we abandon everything to watch small moving images of 22 men—running into one another, falling down, picking themselves up, and kicking an elongated object made from the skin of an animal. Every now and then, both the players and the sedentary spectators are moved to rapture or despair by the progress of the play. All over America, people (almost exclusively men), transfixed before glass screens, cheer or mutter in unison.”

Sagan goes on to explain the symbolic comparison to real conflict but also to the strong genetics of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle (or deathstyle), and more. The inexplicable cancellation of the game in The Silence is like baboon blue balls.

DeLillo asks the question, “What happens to people who live inside their phones?” In groggy confusion, in electric birth, people stand “in the hallway, becoming neighbors for the first time.” Although one person’s neighbor is another person’s enemy in the world of the tribal.

Besides, how many people know how a cellphone works, yet how many hours every day do we stare at its screen, giving in to “the nudge of dumb indulgence”? The same can be said of TV screens and all other black mirrors. After the shutdown, a character looks at her husband’s dead phone: “She hit buttons, shook the thing, stared into it, jabbed it with her thumbnail.” The same exploratory yet ultimately useless actions a tribesperson would enact when handed even a live phone, yet eventually a primate might discover that the stick is a tool with which to fish for termites or ants. What good is a phone in a pre- or post-technological wilderness?

As Sagan has warned elsewhere, we possess the greatest technology in the history of humankind yet the kind of humans who are using it are absolutely ignorant about the science involved, so when technology terminates for whatever reason (Local or global EMP? Solar flare? Alien invasion? Singularity? What does it matter?), we’ll know not of what to do other than to stare “into the blank screen,” the abyss that stares back with the darkened reflection of your gaping self, the rectangular death window, “our personal perceptions sinking into quantum dominance.” The gap will continue until we’re the lumps of lard on floating chairs like in the animated movie WALL-E, assuming our infantile instincts don’t destroy us first. Lard to lard, stones to stones.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagram, Twitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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