There’s a scene in the 2008 romcom Forgetting Sarah Marshall where four characters are discussing a horror film starring the titular Sarah Marshall, played by Kristen Bell. When she’s asked whether or not she liked the movie, her boyfriend, played by Russell Brand, interjects: “Awful bloody film. Just a ridiculous premise: oh what would happen if your mobile phone killed you?” Kristen Bell defends the film, saying “it’s a metaphor for addiction to technology,” with another character adding, “for society, for how we’re reliant on technology, I get it.” Two years earlier, Stephen King published the novel Cell, whose plot is not dissimilar from the one mocked in the film: a cell phone signal turns people into psionic zombies and brings about the end times. In the intervening decade, we’ve been exposed to countless riffs on our national addiction to technology, from Charlie Booker’s Black Mirror series to books like Dave Eggers’ The Circle, Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, and Joshua Cohen’s Book of Numbers.
Add to this pantheon Don DeLillo’s latest novel, The Silence, a book that has already been hailed a “chronicle of our unrelenting present” and “[tuned] into the exact frequencies of contemporary living.” A book whose jacket copy earnestly seeks an appeal to our present moment: “Don DeLillo completed this novel just weeks before the advent of Covid-19. The Silence is the story of a different catastrophic event. Its resonances offer a mysterious solace.”
But DeLillo’s novel adds nothing to the discussion that wasn’t lampooned almost fifteen years ago in Forgetting Sarah Marshall. In The Silence, DeLillo isn’t interested in much beyond asking, to paraphrase Daniel Lavery: What if phones, but not enough?DeLillo’s novel has some satisfyingly weird moments, but it ultimately fails to deliver either interesting answers or interesting questions. The premise remains haunting, but DeLillo’s execution adds little. This begs the question, what might an interesting discussion of technology’s consequences look like now? The year 2020 was remarkable for the obvious reasons (including our collectively increased reliance on technology to stay in touch), but also for the sheer number of high-profile books investigating, or in some way worrying about, what we will do when the gadgets we rely on fail. And though DeLillo has made a name for himself writing compelling, incisive critiques of popular culture and contemporary life, in this case, at least, he has failed to tell us anything we didn’t already know. As our reliance on big tech deepens, and our collective worries continue to intensify, we deserve, if not good answers, at least better questions, at least new questions.
In The Silence, five people converge one Sunday in 2022 for Super Bowl LVI. (Does he make a connection between how we enumerate Super Bowls and how we enumerate World Wars? You betcha!) Diane, a retired physics professor, attends the party with her husband, Max, but is drawn to the rhythm of her conversation with Martin, her erotic interest. Martin, though, is only interested in one thing: a facsimile reproduction of Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Theory of Relativity, which he can quote from memory.
Jim and Tessa—friends of Diane and Max’s—are late to the party, flying back from Paris. Jim reads aloud information about the flight (ETA, air temperature, flight speed) from the screen mounted on the seatback while Tessa tries to write notes about their trip when all technology suddenly stops working—electricity out, phones and laptops not just signalless but dark-screened dead—and their plane crash lands.
Even before the technological collapse that precipitates the novel’s plot, the character’s interactions are suffused with postmodern detachment. “You’re happy about the screen,” Tessa says to Jim on the flight. “You like your screen.” To which he replies, “it helps me hide from the noise.” At the party, Diane observes that Martin “barely occupied a chair, seemed only fitfully present,” distanced by his “compulsive study” of Einstein’s book. We see characters interact, but there is no meaningful discussion, almost no sense of compassion between them.
In the midst of elaborate disconnection, the TV goes blank, cell phones cease working, and the plane begins to plummet. Though there are few visible consequences in the story itself, the reader is meant to intuit a massive technological collapse, further enclosing the characters’ already insulated world. When the enormity of the collapse dawns on them, Diane wonders about the people sitting “puzzled, abandoned by science, technology, common sense.” The world outside is deserted. “Is everyone at home,” Diane wonders, “or in darkened bars and social clubs, trying to watch the game? Think of the many millions of blank screens.”
Delillo’s theatrical sensibility for unity of place—the book is almost entirely set on Diane and Max’s apartment—suggests a great deal of focus. “Is it like this in other cities,” Max wonders in one of the rare scenes set outside the claustrophobic apartment, “people on a rampage, nowhere to go?”
But the streets, and the world of the novel are empty of people. And in their place, Max considers how the people in the streets would have once been busy staring at their phones, “oblivious to everyone hurrying past, engrossed, mesmerized, consumed by the device [. . .] but they can’t do it now, all the digital addicts.”
This prepares the reader for the novel’s breathtakingly 2008 question: “What happens to people who live inside their phone?”
DeLillo doesn’t actually seem interested in getting to the heart of this. The Silence is a 116-page expansion on the “‘Cause You Be on that Phone!” meme. We all know technology has consumed our lives. We know we have invested a dangerous amount of authority and attention in technological memory. (As Diane puts it: “Is everything in the datasphere subject to distortion and theft? And do we simply sit here and mourn our fate?” To the extent the book answers these questions at all, the answers are Buh? and I guess so!) Readers do not need to be chastised for these facts; the more worthwhile enterprise, which a number of other writers who published books in 2020 undertook, is not to scold the technophile public. The more interesting question, the question that might offer some important insight into our collective future, is one of aftermath: when we have built our society and lives around these cyborgian augmentations of memory and communication, how do we adjust when those augmentations disappear? When all the networks and cloud-memory we rely on vanish, lopped off like a limb? What is left, and what do we do, and who are we?
The novel’s lack of insight on these questions is unfortunate—and not only because when DeLillo is operating at full capacity he’s one of the best literary thinkers among us. But despite all the frustrating tedium of this short novel, there are moments of strange charm to be had here. Shortly after the Super Bowl broadcast goes dead, for instance, Max bursts into narrating an unseen football game (real or imagined, past or present, we never learn), “a kind of plainsong, monophonic, ritualistic,” complete with advertisements, that seems almost beamed into his skull. There’s a mirrored moment when Martin gives a litany of information—supposition, rhetorical questions, and search terms (“Do a select number of people have a form of phone implanted in their bodies?” he wonders. “How do they access subcutaneous calls?”)—which, Diane realizes, is spoken in “Martin’s version of Albert Einstein speaking English.” Characters’ obsessions manifest in speech in these bewildering, quasi-Beckettian moments and it’s absurd and funny in classic DeLillo style.
But DeLillo’s signature postmodern discomfort is a bad fit for a book that claims to offer “mysterious resonance” with our current, tumultuous moment. In a time when we lack human warmth and connection, perhaps more than ever before, DeLillo’s dissociative nightmare feels ultimately cartoonish and unsatisfying.
Which is why perhaps DeLillo’s voice is not what should guide us through our current, real American nightmare. The jacket copy reads: “Never has the art of fiction been such an immediate guide to our navigation of a bewildering world.” But this is simply untrue. Ali Smith’s Summer (Pantheon 2020) actually addresses the spread of Covid-19 and the burgeoning protests around George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade’s deaths. This is a year where many of the biggest (and best!) novels face, head on, the terror of climate change: Jenny Offill’s Weather (Knopf 2020), Lydia Millet’s A Children’s Bible (Norton 2020), Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness (Harper 2020), Rumaan Alam’s Leave the World Behind (Ecco 2020). All of these focus on the persistent, deeply felt relationships between their characters—the fears, the disconnect, but also what survival under the direct circumstances many of us can now imagine may look like. These have all been acclaimed in their own way (Cook, a finalist for the Booker Prize; Alam and Millet, finalists for the National Book Award) which, I hope, signals a shift in which voices we most trust in our present moment. Less-sung heroes of recent years include Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha (Graywolf 2019)—the best book ever about memes and queerness and the apocalypse—and Anne Washburn’s play Mr. Burns (Oberon 2014), which envisions television reenactments, after the end of electricity, as a kind of quasi-religious community theater.
We want our literature to grapple with issues that affect us all. But rather than meaningfully interrogate how we cope with the proliferation of technology, misinformation, and surveillance, DeLillo slips too easily in The Silence toward a posture that curls its lip at technology, treating it and those of us connected to it as shallow, materialistic, and uninterested in Tolstoy.
Rather than solace, the novel feels scolding; rather than offering even the broad outline of a map forward, it suggests that, if there ever was salvation from the techno-hell of our own design, we have long since passed it and are condemned to separation, chaos, and reliance on substanceless data as a screen for connection and personality. Perhaps this post facto scolding should come as no surprise. Again, DeLillo has been diagnosing our societal ills for close to five decades—has seen the arrival of these new technologies and their slow consumption of attention. But because of his long-standing attention, he seems to be left longing for a prelapsarian past, for an Edenic phoneless era. This is, I suppose, fine for anyone who shares his longing (though this, like all forms of restorative nostalgia, is guaranteed to lead to disappointment); but readers that want to understand how we might survive a looming, disastrous future deserve books that accept that our technological reliance will not stop until it is forced to. Books that do not admonish us for choices that cannot be unmade, but imagine how to reach a place where those choices are not mutually exclusive with community, freedom, and survival.