• Almost Nothing Left of Nowhere: On Don DeLillo's The Silence

    Justin Taylor

    Winter 2021

     1. In a tumbling void.

     

    Despite the shortness of the book, a fair amount of patience and force of will on the part of the reader [is presumed].

    — Einstein, Preface to Relativity: the Special and General Theory (1916)



    Jim Kripps, an insurance claims adjuster, and his wife Tessa Berens, a poet, are on a plane. They’re flying home from Paris to New York City. Jim is fussing with the flight tracker on his seatback screen. He reports time, altitude, and temperature to Tessa, who tries to remember the first name of “Mr. Celsius” without resorting to looking it up on her phone. At first, she doesn’t think she’ll be able to manage it, but then she does. “She found this satisfying. Came out of nowhere. There is almost nothing left of nowhere.”

        Jim and Tessa will land in Newark, where they plan to take a cab directly to their friends Max Stenner and Diane Lucas’s apartment on the Upper West Side, to have dinner and watch the 2022 Super Bowl. Max has placed a big bet on the game. “Let the impulse dictate the logic” is his gambler’s creed. (I would argue it’s DeLillo’s creed as well.) Max never reveals the details or the stakes of his bets to anyone. Martin Dekker, the other guest at the gathering, is a former student of Diane’s. She’s a retired physics professor, and Martin is a physics teacher himself now, at a charter high school in the Bronx. It is noted in passing that “for the past year Diane has been telling the young man to return to earth.” What does that mean? Tough to say. Martin has an outsize interest in Einstein. “I’m sticking with Einstein no matter what the theorists have disclosed or predicted or imagined,” he declaims. “He said it and then we saw it. Billions of times more massive than our sun. He said it many decades ago. His universe became ours.” 

        Martin is particularly consumed by Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity. He is taken with its document-ness and human traces, what Walter Benjamin would have called its aura. “We can see him think,” Martin gushes, thrilled by the inks that Einstein used, his marginalia and cross outs, “his handwriting, his formulas, his letters and numbers. The sheer physical beauty of the pages.” Diane is nurturing an almost abstract attraction to Martin that escapes Max’s notice or perhaps simply fails to ignite his interest in the same way that the game does.

        (For those of you playing along at home, Martin’s edition of Einstein’s theory must be the full-color facsimile published by George Braziller in 1996, since he can hardly have hold of the original manuscript. Incidentally, such an object is one of high Benjaminian ambivalence, replicating the original at a level of detail unimaginable before the advent of mechanical reproduction—in this case, digital imaging and printing—in order to successfully fabricate the very aura of authenticity that Benjamin believed all mechanically reproduced artworks lacked.)    

        “Something happened then.” We never find out what it is or who is responsible for it, but the effect is immediate and total: the electrical grid fails, screens go blank, the internet disappears. Jim and Tessa’s plane begins to plummet from the sky. Jim sustains a head wound during the rough landing so they take a shuttle van to a clinic in Manhattan, where they squeeze in a quick fuck in the public bathroom before talking to the desk nurse. She gives them a sense of the scope of the disaster: “Everyone I’ve seen today has a story. You two are the plane crash. Others are the abandoned subway, the stalled elevators, then the empty office buildings, the barricaded storefronts.” After Jim gets his wound looked at, the couple continues, as though under some entrancement, to the Super Bowl watch party, where Max—also in a kind of trance—is intermittently “broadcasting” the non-occurring football game. He supplies color commentary, sideline interviews, and commercials of his own invention. Jim and Tessa arrive around what would have been halftime. Everyone sits down to a candlelit dinner in the chilly, dark apartment.

        This is a fairly comprehensive summary of Act One—excuse me, of Part One—of The Silence. At 116 pages—generously set in a faux manual typewriter font and even more generous with white space—this novel is beyond spare: it’s skeletal. Two of DeLillo’s previous short novels, The Body Artist (2001) and Point Omega (2010), look as dense as Faulkner by comparison. Hell, this book makes Beckett look like Joyce. And more than any other novel in DeLillo’s œuvre, The Silence reads like one of his plays. He has closed the gap between his primary and secondary disciplines, importing strategies from the latter into the domain of the former, to revisit some of his longest-held concerns with fresh conviction, albeit to ambivalent result.


     2. Two kinds of silence.

     

    All of life’s lost time is over now.

    —Hammad, Falling Man


    “I think a writer’s greatness may well be defined by his lack of adaptability to other forms,” DeLillo told the Associated Press in 2006. He was being profiled on the occasion of the premiere of his new play, Love-Lies-Bleeding. Since DeLillo is a major novelist and a minor playwright, the comment could only be read as ironic self-deprecation, an attempt to manage expectations. 

        Personally, I think that Love-Lies-Bleeding is pretty good for what it is. It’s funny, weird, doesn’t overstay its welcome. Structurally, it’s nearly identical to its forerunners, Valparaiso (1999) and The Day Room (1986). Each play has a small cast, a confined setting (“the smaller the better,” DeLillo told the AP), and divides just about evenly into two acts, with the second act serving as a complication but also a recapitulation of the first, some version of the “four or five leaves” that sprout on the bare tree between Act One and Act Two of Waiting for Godot. (Bleeding technically has three acts, but Act Two is really more of an interlude, and it hardly disrupts the larger structure or the point I’m making.) The plays are short on plot, revel in absurdity, and advance almost entirely through dialogue. They are far more lyrical, circuitous, and elliptical than the novels, which themselves are hardly potboilers. At their most extreme, the plays feel less like narratives than laboratories of speech: clean rooms in which to develop new superstrains of what Burroughs called “the word virus,” or, also plausible, experimental vaccines against the threat of same.

        Act One of The Day Room is set on an inpatient ward of a hospital, though the protagonist, Wyatt, insists he’s only there temporarily for some tests. He is visited by a succession of doctors and nurses, each of whom is revealed in turn to be an escaped patient from the psychiatric wing. Act One ends with Wyatt in a straitjacket. In Act Two, Wyatt, still in restraints, has somehow become the television in the motel room where the action is set, though this room may actually be the “day room” of the hospital, which itself may be the setting for a guerrilla theater performance, which may have been what all the patients-as-doctors farce was about, but then again. 

        In Valparaiso, a man who accidentally flew to Valparaiso, Chile, instead of Valparaiso, Indiana, tells the story of his mistake over and over to a crew of TV news reporters who keep coaxing tawdrier details from him on each repetition. What begins as a puff piece mutates into daytime talk-show hysterics, complete with questionable paternity and a suicide attempt. In Love-Lies-Bleeding, a land artist named Alex Macklin lies paralyzed in a hospital bed after a stroke. While his wife, ex-wife, and son debate the ethics of assisted suicide, Macklin retreats into a memory of childhood (seeing a dead body on the subway) and struggles to recall the name of his father’s favorite newspaper columnist.

        DeLillo knows his Pinter, who knew his Beckett, who knew from silence. One thinks of this famous passage from Pinter’s “Writing for the Theatre”: 

    There are two silences. One when no word is spoken. The other when perhaps a torrent of language is being employed. This speech is speaking of a language locked beneath it. That is its continual reference. The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear. It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place. When true silence falls we are still left with echo but are nearer nakedness. One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness.

    In Part Two of The Silence, numbered chapters are abandoned in favor of short scenes separated by page breaks, as though the text itself has responded to the increasing entropy of the world outside of the apartment. Part Two, which takes place later the same night as Part One, opens with a monologue that serves up a bone broth of DeLillo’s signature concerns. Here’s a taste:

    Power grids collapsing. Our personal perceptions sinking into quantum dominance. . .

    Do people experience memories of earlier conflicts, the spread of terrorism, the shaky video of someone approaching an embassy, a bomb vest strapped to his chest? Pray and die. War that we can see and feel.

    Is there a shred of nostalgia in these recollections? 

    People begin to appear in the streets, warily at first and then in a spirit of release, walking, looking, wondering, women and men, an incidental cluster of adolescents, all escorting each other through the mass insomnia of this inconceivable time.

    This speech is not delivered by any of the characters, nor is it set in a scene. It’s a sort of proem, spoken in the omniscient third person that narrates the novel, which itself shifts here from past tense to present tense—a fluid yet disjunctive nowness, what Martin Dekker thinks of as “the onward moments, the flowing moments” in which “people have to keep telling themselves that they’re still alive.” 

        Within the apartment, things are relatively calm. After dinner, Jim and Tessa take a nap in the bedroom while Max decides to go out for a walk. This gives Diane her chance to consummate with Martin, who has been “channeling” Einstein in an echo of Max’s earlier possession by the spirit of the doomed Super Bowl. 

    He unbuckles his belt and drops his pants. He stands there, stricken, in his checkered shorts, looking taller than ever. She tells him to say something in German, and when he does, a substantial statement recited quickly, she asks for a translation.

    He says, “Capitalism is an economic system in which the means of production and distribution are privately or corporately owned, and development is proportionate to the accumulation and reinvestment of profits gained in a free market.”

    She nods, half-smiling, and motions for him to lift his trousers and buckle his belt. She finds it satisfying to mimic his belt-buckling. She understands that sex with her former student may be a sleazy little tremor in her mind but is nowhere present in her body. 

    She expects him to walk out the door and hates to think of him trying to get home in whatever circumstances now prevail. Instead he takes three long strides to the nearest chair and sits there, looking into space.

    My first thought was that when Martin gave the definition of capitalism, he must have shifted from Einstein to Marx, but it’s hard to imagine Marx defining “capitalism” without establishing the meaning of “capital,” so I decided to google it. Turns out that it’s from yourdictionary.com, and that they got it from a recent edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, which means that Martin probably found it the same place that I did. It also means that he would have had to translate it into German before he could translate it back. No wonder Diane decides not to sleep with him. And no wonder either that, if you read all this straight—and as delivered with a straight face—you might find it silly. To understand DeLillo as a comedian of menace (in the David Campton/Harold Pinter tradition), it helps to know when he is kidding. I admit that he doesn’t always make it easy. But in a scene like this one, it seems to me that the chastened quality of the language heightens the absurdity of the exchange. The gravitas is part of the joke.

        In any case, the failed seduction is immediately forgotten. Max returns from his walk; Jim and Tessa rise from their nap. “People stranded in a room,” Diane says. “But we’re not stranded. We can leave anytime.” But they don’t. Instead they stay put and keep talking, all too eager to star in what Diane calls “the end-of-the-world movie,” albeit on their own languid, bourgeois terms.

    Justin Taylor is the author of the memoir Riding with the Ghost, forthcoming from Random House in July, as well as three books of fiction. His work has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper’s, the Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. His previous contribution to the Sewanee Review, “Close to the Bone: Mary Robison Reconsidered,” appeared in the Fall 2018 issue and won the magazine’s Robert B. Heilman Award. He lives in Portland, Oregon.

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