Don DeLillo's novels are still shrinking in scope. It is a long way from Underworld of over eight hundred pages to this autumn's book The silence on just under 126 pages. In an interview, the author says that the format is due to age, ie he works later than before.
But he also writes for theater, and while reading the novel, one can think scenically: There is a lot of dialogue, and the text also alternates between two chamber plays that eventually merge into one setting. In the first, the couple Jim and Tessa are on the plane from Paris to New York, where they will watch the TV broadcast of the Super Bowl with the couple Diane and Max, and where the physics teacher Martin is also present. The plane has a system failure and an emergency landing at the airport. At the same time, with Max and Diane in New York, the TV picture disappears, and all screens turn black. Soon the power also disappears, and there is a blackout all over the city. Martin blames the Chinese and calls it a selective apocalypse, an attack on the American network. It is also easy for the reader to think that the attack was initiated by a foreign power, China, Russia, Iran or others, not least because here in Norway, computer attacks against both Sykehuset Innlandet and the Storting were recently revealed.
A giant TV guest
DeLillo stages a kind of general, paranoid condition, a suspicion that has global reach today. As an individual, you are never completely sure of what is going on in today's public space, who controls the events, where they control, are located and what kind of motives they have. DeLillo makes this clear in the reactions of the five – or the lack of reactions: They are trained, instructed and on a deeper level manipulated to hold the mask and not panic even when vital services such as electricity and information flow disappear – and the infrastructure itself as a whole society is based on, is in danger of collapsing.
DeLillo calls this state of crisis a literary phenomenon, a hypothetical situation which he found interesting and therefore wrote as a short novel. One senses lines and connections to other works, Sartre's claustrophobic piece For closed doors, Dekameronen – which Boccaccio let unfold in the midst of the Black Death, even Plato Symposium, which is basically a drinking party, a feast.
The five in the darkened apartment in New York are marked by archetypes.
But the Super Bowl is also the United States' answer to the finals of the Champions League and the World Cup, a match that brings the whole nation together for a giant feast around the television sets, it is both a modern gladiatorial match and a mega-sports show – and perhaps the only thing that brings the country together across class, race, ethnicity and religion.
When this common denominator that everyone with or without sports interest has to deal with on this one day a year, literally disappears from the TV screen, the cultural glue that these five in the novel also define themselves in relation to disappears. They do not panic, but they begin to doubt, they lose faith in what they themselves say – a belief in the clichés of language that gives them contact with and connection to reality, the commercial and virtual existence they have existed in so far.
The fall of the Empire
DeLillo could have written a great epic out of this existential state of crisis. He could embroider a far-reaching, profound dystopia over the fall and total collapse of the American empire. He could show the catastrophe that is spreading across the whole country as infrastructure and vital societal functions collapse and the population is thrown into civil war. It's in the cards. It is latent in large parts of the population, which since the corona pandemic began, have traded weapons like never before. But a full-scale dystopia had gone against DeLillo's own tendency. By shrinking his novels, he gets to say more. He gets to say as much as it is possible to say about the situation here and now in a society that is on the edge. Not on the edge of what, but on the edge.
The Silence, DeLillo's own title, says much more than the Norwegian title, The silence, which is too vague, too passive, it signals something lyrical, idyllic, untouched. DeLillo suggests the very edge by quoting Einstein in the book, where he says: "I do not know what kind of weapons will be used in World War III, but World War IV will at least be fought with wooden clubs and stones."
Here DeLillo says in a way more than he is willing to say in an interview about the book, he leaves it to the nuclear physicist Einstein to visualize the future. The scientist behind the atomic bomb takes on the role of a prophet who estimates the direction civilization is taking – towards a pre-civilized world. This is the same world that a sea of dystopian films, novels and comics has already drawn in concrete detail for a market that is never fed up with new versions of the Old Testament apocalypse.
The chamber game
But DeLillo does not fall for that temptation. He sticks to the chamber play to the last page. The five in the darkened apartment in New York are marked by archetypes, a bit like the characters in Beckett's plays. They say a lot, but not about who they are, where they come from, or why they are standing right there on the world stage. They are directed there, but do not know by whom. They feel a threat is approaching, but do not know from which direction it is coming. They do not see the future, and therefore talk about the past, to fill the time, the present real-time which they are just waiting for – something that makes them passive and ultimately also powerless, paralyzed.
By shrinking his novels, he gets to say more.
It is symptomatic that Max, who gambles and bets big money on the Super Bowl every year, also ends the novel: He sits in front of the black TV screen and waits for something to happen, for the picture and the match to return so he can understand things again. , everything around him, everything inside him, as an American, as a gambler, as a sports idiot, as an archetype who expects this year's great ritual, eleven men on each team who storm against each other, beat each other, win or lose money and honor, perform the game, the large setting in the small, plus the long silence afterwards. This will silence while waiting.