My first thought on finishing Don DeLillo’s The Silence was that it was minor stuff. Bottom-shelf DeLillo. An enjoyable visit with an always-fascinating friend, perhaps—and the novel tells the story of just such a visit, interrupted by an unexplained emergency that knocks out the world’s communications technology and seriously delays two of its characters’ arrival for dinner—but not the sort of book that you’d build a cult around. What does one expect of a seventeenth novel, a late entry in a career that includes, to my mind, two indisputable masterpieces (1988’s Libra and 1997’s Underworld) and a staggering number of witty, rewarding paragraphs? At least it’s too short (128 pages) to really waste a reader’s time.
When it comes to DeLillo, one adopts such an opinion at one’s peril. Canonical as he is, he’s spent a lot of his career getting counted out. His first several books sold in small numbers. White Noise (1985), a collection of brilliant concepts, setpieces, riffs, and tangents set at a Midwestern university, won him the National Book Award, but also invited a conservative backlash—Bruce Bawer famously called it an anti-consumerist “tract.” That backlash continued with Libra, an examination of the Kennedy assassination and one of the great conspiracy novels, which George Will called “an act of bad citizenship” that blamed America for Lee Harvey Oswald. (DeLillo’s retort: “I don’t blame America for Lee Harvey Oswald, I blame America for George Will.”) The critic James Wood was reviewing Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (2000) when he coined the pejorative term “hysterical realism,” but he was also thinking about DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace, and he singled out Underworld in particular as a book that sacrificed the convincing evocation of human consciousness to big themes and zany topical riffs. Writers like these, Wood argued, expected readers to take “bright lights” as “evidence of habitation.” As Wood and other critics continued to hash out whether DeLillo’s fattest and most-hyped novel was any good, the author was already well into the series of short, haunted, elliptical books that so many reviewers treat as needless afterthoughts to Underworld. 2003’s Cosmopolis, which now reads as a dark pastiche by DeLillo himself of the DeLillo style, was particularly ill-regarded, until the 2008 financial crisis made its story of a billionaire trading away his fortune during a single long trip across town seem eerily prescient.