It was 1972, and a bookish young ad man was losing his mind. He’d come up too quickly in the business and was staring down the barrel at a life as an anonymous copywriter, pining for a more creative outlet. He didn’t just want to be a writer, he wanted to dismember the codes of commerce. He wanted to bite the hand of the whole transactional industry and weaponize its vernacular with radical intent. Over the ubiquity of brand-focused images, he would elevate and enshrine an all-American eidolon. Meaning and metaphor were no objects. Then, miraculously, this literary manqué got his chance. His name was Steve Gerber, and his signature creation, Howard the Duck, was an anthropomorphic game fowl from another planet, a rumpled, cigar-chomping malcontent and a running gag at the expense of Disney wholesomeness and self-serious superhero yarns whose eponymous comic book Gerber—an explicit influence on future scribes like Jonathan Lethem—would write for Marvel for the greater part of the decade.
Now remembered for 1986’s godawful George Lucas-produced motion picture adaptation featuring duck tits and interspecies romance, the real Howard the Duck was a walking satire of Nixon-era Americana, at once defiantly inane and pointedly bonkers; in Gerber’s words, Howard the Duck was proof-positive that “life’s most serious moments and most incredibly dumb moments are often distinguishable only by a momentary point of view.” Co-created with artist Val Mayerik and originally drawn by Frank Brunner, Howard the Duck was billed with the head-scratching tagline “Trapped in a World He Never Made!” Spider-Man could have his New York, Superman his Metropolis; Howard was just trying to keep it together in Cleveland. His cavalcade of supervillains included Le Beaver and Doctor Bong. Prone to existential crises, Howard—revived in the twenty-first century for a series of cameos in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe”—reads as a relic of wonky, jocular 1970s postmodernism. He would even run for president in 1976 (Party: the All-Night Party. Slogan: “Get down, America!”) Meanwhile, another breed of canard was being hatched back in New York City, in the adjacent field of “proper” literature.
Something must have been in the water. Somehow the notion took root in the minds of a new class of writer-cynic that the same tools made to sell modern, all-American superabundance could be used to deconstruct it brick-by-brick. A few years prior to Gerber’s epiphany and subsequent rise to cult semi-stardom, another burned-out ex-copywriter in advertising saw a movie. His name was Don DeLillo, a Bronx-born son of working-class Italian Catholics, schooled on Faulkner, Kubrick, and Ornette Coleman. The film was Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend. On the surface the story of a bourgeois couple encountering increasingly absurd roadside interruptions of their holiday—including car crashes, cannibalistic hippie revolutionaries, even a peripatetic Emily Brontë—it’s really an extended riff on American imperialism and ineluctable commercial culture. The French auteur’s impatience with narrative is front and center; the trappings of cinematic storytelling hang loose on the bones of savage, Marx-minded surrealism. Coming home, DeLillo set to work transcribing what he had just seen: “ Took out the boring parts. Added a few brand names. . . . What does it all mean, signify, or demonstrate? I guess I was just trying to find one small way in which literature might be less rigid in the sources it uses. Thousands of short stories and novels have been made into movies. I simply tried to reverse the process.” The fruit of his labors would become the early story “The Uniforms,” a precursor to the book DeLillo began after quitting his job, 1971’s Americana. Framed in a 1991 New York Times Magazine article as the story of “a television network programmer who hits the road in search of the big picture,” the novel’s title would become a mission statement for a career spent delineating every aspect of American culture, from its foundational mythologies to its violent arterial, a schematic DeLillo would doggedly pursue over the course of the next five decades.
In a way, we’ve been learning to anticipate the worst for a long time.
By his own admission, Americana is not a book that would be published today. We can’t even read the (reportedly) unruly original text without shelling out for a first edition, as DeLillo revised it 1989 for its paperback reissue, toning down the sections that most aspired to cinematic mimicry. But it gave DeLillo his prerogative as a writer; his commercial vocabulary would inform the rest of his 1970s output. His books would take on cultural behemoths like football (End Zone), rock ‘n’ roll (Great Jones Street), the New York Stock Exchange (Players), and porno (Running Dog). But these were mere previews for the ultimate expression of DeLillo’s holy/vulgar aesthetic (to steal a phrase from Ratner’s Star, “the lure of a submoronic mode of being”) in 1997’s Underworld, which culminates, after eight-hundred pages, with the image of a murdered young girl miraculously appearing on a billboard.
Gerber, Godard, and DeLillo all tapped into something essential about the peculiar epoch that stretched roughly from Vietnam to its rancorous aftermath, a restlessly experimental moment in the arts when rambling, often playfully revisionist works could garner popular acclaim. Thomas Pynchon’s sprawling V. would be nominated for a National Book Award. John Hawkes wrote “out of the nightmare of war,” discarding the crutches of plot and character. John Barth took Italo Calvino’s reflexive myth-mongering to heart. Frederic Tuten ingeniously echoed Roy Lichtenstein on the page in his classic The Adventures of Mao on the Long March. Texan tall-tale teller Donald Barthelme’s puckishly avant-garde fables appeared in the pages of The New Yorker. So DeLillo was in good company weirdness-wise. But what happens when such a sensibility, weaned on 1960s pop art, collides with the supercharged, incendiary info-glut of the present, with its prevailing intolerance for that once-ascendant literary prestidigitation?
Don de silentio
Now we have the answer, in the form of The Silence, DeLillo’s eighteenth book and a micro-critique of our dependency on technology. The first thing to observe is that the novel—really more of a novella or bound short story with an annoying Beatnik-esque typeface—is in no way about Covid-19, despite its publisher’s breathless assurances that here is a novel that speaks to our immediate distress. On the contrary, everything about The Silence is deceptively straightforward. In the year 2022, a married couple, Jim Kripps and Tessa Berens, are aboard a plane, en route from Paris to watch the big game with a group of friends consisting of gambling-prone Max Stenner, ex-physics professor Diane Lucas, and her gifted former student Martin Dekker, a boy genius with a head full of Einstein and Gödel. Suddenly, and for no apparent reason, technology craps out. The TV goes dead, phones expire, the lights go out, and Jim and Tessa’s airplane falls out of the sky. (Don’t worry, they’re fine and arrive at the aborted Super Bowl party scarcely the worse for wear).
In lieu of any digital input, the room comes uncorked. Max reenacts TV commercials (“Wireless the way you want it. Soothes and moisturizes. Gives you twice as much for the same low cost. Reduces the risk of heart-and-mind disease.”), Diane quotes Finnegans Wake (“Ere the sockson locked at the dure”), Tessa—in what one suspects was a late-stage edit—recalls the deadly plague of 2020 (“the march through airport terminals, the face masks, the city streets emptied out”), and Martin pops off about cryptocurrencies, drones, and capitalism (“all these grainy shreds of our long human memory”). All of them jabbering like Beckettian automatons, puppets abruptly come unstringed. There’s no mystery behind DeLillo’s intent, it’s right there on page fifty-two: “What happens to people who live inside their phones” during a global blackout? The answer seems to be that no one speaks, they only talk. Shorn of social media and the cold comfort of the internet, the quintet stare into the void. “‘I can tell you this,”’ Tessa says,
Whatever is going on, it has crushed our technology. The word itself seems outdated to me, lost in space. Where is the leap of authority to our secure devices, our encryption capacities, our tweets, trolls, and bots. Is everything in the datasphere subject to distortion and theft? And do we simply have to sit here and mourn our fate?
World War Three in the form of an Information Age apocalypse—it’s a popular premise. Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan and Jonathan Lethem’s The Arrest present similar scenarios. It also happens to be an inversion of Samuel Butler’s satirical Erewhon from 1872, which imagined a populace menaced by an accumulation of semi-conscious machines. Now we can’t live without said enslavement to the superabundance of screens, an “‘artificial intelligence that betrays who we are and how we live and think.’” In our current, quarantined “makeshift reality,” in which there is shit to do but read and binge shows, The Silence presents an even worse alternative: without the web, we’d likely be sitting ducks for terminal boredom and suicide.
Something of a whatsit upon first read, The Silence is a revelation of a reread. It’s also a callback to DeLillo’s 1983 short story “Human Moments in World War III,” about two astronauts in orbit while, far below their spacecraft, the planet goes to pot:
People had hoped to be caught up in something bigger than themselves . . . They thought it would be a shared crisis. They would feel a sense of shared purpose, shared destiny. Like a snowstorm that blankets a large city—but lasting months, lasting years, carrying everyone along, creating fellow feeling where there was only suspicion and fear. Strangers talking to each other, meals by candlelight when the power fails. The war would ennoble everything we say and do. What was impersonal would become personal. What was solitary would be shared. But what happens when the sense of shared crisis begins to dwindle much sooner than anyone expected? We begin to think the feeling lasts longer in snowstorms.
One wonders, as if peering through the portholes of an errant satellite, will our current suspension foment human feeling when and if our regular scheduled programming is restored? Or will we come out weird and solipsistic—like Martin, prone to grand proclamations about “the luminous figure of the Nazarene,” mansplaining the theory of relativity? And if this mass-malfunction, a long-delayed Y2K bug, seems an unlikely Armageddon, The Silence serves up a litany of substitutes: “cyberattacks, digital intrusions, biological aggressions. Anthrax, smallpox, pathogens. The dead and disabled. Starvation, plague, and what else? . . . Are the oceans rising rapidly? Is the air getting warmer, hour by hour, minute by minute?” Surely at least one of these is waiting to swallow us. Or will it be something worse? Is there, as DeLillo asks, “a shred of nostalgia in these recollections?”
Trapped or Trappist
The Silence caps a kind of third phase for DeLillo, if we separate his bibliography into thirds: the wordy, the worldly, and the woo-woo. Oddly, he seemed to liberate himself from the word-drunk first stage with the fictitious autobiography Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman to Play in the National Hockey League, ascribed to one “Cleo Birdwell.” Then came the more grounded American malaise novels like White Noise, Libra, and Mao II, where his popularity peaked and with which he is still most associated. Post 9/11 (and post DeLillo’s 9/11 novel Falling Man), his work began to drift in the direction of the speculative. Point Omega concerned a filmmaker (a redux of Americana’s protagonist) interviewing a reclusive mad-scientist figure in a clapboard shack in the desert (reminiscent of the ones we see blasted to pieces in footage of the 1950s nuclear tests). Zero K brought intimations of immortality from a billionaire hoping to prolong his life through cryogenic freezing. With The Silence, his foray into science fiction seems complete. The end result he imagines feels, if not timely, like something we might feel like we deserve, a systems-crash desired “subliminally, subatomically.”
In a way, we’ve been learning to anticipate the worst for a long time. The only difference is that we used to have to reach into the speculative for the words. Roughly coterminous novels like Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha had 45 soaring over a desolated America as the nukes fly, Yoko Ogowa’s The Memory Police (1994, translated in 2019) imagined a government so zealous in its persecution of thought-crime that not only history, but consciousness itself, is scrupulously eroded, and Diane Cook’s The New Wilderness imagined small tribes let loose in an experimental re-introduction to nature after overpopulation has boiled over. The sci-fi fables in the late Izumi Suzuki’s Terminal Boredom (published in Japan in The Covenant in 2014) imagine a humanity that has left the earthly wasteland and an unenviable reality behind altogether, with a clear preference for dreams, alien moons, and virtual reality (and who can blame them?). And then there’s the creeping degenerative illness of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara in the Sun. In a weird way, if only in the murkiest corners of slipstream fiction, we were preparing for the current state of disaster. Like a doomsday prepper bugging out in a root cellar while bracing for peak oil, we’d already sown the land with worst-case scenarios. The Silence is part of a new but already well-worn tradition of industrial malfunction on a mass scale.
Pandemic or no pandemic, here is a book that parses our dreadful isolation from one another.
What it isn’t is a catch-all for catastrophe. Covid-19 plays no role here. We reach from our present to The Silence’s future across a gulf of différance. Camus, Boccaccio, and Defoe aren’t being given a run for their money as prophets of virology. Instead, The Silence catches DeLillo at his least contrived—in a way, it rescues the eighty-four-year-old author from his own success. A sort of literary folk-hero, DeLillo has long seemed untouchable, the one writer nearly everyone can get on board with, a talisman for at least three generations of writers. Emma Cline parodied this consecration in her cunning story “White Noise,” in which the beleaguered Harvey Weinstein becomes fixated on a neighbor he’s convinced is DeLillo (or is it a case of mistaken identity?), and dreams that a big-budget version of his 1985 novel will provide the fallen mogul his apotheosis. The late novelist David Bowman gave the young DeLillo a walk-on cameo in his posthumous book Big Bang. And 2009’s publishing-adjacent romantic comedy The Proposal nervously namechecks him twice in its first ten minutes. Even when he sounds like a cyborg left on autopilot after all human life has been extinguished, The Silence catches DeLillo at his most human. Pandemic or no pandemic, here is a book that parses our dreadful isolation from one another, something that might endure even when and if this is all over. Here he catches us outside, looking in. He catches language unmoored from its speaker and exposes the unspooled imposters machines have made of us. At such moments, we are a little like Howard the Duck. Trapped in a world we never made.