Books & Literature

Book Review: The Silence, by Don DeLillo

CONTEMPORARY FICTION: When worldwide communications are lost, five people in a New York apartment embark on a profoundly moving conversation about what makes us human.

An overrated novel on the dangers of our technological dependence.

Don DeLillo is an award-winning author and playwright based in New York, with The Silencebeing his 17th novel. This is the first of his books I have read and I do wonder why this work has been so universally praised, to the extent that I felt as though I must have read a different book.

Written before the COVID-19 pandemic, the novel is certainly prescient regarding a world-wide disaster of unknown origin. The novel opens on a plane and the banality of the conversation between Jim and Tessa beggars belief. It is deadly dull. Jim recitwa facts and figures from the live flight tracker and Tessa rambles on about the correct pronunciation of ‘scone’ while simultaneously making copious notes. It is only occasionally that they actually do have a dialogue. Suddenly, the plane is rocking from side to side and there is a terrible knocking noise and we leave them to their fate and meet the other characters.

It is Super Bowl Sunday in 2022 and in their New York apartment, Diane, her husband Max, and Martin, a former student of Diane’s with a fixation on Einstein, are waiting for the game to begin. They are also expecting Jim and his wife Tessa to join them when they arrive back from Paris.

They are watching the pre-game show when the picture breaks up and there is some odd speech in an unidentifiable language and before long Max, Martin and Diane realise that all communications are down. No TV signal, no phones, and no computers. They speculate on the extent and cause of the breakdown suggesting Chinese interference or hidden networks and Max goes to check with their neighbours. Diane and Martin begin a bizarre dialogue arising from the Einstein manuscript and concluding with her asking whether this event marks the end of civilization.

The post-apocalyptic world the reader might have expected after a total communications breakdown – with carnage and chaos stalking the streets – is absent from The Silence. Rather, the author delivers an absurdist look at how these particular people react. After surviving the plane crash with minor injuries, Tessa and Jim are taken to hospital where they have sex in a toilet cubicle before receiving treatment. I assume this is to make a point about life versus death and the urge to survive. But I found it hard to care about the characters.

Max, Diane and Martin are still speculating on what has caused this total shutdown when Jim and Tessa arrive. DeLillo fails utterly to convey the precarious position of the characters, and by extension of all of us and to the dangers of an over reliance on technology and its often, unintended consequences. Readers can be thankful the novel runs only 116 pages and is well spaced out to resemble an old fashioned typed manuscript.

Reviewed by Jan Kershaw

Distributed by: Pan Macmillan Australia
Released: October 2020
RRP: $29.99

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