Fiction Reviews

The Silence

(2020) Don DeLillo, Picador, £8.99, pbk, 126pp, ISBN 978-1-529-05710-2


On opening this book the first thing I found was four pages of praise from various publications, followed by a page listing the author’s many awards. This is rarely a good start; if a book is any good why does it need to butter me up in advance? My suspicions were well founded - the book did nothing for me.

The typeface is interesting, being very much like a typewriter; perhaps this is to give it some sort of authenticity? It is a very easy and quick read; the font is fairly large, the lines are double-spaced, and hardly anything happens, meaning that the story’s 116 pages passed very, very quickly (I only had time for one cup of coffee, albeit gently sipped from a thermal mug). The book describes itself as a novel but it is nowhere near that long; I estimate it to be a novelette.

Part One opens with Jim and Tessa, who are bored to tears on a flight from Europe back to New York. As they are making their descent to land, the plane starts to bounce round, the seatbelt lights go on, the in-flight screen goes blank, and there is a bang. We can only assume that something has gone very wrong. Surprisingly, and without any explanation, we later learn that the plane successfully crash-landed somehow and they are now being checked over in some sort of clinic, though this is hampered by the fact that every system of every sort seems to have failed: IT systems, mobile phones, landlines, and much else. Electrical power is still available (the lights are working, mostly) and so was the van that took them there. Meanwhile, Diane and Max, along with their guest Martin, are in their apartment waiting for the Super Bowl to start on the TV. Everything suddenly stops working as obviously the problem, whatever it is, has affected everyone in that area. After a while they are joined by Jim and Tessa, old friends and Super Bowl fans, who have now walked over from wherever the clinic was. And then they just sit there and do nothing, talking aimlessly about nothing much, though Martin has almost taken on the persona of Albert Einstein, whom he is studying.

Part Two starts with a brief exposition on how ‘All nuclear weapons, worldwide, have become dysfunctional’ and other very brief descriptions of some sort of cyber war - but totally lacking any explanation, story, or context. It has happened and that, presumably, is all we need to know. Nothing is offered in the way of how, why, what for, by whom, nor how widespread the problem is in world terms. ‘”Nobody want to call it World War III but this is what it is” says Martin’ though we have no idea how he knows - or is he simply still extrapolating his persona of Einstein? And they continue to sit in the apartment and do nothing.

The idea of a cyber attack wiping out every system and the devastating consequences on all aspects of everyone’s lives has been used in many stories and is hardly new. All this book does is sort of state the idea, without really saying so, and then take it nowhere. Well, nowhere other than our characters sitting there waiting for, well, I really do not know what, apparently incapable of doing anything if the TV screen in front of them is blank.

I understand that the author is something of a cult writer and doubtless there are those that will hail this as a masterpiece of warning about the horrifying possibilities that await us - but I am certainly not amongst them. To me this simply repeats a potential problem that we have been warned about in many stories and innumerable factual articles but does nothing with the idea and brings nothing new at all to the table. The idea is, maybe, to show how dependent we all are on our technology - as if we did not already know. But would real people all just sit there and do nothing about it at all? Or be completely incapable of any action without their TV or phone working? Just waiting for tomorrow and, well, what? It said very little and I was unconvinced by any of it.

The blurb on the back cover says ‘The Silence is an unnerving and profoundly moving novel about what happens when an unpredictable crisis strikes’ - I would reply with the time-honoured pantomime response ‘Oh No It Isn’t’.

The story is followed by a six-page essay inspired by being in CoVID lockdown. It does not add anything.

If this is typical of his writing, I do not think I will be reading anything else by Mr. DeLillo.

Peter Tyers


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