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Don DeLillo: The Silence

It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine

This might not quite be an end of the world novel, as it would be quite likely to expect from DeLillo but it is an-the-end-of-the-world-may-be-nearer-than-you-think novel. This short novel, set over a twenty-four hour period involves five people. The first we meet are a married couple – Jim Kripps, a claims adjuster for an insurance company and his wife Tessa Berens, a poet and online editor, of Caribbean-European-Asian origin. They are on a flight from Paris back to their home in New York. It is 6 February 2022. We know the date because it is Super Bowl Sunday and the couple are hoping to get back to New York in time to watch the game with their friends. Tessa is writing about the holiday in her note book. This is something she does obsessively and has masses of notebooks of her jottings. Jim seems to be concentrating on the flight details and is obsessively tracking them – flight speed, time to New York, distance from London and Paris and so on.

There seems to be some problem – plane shaking, strange noises. We later learn that the plane crash-landed. Jim has a cut on his head but is all right. There seem to have been no deaths and they are taken to a clinic for treatment.

Meanwhile, we are following the other three. They are getting ready to watch the Super Bowl, following the build-up and the ads. They are Max Stenner and his wife Diane Lucas, and Martin Dekker, her former student. We do not know who is playing or whether the three support either of the teams. Suddenly the power goes out. No Super Bowl. No lights. No phones. They wait and wait, thinking that it is a minor glitch. Max gives a running commentary of a game he is imagining, replete with fake field goal and the ads.

Martin, however, seems to be obsessed with Einstein’s 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory . But he also, somewhat incoherently, (he is apparently on medication) mutters about some of the social, political and scientific issues facing the planet, such as microplastics and cryptocurrencies, the Internet arms race and countersurveillance. Are we living in a makeshift reality? Have I already said this? A future that isn’t supposed to take form just yet?, he asks. He even merges the two – Einstein’s Theory of Relativity causing riots in the streets or am I imagining this?

Jim and Tessa get to the clinic but, apart from having sex in the toilet, do not get treatment, not least because the clinic is also affected by the power cut. They walk to their friends’ apartment and join in the the discussion with Tessa adding her point of view:

We’ve seen it happening repeatedly, this country and elsewhere, storms and wildfires and evacuations, typhoons, tornadoes, drought, dense fog, foul air. Landslides, tsunamis, disappearing rivers, houses collapsing, entire buildings crumbling, skies blotted out by pollution. I’m sorry and I’ll try to shut up. But remaining fresh in every memory, virus, plague, the march through airport terminals, the face masks, the city streets emptied out.

However, it is Einstein who is the guiding light here: I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.

This is a short novel and will probably not go down as his best but clearly shows that the end of the world is perhaps not as far away as we think. This is certainly not the first New York blackout and not the last but this one is made to appear more menacing, by linking it firstly with the crash landing of the plane (whose cause we never learn) and, secondly, with the many ills we now face, which DeLillo is clearly pointing out are all interlinked. Yes, the end of the world is coming but do you feel fine?

Publishing history

First published 2020 by Scribner