- The Silence, by Don DeLillo. Picador, $29.99.
Don DeLillo is the author of numerous novels, including Zero K, Underworld, Falling Man, White Noise, and Libra. His many awards include the US National Book Award, the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction and the Jerusalem Prize for his complete fictional corpus.
Now 84, his literary output is, perhaps understandably, becoming textually more concise.
The Silence, a short novella, written before COVID-19, has been described as "Samuel Beckett for the Facebook age".
The novel begins with insurance agent, Jim Kripps and poet Tessa Berens flying back from Paris to meet up in New York with their friends Max Stenner, a building inspector, and Diane Lucas, a retired physics professor, along with Diane's former student Martin, to watch Super Bowl on TV.
Suddenly a "communications screw-up", which is presumably global and never explained, causes their plane to crash land at Newark airport.
Jim and Tessa, after an examination at a medical clinic, which reveals only minor injuries, then make their way to Max and Diane's Manhattan apartment.
When they arrive at the candlelit apartment, Max is watching a blank TV, "trying to induce an image to appear on the screen through force of will".
Diane ponders possible reasons for the electronic blackout, while Martin is "grinding out theories and speculations" from Einstein's 1912 Manuscript on the Special Theory of Relativity.
DeLillo, who has stated that The Silence had its genesis in a still image of a blank screen, prefaces his text with Einstein's words, "I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones".
Is the world collapsing? Tessa asks, "What is happening? Who is doing this to us? Have our minds been digitally remastered?
Are we an experiment that happens to be falling apart, a scheme set in motion by forces outside our reckoning?."
DeLillo is clearly reflecting on our mobile phone and tablet dependence and increasing separation from physical social interaction, "What happens to the people who live inside their phones?".
DeLillo's interest in quantum physics provides a framework for the temporal suspension of life in the apartment, presumably a microcosm of the outside world.
The Silence ends with no resolution, the characters, seemingly trapped in the apartment, spouting monologues, while, "determined not to look at each other".
This is surely Jean-Paul Sartre's version of hell in Huis Clos, "hell is other people", as much as Beckett's "non-knowers" oblivion.