DeLillo’s Novella The Silence Is A Critique Of Existence Disrupted By Technology

DeLillo’s Novella The Silence Is A Critique Of Existence Disrupted By Technology
Don DeLillo is one of the major writers from the USA who, through their writings, depicted the postmodern condition in the daily lives of today’s humans who are overdependent upon the use of technology. Setting the novella in 2022, DeLillo tries to look beyond the present moment. The Silence starts with a couple, Jim and Tessa, onboard a plane on their way from Paris to New York, exchanging lighthearted non sequiturs with one another when they hear something hitting their plane from below after which the pilot loses the control and has to opt for crash landing the plane to avoid massive destruction. Jim and Tessa receive injuries, but they manage it without having traditional treatment. On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean are the three characters Diane, Max and Martin, who are waiting for Tessa and Jim to watch the final game of Super Bowl LVI on their TV set in Diane’s apartment with them. The TV screen suddenly goes blank leaving the three of them wondering as to what is actually going on? The reader feels baffled by the simultaneous malfunction of the plane carrying Jim and Tessa, and the electric grid in Manhattan going kaput. Finally, both the awaited guests arrive at Diane’s place where they keep on exchanging their bewildered views about the current chaotic situation till the end.

What makes this novella more interesting is not actually the sudden disruption in what has become the normal, i.e. the technology being the intrinsic feature of human life, but the reactions of each one of the five characters. Martin is a former student of Diane, who is physicist and is so enamoured by Albert Einstein that he cannot help quoting from his 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity every now and then. In fact, the very epitaph of the novella prepares the reader of DeLillo’s works to begin reading this work by reminiscing about his short story “Human Moments in World War III” that was included in his collection of short stories The Angel Esmeralda. That story also presented Vollmer, the protagonist, and the narrator’s reservations about everything inimical to human existence on the earth.

The one point of difference between the two works is the opposite positions at which DeLillo places the technology. In the 1980s, he thought that man’s survival is linked with advancement in the field of science and technology whereas, in 2020, he has presented an altogether scenario that represents an apocalyptical chaos when everything connected with technology becomes dysfunctional. Technoculture is at the very center of postmodernist philosophy because it not only simulates the reality in a Baudrillardian sense but also facilitates a culture of commodity fetishism that is at the heart of Jamesonian views about postmodernism being a newer form of capitalism.

Although no exact cause is given for the sudden disruption of technoculture in the novella, Martin does not rule out some possibilities, including the efforts of hostile races to sabotage their lives by bringing about a technological apocalypse or aliens planning to take over the world. His penchant for looking beneath the surface by quoting or misquoting Einstein makes him a critic of the dominance of the simulacrum in Baudrillard’s terms (“Artificial intelligence that betrays who we are and how we live and think”).

The two female characters Diane and Tessa, whose behaviors show the influence of posthumanism, keep observing the actions and words of their partners in a rather passive manner. Perhaps their life experiences in a world characterized by the commodification of every individual are the major factor in drawing out the emotional warmth out of them. Tessa’s mechanical compliance with Jim’s initiatives in healing their wounds is only one instance of the banality of human moments in an age of posthumanism.

In an era of rampant use of social media, it is no less than a catastrophe for the humans to be unable to use their gadgets connecting them with other people. This very idea of the technology being at the very center of human life in the present era while there are still issues like racism, gender discrimination, economic exploitation, commodity fetishism and political conflicts in the various parts of the world loses its relevance when the human existence itself becomes at stake. That is why the epitaph (“I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”), which is supposedly a quotation from Einstein, becomes relevant to the premonitions of all the characters in the novel. The silent fear oppressing everyone in the living room of Diane and Max is the corollary of the never-ceasing fear about the future of human race in the presence of some of the states possessing nuclear weapons. The motif of war is another element in the novella compelling the postmodernist reader to think about Baudrillard’s views about the wars in an age when media stages virtual wars instilling paranoia in the people’s hearts. With the news channels like Fox news making Baudrillard’s views more credible, the sudden closure of their transmissions in a situation akin to the one presented in The Silence may usher in either a time of tranquility or a time of real war affecting the lives of common people in the developed countries like the USA. Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Differend: Phrases in Dispute enlists silence as one of the important phrases in the questioning of metanarratives. In fact, Lyotard’s concept of the differend keeps the multiple possibilities of the outcome of a particular situation open by relying upon the use of language in multiple ways.

The structure of the novel may disappoint the admirers of DeLillo’s earlier novels like Americana, White Noise and Underworld but that is how he has been experimenting with the genre of novel in his more recent writings. The fragmentary nature of the earlier part of the novella and absence of any closures at the end make it an essential postmodernist reading at a time when literary critics are wondering about the aftermath of postmodernism. So, The Silence does not necessarily signify the decline in the writing capabilities of Don DeLillo. Rather, it is an attempt by one of the most prominent writers of postmodernist fiction to assert the continuity of the postmodern condition.

The writer is an academic based in Rawalpindi and can be reached at