It’s difficult to imagine any juxtaposition between the Rod Serling’s ‘60s epic television series, The Twilight Zone, and Don DeLillo’s new novel The Silence, but I have so found. The wellspring of this discovery is The New York Review of Books, the bi-monthly examination of literature and other forms of art. In successive issues is included a review by Andrew Delbanco of a new book, The Twilight Man: Rod Serling and the Birth of Television which leads with the intriguing words “[the book]…demonstrates how the show’s punch-line-twist endings are actually the least reason for its enduring hold over the public imagination.” In today’s following issue is a review headlined on the cover as “Don DeLillo’s Apocalypses,” and titled inside ‘The Sense of an Ending” by Michael Gorra which begins with “The Silence is full of voices, a work of talky minimalism whose characters are all troubled by the absence of sound.”
So what’s the connection, Scotty?
After Delbanco takes us through Serling’s early life: born in upstate new work to a Jewish couple, his father a part-time inventor, his mother a housewife, Serling upon graduation from high school enlists in the army with hopes of “fighting the Nazis in Europe” instead is sent to the Philippines in 1945 where he becomes a paratrooper. Returning he lands a job at a radio station as a talk show host in Cincinnati where he begins writing short stories on the side until he decides to head to Los Angeles to write scripts for America’s new big thing: television.
Delbanco writes “His (Serling) and his eventual audience were indeed caught between the familiar past and an unknown future. They stood dazed in a no-longer-recognizable world, flooded with strange new technologies, vastly expansionist corporate or federal jurisdictions, and once-unfathomable ideologies.”
After finding jobs writing on a number of drama and comedic TV programs he comes up with the idea for The Twilight Zone” and sells it to CBS. It becomes a “monster hit” in TV biz lingo with themes of catastrophe, paranoia (DeLillo’s specialities in print) sci-fi, memory loss, and pop culture, with the main theme, according to the reviewer, “you are not what you took yourself to be,” and “you are not where you thought you were.”
In closing Mr. Delbanco writes with seeping pessimism, “We’re full-time where Serling expected us to live: on the edge of dysfunction, craving and dreading human contact, stalked by a menace that seems nowhere and everywhere.” And in conclusion “Don’t look for it (dystopia) in the Twilight Zone—-look for it in the mirror. Look before the light goes out altogether.
DeLillo, Bronx born, who after college became a copy writer at an ad agency, writes in The Silence, his eighteenth novel that ends with “all the light everywhere out,” but leaves no clue as to whether it will ever be restored. Delbanco’s “altogether” suggests light’s not all out. Not yet.
Martin Amis in this same publication in 2011 wrote, “DeLillo is the laureate of terror, of modern or postmodern terror, and the way it hovers and shimmers in our subliminal minds. As Eric Hobsbawm has said, terrorism is a new kind of urban pollution, and the pollutant is an insidious and chronic disquiet. Such is the air DeLillo breathes.”
From novels on the JFK assassination (Libra,) to a nuclear attack on the US (White Noise,) and to 9/11 (Falling Man,) DeLillo has “had an eye for iconic moments of violence,” Mr. Gorra writes in this review of The Silence.
In this slim novel there is an absence of violence, just dread that something is happening, has in an instant happened, but you don’t know what it is. Its epigraph cites a quote from Einstein which provides a clue to what’s to come though DeLillo leaves that for us to decide. “I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.”
The story takes place in a New York City apartment as three people have switched on the TV to watch the 2020 Super Bowl game. Suddenly the screen turns blank, the lights go out. Out the window Manhattan is blanketed in black. Two others arrive and they talk and talk with no clue what has happened. Is it a power problem like PG&E’s in northern California? Is an emergent test managed by the Department of Home Security? Have the Chinese hacked our power grid? The dinner-to-be becomes cold, happily there’s enough Scotch to get by until….what? Light is restored and the game comes in with time still on the clock.
The book ends before the light comes back if it does.
LIGHT. The Life. The Next Normal?