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The Silence – Don DeLillo

by Venky
In Don DeLillo's New Novel, Technology Is Dead. Civilization Might Be, Too.  - The New York Times

The year is 2022, and the Seahawks are taking on the Titans in Super Bowl LVI. A home in Newark is abuzz with excitement. Max Stenner, a building inspector has placed a huge bet on the game and is on taut nerves. His partner Diane Lucas, and her former student and now a Physics Professor himself, Martin Dekker are giving Max muted company. The trio is awaiting two more guests. Jim Kripps, claims adjuster, and his partner Tessa Berens, a poet, are flying to Newark from Paris and are expected to join Max & Co for at least part of the game. Just when the game is about to kick off, and the flight from Paris about to land, every electronics and communications device goes kaput and there is a massive outage. Don DeLillo’s latest book, “The Silence”, a muted yet magisterial work encapsulates the ramifications of a social outage more than a technological glitch. The emotional outrage that follows a television screen going blank, a mobile phone going silent and a computer rendered impotent in captured in a magnificent manner by one of our greatest living authors.

“Something happened then.” The matter of fact manner in which DeLillo describes the sudden interruption is pregnant with implications. The Stenner household engages in conjectures and surmises that range between the asinine and the absurd. While Max ponders about only his building suffering from the outage and at the same time mulls about a Chinese cyberwarfare, Diane proposes an extraterrestrial interference. Martin, an Einstein freak, channels his inner ‘Albert’, and waxes eloquent on the dimensions of space and time. “Are we living in a makeshift reality?” Martin wonders out loud.

Meanwhile, the flight carrying Kripps and Tessa experiences a dangerous burst of turbulence due to the collapse in all communication and instrumentation and is forced to crash-land. Miraculously all the passengers survive, and other than a minor laceration to Kripps on his head, to show for his inflight travails, he and Tessa come out of the incident more or less unscathed.

Exasperated with staring into the blank television screen, Max takes generous swigs from a ten year old American bourbon and commences to provide an imaginary low down of the game. Assuming a seasoned commentator’s baritone, Max describes the goings on of the game and also adds a mix of commercials in between – for filling in the break at half-time. Diane is impressed with the monologue and begins to wonder whether it is the effect of the bourbon coursing through her partner’s veins. The passages in the book become more and more abstruse after the arrival of Kripps and Berens into the Stenner household. A usually reticent Martin assumes centre stage when he begins expounding on complex concepts that conflate quantum physics with metaphysical attributes.

With “The Silence”, DeLillo joins a select band of authors who, although divided by oeuvre are united by objectiveness. The reclusive tech Guru and the father of virtual reality, Jaron Lanier,  Jennifer Odell, an American artist, writer and educator based in Oakland, California, the Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Shelly Turkle and Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard professor, social psychologist, philosopher, scholar, and the best-selling author of “Surveillance Capitalism”, represent a select band that is striving to bust the myth of certain shibboleths that form an uncompromising edifice of the tech world that we invest in and which, in turn ‘harvests’ us. “Staying connected”, “moving fast and breaking things”, “data is the new oil”, “Fear Of Missing Out”, are concepts which not just occupies us but also ossifies us on a real time basis. The blue tinge of the smartphone screen even warns us about the things which we would be missing – and which others will beat us to – during the time we ignorantly and negligently go to sleep. “The Silence” in many ways represent the much needed intermission between poring over social median and agonizing over its ramifications.

In this aspect “The Silence” is more vocal than one can possibly imagine.  

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