“Seemingly all the screens have emptied out, everywhere. What remains for us to see, hear, feel?”
“The Silence” reads like Don DeLillo’s sketched manifesto on humankind’s relationship with technology, how much of our lives are currently lived online, and the fallout if that connection was abruptly severed. All great fodder for an interesting story, no doubt; but such is the sparseness of “The Silence” — which is the length of a short-story exploded into novella-size thanks to double-spacing and absurdly large font — that any sort of subtlety is almost entirely eroded, and its characters read as caricatures who disgorge stilted dialogue.
DeLillo opens with an epigraph, a quote from Einstein: “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” We then cut to our first exposure to the great technological blackout that has afflicted the world (we assume) when the plane on which Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens are returning home from Europe drops out of the sky. We don’t know for sure what has happened. We never find out. “Whatever is going on, it has crushed our technology,” says a nurse, much later, when their injuries are tended to.
Soon they’ll leave the hospital and wind their way on foot through the dark city to the apartment of Diane Lucas and Max Stenner, where alongside their guest, Diane’s former-student Martin, they had planned to watch the Super Bowl; no longer an option, the television blank, not even static. Here they engage in artificial conversations clearly designed to showcase how blighted we are as a species without our precious screens. For generations technology has interposed itself between ourselves and our neighbours; with it gone, DeLillo questions our capacity to reconnect as humans, with our capacity for empathy obliterated.
“The Silence” has neat, thought-provoking ideas at its centre that deserve meatier exploration. At times I wondered whether DeLillo intended this as some kind of fable. But, then, what was the lesson?