Flip through Don DeLillo’s massive corpus, and you may notice that the word “silence” crops up, again and again, at crucial moments. It’s the first word he spoke to the public when, in 1982, he gave his first, reluctant interview. Why, asked the critic Tom LeClair, did DeLillo shun the public eye? “Silence, exile, cunning, and so on,” the author responded, quoting Stephen Dedalus, tongue in cheek. It’s a word that then wended through his work, uttered by his secretive, mysterious men—“Silence,” says Underworld’s Nick Shay, “is the condition you accept as a judgment on your crimes.” It’s a word that, finally, became the target of his most serious critic, James Wood. Far from quiet, Wood complained in a 2000 essay, DeLillo’s books simply could not shut up. Underworld in particular—his vast 1997 Cold War epic—seemed gripped by the delusion that it “might never have to end.” “There are many enemies, seen and unseen, in Underworld,” wrote Wood, “but silence is not one of them.”
White Noise was DeLillo’s breakout book, his first—in 1985—to inspire loud chatter. “Postmodernism, Postmodernism!” the critics all cried, as the author ran his twelve-year-long victory lap, publishing Libra, Mao II and then Underworld to resounding applause. These, the 1980s and 1990s, were the decades of DeLillo’s canonization. He was quickly categorized—with the likes of Thomas Pynchon, William Gaddis and John Barth—as one of those era-defining male authors: a writer less concerned with character and feeling than with cerebral or sociological rumination. Often, he was celebrated as such. His books were “shrewd” and “brainy,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in 1997, “but also a little chilly and sociological in effect”; “If one remains less moved by Mao II than engaged and impressed,” wrote Lorrie Moore in 1991, “then this is the contract a reader must often make with a book by Mr. DeLillo.”
DeLillo’s reputation as postmodern poster boy calcified at the turn of the century, when Wood critiqued him and others for what he called their “hysterical realism.” The big, contemporary novel, like DeLillo’s Underworld or Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon, wrote Wood, was a “perpetual-motion machine” in flight from human feeling. It wanted to “abolish stillness, as if ashamed of silence.” Critics then rung the changes on Wood’s critique, sounding a decade’s worth of debates about those constellated monsters. Zadie Smith countered Wood’s call for depth of character, arguing that cerebral novelists like Tom McCarthy better registered the self’s dissolution. Jonathan Franzen and Ben Marcus quibbled over Gaddis’s difficulty.
How quaint that debate already seems. Today’s critical scuffles, rather than centering on how “avant-garde” or “difficult” novels should be, foreground questions of sensitive depiction (is it racist? sexist?) and “relatable” representation. In our new Twitter-fueled discourse, DeLillo’s high period productions leave literary types with less and less to say. Dana Schwartz, in her zeitgeisty The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon, pokes fun at the author’s dude energy. But DeLillo—unlike, say, Updike or Roth—isn’t the meatiest target for this sort of critique. The author and the men who love him are, at worst, not rabidly misogynist, but just so very male—less a domineering class than a band of tinker-toy enthusiasts.
As for DeLillo himself, he embraces the quiet. “When I started writing,” he told the Sunday Times in 2010, “I was a figure in the margins, and that’s where I belonged. If I’m headed back that way, that’s fine with me.” Since completing Underworld in 1997, DeLillo has produced a steady stream of subtler, slighter works. If his prior books were big perpetual-motion machines, his newer ones are often simple devices. His 2001 The Body Artist, at only 128 pages, zooms in on a recently widowed woman alone in her house; his 2010 Point Omega, at 117, largely describes a man observing a video installation (Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho). The joyful clatter and dark, swelling chords of DeLillo’s high period have been replaced by a prose hushed and spare—the better to meditate on self and soul. Point Omega’s protagonist begins to wonder: “What was left of him for others to see?”
Now, at 83, DeLillo turns the volume down still further, with his seventeenth novel, The Silence. The slim book describes one evening in New York City, two years in the future, while the globe is in the grip of a “digital shutdown.” Five characters, convened to watch the Super Bowl, discover that every device—phone, TV, computer—no longer functions. Now there is nothing left to do but sit still in the dark. What is a human being, the novel asks, without the culture’s white noise? And what is Don DeLillo, for us, now that all of that “postmodern” prattle, all of that frenzied, classificatory chatter, has faded to a murmur?
What we know about DeLillo, the man, is very little. For him, the literary life means mostly writing—a few hours in the morning, a few in the afternoon, always at the same typewriter, facing the same blank wall. “To meet DeLillo,” writes David Remnick, “is to meet someone who seems to have sanded away all trace of authorial ego or personal affect: his voice is a flat, wry monotone … his clothes tend toward mail-order jeans, denim work shirts, chinos.” DeLillo’s headshot recalls the august anonymity of American Gothic (grave eyes, silver hair). His name is the type—at once banal and lyrical—to appear on one of Humbert Humbert’s lists. “What is he like?” I ask a friend who once met him in New York. “Just lovely,” he shrugs. “Really, really nice.”
A few other facts are available: DeLillo was born in 1936, the son of Italian immigrants, and spent his childhood in the Bronx; his upbringing was Catholic, his education Jesuit. For some time, he worked at an advertising firm, Ogilvy & Mather. Beginning in his mid-thirties, he devoted himself full time to writing books. Soon after, he entered his first, late marriage to Barbara Bennett, a banker turned landscape designer. Then there are the novels’ emotional coordinates, at oblique or unknown angles to the spare biography. DeLillo’s men almost always have absent fathers and clinging mothers. They almost always confront grief or loss.
DeLillo has only once, as far as I’ve found, claimed a scene from one of his novels as self-representative: in Underworld, a Jesuit priest asks a young Nick Shay to name the parts of a shoe, reprimanding and instructing him along the way. First there are “lace,” “heel,” “sole” and “tongue.” Then there are “cuff,” “vamp,” “counter,” “instep,” “welt,” “eyelet,” “aglet” and “grommet.” “This is important for me,” DeLillo said in a 1999 interview. Nick “comes from a background where nobody knows these things, where it’s not part of one’s education. It tells him what he has to do in order to reshape himself, to become a man of the world.”
DeLillo didn’t read much as a boy. But one summer, while working as a parking attendant, he discovered Joyce, Faulkner and Hemingway, vaulting him into a “personal golden age of reading” in his twenties and thirties. His protagonists, too, are often readers. They come from nothing and create themselves in the language of a common culture. “The books made him part of something,” thinks Libra’s Lee Harvey Oswald, a young, fatherless boy, growing up in the Bronx. Years later, Oswald will shoot John F. Kennedy, in the alternate version of reality that the novel narrates. “Happiness,” he wrote to his brother, in a real letter DeLillo used for the epigraph to Libra, “is taking part in the struggle, where there is no borderline between one’s own personal world, and the world in general.”
This is the author who remains when the postmodern mantle—always, to some degree, ill-fitting—is finally stripped away. Take, for example, the idea that DeLillo is a writer unconcerned with human feelings. The account, so resonant for Wood, is only half-true. Not everyone feels in the form of stream-of-consciousness monologues. For some it’s more like squinting into the sun. It well may be, as Christian Lorentzen writes, that DeLillo’s best books, rather than turning inward, “face outward into the cultural mist.” But the vapors that encloud his misty men also house the mellow ghosts of their throttled emotions.
Lee Harvey Oswald, for example, permits himself only this arms-length sexual fantasy:
The reverie of the girl in the plaid skirt. She lies back across the bed, her feet touching the floor. Brown-and-white saddle shoes, white socks, white blouse, the plaid skirt arranged four inches above the knees. The reverie of stillness, perfection of desire, perfection of control, her pale legs slightly parted, arms at her sides, eyes closed. He makes the picture come and go.
Lee does not feel in excess. But we feel a melancholy sense of what the brutal boy lacks: the ability, even in fantasy, to reach out and touch the object of his idealized—and distinctly American—desire. Safer to make this picture come and go than to step into the frame.
DeLillo is a master of evoking chilly men, not by glorifying or fetishizing them, nor by narrowly inhabiting their perspectives. His novels instead dwell in the spaces that surround these figures, the dark voids they open up in love-starved spouses or abandoned sons. Here is Marian Shay, of Underworld, on her husband Nick:
She liked his slimness, his lack of attachments. But then she began to see what this meant. The only thing preserved in the man’s dark body was a kid in empty space, the shifty boy on the verge of using up his luck.
There’s nothing unreal about these hollow American men. Swipe right, and you’ll meet more than one.
These are the core, human themes of DeLillo’s best books (excepting White Noise): abandonment, loss, repression and the cruelty they cause. Not that his themes—whether “human” or historical—are so crucial as critics imply. The second plank of the author’s postmodern reputation is this: the idea that he is one of those writers who, as Frank Lentricchia has put it, “conceive their vocation as an act of cultural criticism.” It’s an occupational hazard of writing about DeLillo to impute a certain didacticism. Nor is it wholly off base. His best novels do—in their oblique, aesthetic way—imply ideas: that mass media distract us from death (White Noise), for example, or that novelists and terrorists are akin (Mao II).
But too much attention to DeLillo’s theses throws off his compositions. Ideas in these novels are often more decorative than essential, more atmospheric than imbued with urgent meaning. Some, the author says, “are almost abstract patterns, like the way painters repeat lines or colors.” Rather than overwhelming the canvas, they join other elements—like tone, setting, style and mood—in the construction of an immersive world. Here, Harold Bloom gets it right: “despite his supposed Post-Modernism, he is a High Romantic Transcendentalist determined not to be out of his time.”
White Noise is DeLillo’s Keatsian Ode. The book may abound with timely themes: TV, pharmaceuticals, consumer culture. But page for page, our pleasure lies less in idea or insight than in the lushness and precision of DeLillo’s description—his glittering conjuration of an autumnal scene on a college campus, or his ebullient account of Jack’s grandiosity in the department store. Underworld, meanwhile, is the author’s sublime, shadowy elegy, wholly unlike the circus act that Wood describes. The novel’s vast, interconnected web of cultural data doesn’t feel showy or distracting, as if intended to inspire oohs and aahs. It is instead the solemn backdrop against which a more emotionally mesmeric network—of information about the middle-aged Nick Shay’s dark past—lights up node by node.
DeLillo has trouble with endings, and even Underworld’s oft-praised concluding section—from where I sit—goes a bit off the rails. His description of the memorial that a graffiti artist paints for a murdered girl named Esmeralda becomes over-declarative—the power of it, he insists, the power. Meanwhile, his incorporation of 1997’s burgeoning internet, narrating an afterlife for the novel’s characters in cyberspace, is the book’s first gimmicky ploy. DeLillo the cerebral postmodern—the “Frankfurt School entertainer,” as Wood puts it—must be just the man to capture this new digital world. No wonder, approaching the task, he begins, however subtly, to sputter—to spin out into the caricature of the author that he never was.
Half novel, half stage-play, The Silence opens on a couple: the man, Jim Kripps, is nondescript—“a hunched figure blessed by anonymity”; the woman, Tessa Berens, is a poet of “Caribbean-European-Asian origins.” The two are flying on a plane, and, like Beckett’s Hamm or Clov, volley empty words back and forth to fill the void: “What does vitesse mean?” “What?” “Vitesse.” “Vitesse. Speed.” Meanwhile, three other players await Jim and Tessa at an apartment in New York City. Diane, a former professor, divides her attention between two men. One, her brutish husband Max, grunts and groans at the football game. The other, her ethereal former student Martin, discusses his job teaching physics at a charter school, as well as his obsession with Albert Einstein.
Suddenly, something happens:
Then the screen went blank. Max hit the power button. On, off, on. He and Diane checked their phones. Dead. She walked across the room to the house phone, the landline, a sentimental relic. No dial tone. Laptop, lifeless. She approached the computer in the next room and touched various elements but the screen stayed gray.
It’s difficult for the reader to grasp the precise nature of this crisis. Characters seem to want to associate it with the “digital” or the “internet”—Martin calls it a “selective internet apocalypse.” And yet many of the objects that cease to work are decidedly analog (lights, landline). What actual physical phenomenon could stop every electronic device cold? Wouldn’t the phones and computers at least stay aglow until their batteries died?
The latter two questions, at least—however nagging—don’t need to be answered. The world of The Silence is not intended to be a realist one. This is a world built to accommodate conceptual inquiry—a theater of ideas. The question on the table is massive in scope: What is man, both by virtue of, and in the absence of, his technology? The characters, rather than react to their crisis realistically, pass the single evening that the novel narrates enacting different answers. Jim and Tessa, as it turns out, are nothing but mammals, and—while making their way to Max and Diane’s—mate at every opportunity. Max is a slavish mimic of his media, and stands in for the lifeless TV, playing the role of sportscaster (“Thank you, Esther. Now, back to the action”). Martin is a devoted man of science, grappling with the failure of his god. He monologues about topics like spacetime and cryptocurrency while Diane listens quietly.
There’s a certain defiance in The Silence’s title, given the phrasing of Wood’s critique (“Silence, I’ll show you silence!”). And yet the book only seems to double down on those classically postmodern qualities that Wood criticized—not excessive length, to be sure, but a tendency to subordinate human feeling to abstract inquiry. The Silence quite deliberately flattens out its characters, and largely in the service of a cultural critical point. DeLillo has long been taken with the idea that our technology makes us atavistic: simplified and helpless in our dependence. “The more advanced,” as a clinic employee whom Jim and Tessa visit puts it, “the more vulnerable” (think, too, of White Noise’s observation: that modern men, unlike their ancestors, would perish in an instant if set loose in the wilderness). To convey that primitivism, he here writes characters who are uncannily rudimentary. Max resembles a Neanderthal—he scratches himself “anthropoidally, primate style.” Jim is akin to AI—a “tall white android.” All five characters possess brains that do little more than process sensory information. They think and speak, accordingly, in data streams.
The narrator, too, writes in this list-like style. He dips into Jim’s brain, on the plane:
He alone would remember some of it, he thought, middle of the night, in bed, images of sleeping people bundled into airline blankets, looking dead, the tall attendant asking if she could refill his wineglass, flight ending, seatbelt sign going off, the sense of release, passengers standing in the aisles, waiting, attendants at the exit, all their thank-yous and nodding heads, the million-mile smiles.
The ugliness, here, is deliberate (DeLillo, who well knows how to turn a lyric phrase, instead strings together leaden trochees). Life without your iPhone, apparently, feels something like this: Chinese water torture, or beating your head repeatedly against a wall.
The Silence, even—and more so than DeLillo’s prior work—courts a timelier appraisal, enacting the author’s white-male-ness with atypical force. The book badly wants us to feel auratically—even erotically—drawn to Martin’s scientific droning. “He barely occupied a chair,” the narrator tells us, and “seemed only fitfully present, an original cliché, different from others, not a predictable or superficial figure but a man lost in his compulsive study of Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity.” Diane, meanwhile, seems to exist only to demonstrate the desired response. “Additional theorem of velocities,” says Martin. “This was erotic in a way,” thinks Diane. As for the poetess Tessa, DeLillo seems almost incapable of introducing her into a scene without including some awkward reminder of her race (“Diane thought she was beautiful, mixed parentage.”). In one scene, she and Jim, en route to Max and Diane’s, have sex in a bathroom stall. During the act, she “whispered a list of nationalities.”
DeLillo—fans will know—still writes on an Olympia typewriter, and concerns himself (does any good writer not?) with the appearance of the words. The Silence, printed in Courier, suggests a certain proximity to the author’s papers—a sense of posterity in the making. It’s as if the slim volume conveys not only man’s simplified essence but DeLillo’s, too. But the picture that it paints on both counts is fairly uninspiring. Human beings, The Silence suggests, are now wholly empty without their penumbra of noisy media—“The world is everything, the individual nothing,” Martin announces in the book’s final moments, while Max stares into the blank TV screen. This version of DeLillo, likewise, seems little more than his critical caricature: the cold, old cerebral postmodern. DeLillo may continue to claim—and pursue—the condition of silence. But the author will be remembered for his noise.