Don DeLillo

Don DeLillo; illustration by Johnalynn Holland

The Silence is full of voices, a work of talky minimalism whose characters are all troubled by the absence of sound. Five of them, three men and two women: a string quintet, and with the youngest, a high school physics teacher, as a decidedly insistent cello. Noise, chatter, the smother of static, the wearing hum in one’s head: you might think you’d welcome its stopping, and enjoy the grace of an unsought calm. You might think these characters especially would welcome it, New Yorkers all—two long-married middle-class couples, and then Martin, the younger man, a former student of one of the women. But this is Don DeLillo, for whom white noise is both comfort and scourge. It deadens our senses even as it allows us to endure what they tell us, and for him that silence is a roar.

The book opens on a plane, Paris to Newark, in the near, possible, prospective future. Jim and Tessa are eager to get home and expect on arrival to watch the 2022 Super Bowl with friends, the Seahawks against the Titans, in a world that still seems normal. Jim amuses himself by reading aloud the information on the screen in front of him: “Altitude thirty-three thousand and two feet…. Speed four seventy-one m.p.h. Time to destination three thirty-four.” Temperature comes in Celsius and Fahrenheit—and what, they wonder, was the first name of Mr. Celsius, the Swede who invented that scale? Tessa opens her notebook to write down a list of the places they saw, trying to remember which day of their vacation was rainy. And all is calm, until the plane begins to bounce and Jim moves “his seat to its upright position,” a bit of ready-made phrasing that here seems purposefully jarring. They hear a knocking from somewhere beneath them, and then all the little screens blank out. The world shakes, and Jim wonders if they’ll soon be a disaster on the evening news.

Cut to an East Side one-bedroom, where Diane and Max play host to Martin as they wait for the game to start. Max is a building inspector by trade, a man who says, “I love the violations. It justifies all my feelings about just about everything.” What he really loves, though, is gambling, and with big money riding, the attention with which he stares at the television is at once sacramental and profane, his expression a silent curse, “lips tight, chin quivering.” Now the three of them sit, with the opening kickoff but one advertisement away, and wonder where their friends are. Was the flight from Paris delayed?

Then the picture on the “superscreen TV” trembles, the sound fades, and the image goes dark. Their phones die too, even the landline; the fridge and stove, the lights. That’s the silence—a world without electricity and above all without electronic communication, something that for DeLillo matters much more than the fading heat in a New York winter. Without that pulse Max wonders just where the digital squirt of his bet might now be, and begins to talk to the empty screen as if broadcasting the game itself, willing it into life: “Avoids the sack, gets it away—intercepted!

Having set this narrative machine in motion, DeLillo then alternates between his two sets of characters, until Jim and Tessa make their way to the other couple’s apartment, having survived their plane’s near crash, with its systems all failed and one wing on fire. There they will sit, and eat, and talk, talk about what this unaccustomed silence can possibly mean. The darkened streets below seem calm. Candles burn, and each of the five offers something like a solo or soliloquy, though most of the talking gets done by Martin, the teacher. “Look at the blank screen,” he says early on. “What is it hiding from us?” Later he asks if perhaps they are “living in a makeshift reality…. A future that isn’t supposed to take form just yet.” That skeptic’s rhetoric will be familiar to anyone who’s read DeLillo before, and yet by the end of the book Martin’s speech will lose all shape and syntax and become but a word cloud from catastrophe: “Internet arms race, wireless signals, countersurveillance…cryptocurrencies.” The screen stays dark, as though meaning itself were short-circuited.

DeLillo has an eye for iconic moments of American violence: the first Kennedy assassination in Libra (1988), the September 11 attacks in Falling Man (2007). It’s no surprise to find him drawn to the saturnalia of Super Bowl Sunday, and indeed he’s written about football before, in his early End Zone (1972), which presented that militarized sport as though it were nuclear war. Or maybe it’s the other way around, as though each of them meant the other. For events in DeLillo’s world are often inseparable from the figures of speech that define them, reality indistinguishable from its simulation. Meaning softens and blurs, and his people are more apt to enjoy that phenomenon than to worry about it. That’s true of White Noise (1985) in particular. It’s the book that gave him something more than a cult reputation, a novel about the dangers of representation in a world ungrounded by truth, and with its characters too entranced by the colorful façades of the consumer goods around them to wonder what lies beneath. They need to be shocked into pain, and sometimes their creator appears to suffer from the same malaise, so enthralled by the packaged spectacle of American life that apocalypse comes with a smile.


That used to bother me. The plot of White Noise hangs on an “airborne toxic event,” an industrial accident that sends a billowing cloud of chemical fumes out over the land. I read the book in galleys during the same autumn as a poisonous gas leak at a Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India. That incident killed thousands, and some readers took the headlines as a sign of DeLillo’s uncanny ability to feel the pulse of the moment. To me it was just the opposite. Disaster seemed but a metaphor for a writer whose real subject lay in our fears and our dread, for in his America (America as it then was, admittedly) the emergency systems all work, nobody dies, and the only real consequence is a lingering sense of vulnerability.

It used to bother me, I say, though not because Bhopal itself now troubles me less. I have, however, come to take that absorption in surface—that limitation—as inseparable from DeLillo’s strengths. His fascination with a numinous world that may not mean anything at all: that’s his equivalent of Balzac’s greedy-eyed fascination with money. He loathes it and loves it, but nobody else sees American life as he does, and so I now factor in his flaws and focus on what remains. That’s true of the eight-hundred-page Underworld (1997) as well. On my first reading, over twenty years ago, I thought that its controlling imagery didn’t add up: the baseball that links its separate narratives, or the idea of the underworld itself, whether it’s crime, the New York subway system, or a storage place for nuclear waste. But when I reread it this summer that looseness no longer seemed a problem. Each page held me rapt, and the book as a whole appeared precisely as cluttered, chaotic, and coherent as Little Dorrit or Vanity Fair.

The core of DeLillo’s oeuvre is the series of five novels that began with The Names (1982) and ended with Underworld; the intervening volumes are White Noise, Libra, and Mao II (1991). Those books look permanent, with the last of them a summa; his early books in contrast seem preparatory, though they each have their admirers. To put it another way, DeLillo was born in 1936, and what matters are the novels he wrote in full middle age, with Underworld appearing when he was sixty. Dickens was dead by that age, Balzac too, but DeLillo has had a third act in the six short books he has written in the new century. These novels rarely take age itself as their topic, as both Saul Bellow and Philip Roth did in their own late work; yet still they are the product of age.

Late work—or perhaps late style? DeLillo has always been interested in endings, in the closure he identifies with death. “All plots tend to move deathward,” says Jack Gladney, the narrator of White Noise. “This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plot…. We edge nearer death every time we plot.” We think in sequence, we imagine a conclusion, a consequence, the clock creeping on to the end, and with each tick followed by a tock, as Frank Kermode once put it. DeLillo likes death, the mother of beauty. He likes it as a subject, a shaping force: the one thing that can make his world’s gleaming thrills seem shallow. It is always out there waiting, and I can’t claim that its explicit role in his late work seems greater, not even in Zero K (2016), in which a man who sees money as a form of metaphysics buys a cryogenic procedure that he hopes will let him cheat it. Nevertheless DeLillo’s recent books are significantly different from the great novels of his middle age, and that difference is worth thinking about.

The idea of “late style” was systematized by Theodor Adorno in a brief 1937 essay that posited some shift or gap between Beethoven’s middle period and his last one, a change that couldn’t be explained by any ordinary process of development or maturation.* The difference lay in the composer’s new reliance on fragmentary phrases and ideas, and even at times on formula; in a “ravaged” quality or deliberate inharmoniousness; and then too in a feeling of haste, as though impatient with his medium, a sense of having lived on after what should have been the end. Adorno attributed that break to Beethoven’s belief in his own impending death, and Edward Said later developed the idea in his book On Late Style (2006), which was written against the sentence of his final illness; it was posthumously published and suggested that the concept also mixed resolution and intransigence. Other examples are easy to find, maybe too easy. Said himself looked to the final operas of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Strauss, and then there’s the quick loose brushwork of the paintings Titian did in his eighties, or the songs to his own lust that Yeats wrote in his seventies, as if he had finally found the freedom to say what he wanted.


Probably it’s better to speak of “late styles” rather than a single late style, and of course not all artists have one, not even those who do live into old age. Wallace Stevens’s last poems have a spare serenity, as though the mind were emptying itself out—but then he was already doing that in his forties, as if he were always old. Still, I’ve been wondering about the idea in relation to DeLillo in particular and the novel in general, and always with the proviso that such a style is an exception, not a rule. You need stamina to write a book the length of Underworld or even the three-hundred-page White Noise, the sustained energy and focus of an ever-wearing daily grind. Bellow remained steadily productive into his last years, but much of his later work took the form of long stories. The Bellarosa Connection (1989) was released as if it were a novel, but it’s really an example of what Henry James called “the beautiful and blest nouvelle,” and not much longer than “Daisy Miller.” The more prolific Roth was seventy-one when he published The Plot Against America (2004), the last book of the astonishing decade that began with Sabbath’s Theater. None of his five subsequent novels are on anything like its scale. With each writer there was undoubtedly a contraction, a shepherding of resources; and yet length aside, they kept on doing what they already did.

DeLillo seems different. His concerns have stayed the same, his cadences too. He hasn’t remade his prose, as James did; I can’t tell the difference between a few randomly chosen sentences from his recent work and a passage from Libra. But after Underworld his sense of novelistic form, of what he needs to make a narrative, did change. Probably there was no good way to follow that novel, with its distorting size and scope, a book that began with Frank Sinatra and ended with the disposal of nuclear waste. How could one compete with that—compete with oneself? DeLillo wisely didn’t try. There would be no new plateaus, no arc of increasing achievement. Underworld’s successor, The Body Artist (2001), was deliberately slight, a novella-length exploration of the uncanny that makes me think of “Bartleby, the Scrivener.” It was as if a composer who’d only written symphonies had suddenly switched to a tinny atonal song, and DeLillo has since stayed small. His late books have been at most a quarter of Underworld’s length, with The Silence the shortest of them, and always with fewer characters and a more sharply limited focus.

Simultaneously, he has ratcheted up his sense of a coming apocalypse, with titles that suggest the end times: Point Omega (2010) and Zero K, or for that matter The Silence. Their quality has varied wildly. Cosmopolis (2003) seems to me almost unreadable, and some of the others end without closure. This is something starker than the scaling-down of late Roth; Adorno’s description fits. One reads these recent books as if entering the aftermath of achievement, but while I admire both The Body Artist and Falling Man, they are not the late quartets.

Which date from Beethoven’s fifties. We live longer now, and though their work may slow and fade, few artists ever announce their retirement. Roth famously did, and Alice Munro. Those are the exceptions. Still, I think that most people who read The Silence will ask how one might come to an ending; will recognize that both the inevitability and the impossibility of ending provide this slender tale’s real subject.

The novel begins with Einstein, with a 1949 statement that it takes as an epigraph, and to which Martin later alludes: “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.” And Einstein runs through The Silence, in the form of the young man’s obsession with his 1912 paper on the special theory of relativity. Martin often recites passages from it, in both English and German, and even carries around a facsimile of the manuscript, in which the scientist’s handwriting in faint brown ink figures for him as truth. At times he speaks as though translating. Einstein matters less here as a physicist, however, than as a cultural totem, a thinker who saw a world beyond our knowledge. Relativity reshaped reality, and Martin finds a corresponding epistemic break in this new absence of noise, a change or crack to which he tries to give a name: “The artificial future. The neural interface.” But the real break lies in his own language, a list-like spray of abstractions in which the relation of one thing to another, the grammar of the connections between them, goes forever undefined. For this is a world in which all sense seems exhausted, and to him—to those listening to him—that quiet is loud with unknowing.

Nobody knows how far the blackout reaches, and Max insists, at first, that it will soon be over. The television will spark into life, the game will return, and a man down the hall suggests they chalk it all up to sunspots: “Lights back on, heat back on, our collective mind back where it was, more or less, in a day or two.” They only realize the power failure’s extent when Jim and Tessa arrive and tell them about the plane—and yet maybe there’s a hidden benefit to the absence of electricity. Because there can be no nuclear war without that current; the launch codes are now dysfunctional. Or does that failure in itself announce a war, some new form of attack, a chaos from which destruction will follow?

The book ends before the power comes back, if it comes back. It ends that evening, and without answering any of the questions it raises. We never get to the sticks and stones, and DeLillo shows no interest in exploring the consequences of this night, in the kind of extrapolation that might motivate a writer of speculative fiction. Instead the babbling Diane tells herself to shut up, and Max stares at the darkened television, not listening as Martin talks on. The young teacher imagines the empty streets below them, an empty world, as if all meaning had shrunk down to his own speech. “Time to stop, isn’t it,” he says, and yet what happens if he does? Will he be able to come back if, as he says, he leaves the room and walks down the hall to the bathroom?

Edward Said writes that in late style death appears refracted as irony; Adorno that such works are the catastrophes of art. Some pages in this book verge on self-parody, and I doubt it will draw any readers who haven’t already invested themselves in DeLillo’s work, in the half-century of risks his voice has taken. But those of us who have will find something poignant and terrible in this strange unbroken silence.