In the apocalyptic year 2020, when breaking news eclipses our darkest imaginings, it seems almost quaint to circle back to the grand tradition of American conspiracy fiction, the psychic space of “Gravity’s Rainbow” and “The Plot Against America”; and yet here comes Don DeLillo with one more whack at the paranoia piñata. A slim novella set on Super Bowl Sunday in 2022, “The Silence” probes the fears of our moment, usurped by pathogens and cyberterrorism.
DeLillo opens with a married New York couple, Jim and Tessa Kripps, on a flight home from Paris. A poet, Tessa scribbles idly in her notebook as her husband tracks the jetliner’s arc across the Atlantic Ocean on a monitor, muttering altitudes and time zones as if hypnotized by “Words, sentences, numbers, distances to destination.”
This is the register of DeLillo’s earlier novel “Libra,” language strung taut as piano wire and thrumming with irony: “Kripps was a tall man’s name and he was tall, yes, but noncommittally so. … He was not a proud head bobbing above a crowd but a hunched figure blessed by anonymity.”
As the plane descends, there’s a lurch and a judder, a sense of doom.
Meanwhile, in an eighth-floor apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a trio awaits the arrival of their friends: a middle-age couple, Max, a contractor, and Diane, a physics professor, joined by her former student, Martin, who now teaches in a charter school. They’re stocked up with junk food and pregame commentary on a widescreen television. But then something happens: The screen goes blank, cellphones and Wi-Fi shut down.
Max falls into his own alternate dimension, narrating the game like a sports announcer, staring at nothing. Diane and Martin drift into an erotically tinged repartee, together and yet apart as their hysteria mounts. “She was reluctant to interrupt, say something, anything, and finally she glanced over at Martin simply because it seemed essential to exchange a puzzled look with someone, anyone.”
DeLillo masterfully builds thin layers of dread and desire: Musings on Einstein; sex in a bathroom stall; chaos in the city’s streets.
Jim and Tessa eventually arrive at the apartment, bloodied and dazed; and from that point DeLillo’s story gets even weirder, with echoes of Sept. 11 and the 2003 blackout. Not since Samanta Schweblin’s “Fever Dream” have I read such a mesmerizing, menace-packed short novel; and like Schweblin, DeLillo views technology as our Achilles’ heel.
The second half of the book doesn’t quite deliver on the first’s premise — a grating editorial voice occasionally intrudes — but DeLillo’s prose is always supple, his gaze into our culture’s black hole as penetrating as ever. Equal parts lush and spare, “The Silence” never settles for easy answers. Perhaps confusion is the only answer. In one of DeLillo’s signature ironic twists, Diane summarizes our predicament: “Everything that was simple and declarative, where did it go?”
Hamilton Cain is the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing” and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He lives in Brooklyn.
By: Don DeLillo.
Publisher: Scribner, 128 pages, $22.