Don DeLillo’s new book The Silence is a slim disappointment

Don DeLillo’s latest fiction The Silence is set on Super Bowl Sunday in the year 2022. The story, such as it is, takes place over the course of a few hours, focusing primarily on five characters who gather in a New York apartment to watch the big game. The quintet is unable to see the game though because, for reasons unknown and never really explored, contemporary communication systems and technologies fail worldwide. No email, no internet, no teevee.

“Seemingly all screens have emptied out, everywhere. What remains for us to see, hear, feel?” the narrator—or maybe one of the characters—wonders. Other characters insist that what’s happening is the beginning of World War III (The Silence opens with Einstein’s famous quote about World War IV being fought with sticks and stones). “The drone wars,” another quips blankly, worrying—is he worrying?—that the “drones have become autonomous.”

We’re told of chaos, panic, and “small riots” in response to this unexplained failure of technology, but DeLillo doesn’t show us any of the pandemonium, let alone evoke much of a sense of anxiety about the titular silence. Instead, the book plods along a course of droll ennui and flat utterances that I suppose are meant to sound profound. “What if we are not what we think we are?” asks a character, and if DeLillo is pulling our leg with such banal dialogue, there’s little in The Silence to signal that the book is open to an ironic reading.

Instead we get blank references to Einstein, deep time, mass surveillance, and Jesus of Nazareth, as if these would-be motifs can signal meaning (or, like, lack of meaning, man!?) on their own. Characters repeat buzzwords; a dude riffs on microplastics; another treats his auditor to a pre-coital definition of capitalism. “The woman realizes she is still in the thrall of cryptocurrencies” is a real sentence in this book.

The rhetorical moves here have long been staples of DeLillo’s toolkit, but the verbal obliquity of The Silence feels anemic. The sentences are thin, the book is thin. The ideas don’t stick. Or rather, the insights that DeLillo offers here seem, well, obvious.

I used the verb plods a few paragraphs above, which doesn’t seem like the obvious choice for such a skinny book. I checked out an ebook of The Silence from my library and read it in about 75 minutes. (I am not a fast reader.) DeLillo’s publisher Scribner lists the hardback at 128 pages. I imagine the font must be huge and the margins pretty wide. What I read could’ve fit neatly into 40 or 50 pages of a mass-market paperback. (The hardback retails for twenty US dollars.) The American cover insists that The Silence is a novel, but it sure doesn’t read like one.

Despite its brevity, The Silence plods. For a book with a plane crash, a football game, casual sex, planet-wide panic, and the maybe-advent of WW III, The Silence is notably listless. Perhaps that’s by design, but if so it’s a design I didn’t care for.

Reviews and descriptions of DeLillo’s last novel Zero K (2016) deterred me from reading it, even though I liked its predecessor Point Omega (2010) more than many reviewers. I was intrigued by The Silence’s brevity, hopeful that DeLillo might pack the narrative with rich sentences and deep thoughts. I was hoping that he might bring some of the magic that we got in Pafko at the Wall (1992), a wonderful novella that DeLillo repurposed as the prologue for Underworld (1997).

But no. The Silence is a slim disappointment, a scant morality play whose thinly-sketched characters speak at (and not to) each other liked stoned undergrads. At least it’s short.

12 thoughts on “Don DeLillo’s new book The Silence is a slim disappointment”

  1. Wow. That is disappointing. I was excited for this, as always for a new Don. But I’ve read two – now three – reviews and already feel like I’ve “experienced” more than enough of the book.

    You mention the good of all his usual manoeuvring, but I think over the years the ways in which the bottom can fall out of it has become increasingly obvious – transitioning from exposing the inherent weirdness of modern life to morality play was possibly inevitable, but not something anyone was super interested in.

    Oh, and also, I really like some of his short stories – Hammer and Sickle, Angel Esmeralda, Pafko spring to mind. But they too regularly read like sketches of ideas he didn’t or couldn’t push further, characterised by his usual observations, dialogue and meditations on ritual and how it melds with modern life. Thinking here of Midnight in Dostoevsky, Baader-Meinhof, The Starveling, too, if memory serves me correctly. Anyhow, this seems like that.

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    1. Tristan, you should check it out from a library. You can read it in like an hour. I’d be interested in your thoughts on it.

      Maybe the problem is that he’s presenting this (or he is allowing this to be presented as) a “novel” — not a sketch, not a dress rehearsal, not a long story — but a “novel,” a thing we generally think of us as finished, worked, etc. And maybe he thinks it is a novel. But it’s so scant, puny really (a word I took out of the review because it seemed mean, puny…but it’s the word I should’ve used in the headline).

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    1. I mean…it’s short [shrug emoji]. Maybe if it’s your first DeLillo you’ll enjoy it more without thinking about all the great stuff he did in the past. White Noise is probably where most people start. I think the prologue to Underworld (Pafko at the Wall) is his best stuff. The Names is good. Libra is good.

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  2. Agreed completely on The Silence. Zero K isn’t that bad…it’s mostly just another DeLillo book that recapitulates his standard repertoire of themes, but stylistically it’s very pleasant. He keeps moving from image to image, memory to memory, keeps moving the focus around.

    >Names. Fake names. When I learned the truth about my father’s name, I was on holiday break from a large midwestern college where all the shirts, sweaters, jeans, shorts and skirts of all the students parading from one place to another tended to blend on sunny football Saturdays into a single swath of florid purple-and-gold as we filled the stadium and bounced in our seats and waited to be tracked by the TV cameras so we could rise and wave and yell and after twenty minutes of this I began to regard the plastic smile on my face as a form of self-inflicted wound.

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  3. I thought it was a short, beautiful, and abstract piece on death and how DeLillo is approaching it. I can’t ask much more from an 85 year old man who has given me nothing but masterpieces for almost 50 years. No one knows how to show respect to one’s elders in this country. It’s gross.

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        1. I am hardly blithe and never suggested the work was derivative. I wish this work had never been published. It’s not good. If you like it, that’s great. Seriously. I’m not being ironic. I think it’s great if it brought you some joy. But I did not dismiss it. I read it, thought about, and wrote about it.

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  4. I love Delillo but, ya know, he’s 83… I’m not expecting the magic of Underworld to suddenly reappear. I actually like the way his late work has become increasingly spare and abstract and, dare I say, Zen like. And I agree that part of the problem is marketing this one as a novel when it’s really something else. That said, I’m just glad he’s still around and still publishing… and yes he deserves honesty in reviews, however tough they may be. People often talk about Underworld as his masterpiece— and it is a great if somewhat unwieldy work— but I actually think Libra is his magnum opus… God what a portrait of mid-20th century America. You feel like the Kennedy assassination happened so Delillo could write about it.

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  5. I loved Point Omega and the Body Artist and was looking forward to another short novel from DeLillo. Shame this seems to be more of a short story. I think Mao II is my favourite of DeLillo’s work, although everything from his middle period from The Names to Underworld is remarkable.

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  6. I’ve circled around DeLillo for some time. I have a bunch of his novels on my shelf, I’ve met him when on tour for Zero K (he was gracious enough to talk with me about his correspondence and meetings with DFW). But I haven’t been able to dig down into anything other than an aborted attempt at Underworld, which stalled shortly after the prologue. In 2021, I’m going to attempt a read of The Names, White Noise, Libra, Mao II, and Underworld – they seem to be the strongest run of his career and when his concerns about art, violence, language, technology, and globalism were are their most cogent.

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