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Don DeLillo On New Novel, 'The Silence'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Imagine into the future to 2022. It's Super Bowl Sunday, and through mysterious circumstances, screens everywhere suddenly go black. Planes tumble down. Cities plunge into darkness. Cellphones go silent, inert. And a group of people ready to gather around a television for a Super Bowl party in New York City start asking themselves questions like, how do we know who we are? This story that takes place in the very near future is at the center of a new novel by Don DeLillo. It's called "The Silence," a slim book that explores what happens to people when they're stripped of media, the Internet - all technology - and left only to talk to each other. Don DeLillo joins us now.

Welcome.

DON DELILLO: Thank you very much. Here I am.

CHANG: (Laughter) Here you are. Well, I am curious - of all the days you had to choose from, why did you choose Super Bowl Sunday as the setting for when the world descends into darkness and chaos here?

DELILLO: (Laughter) Well, it's an event that draws people - not just in this country but elsewhere. It's more than a football game.

CHANG: Yeah.

DELILLO: It's a kind of nearly universal pastime.

CHANG: It's like, one day we are all gathering around the same screen.

DELILLO: Exactly. And we depend on our TV screens.

CHANG: Well, when the characters in your story realize that they are suddenly cut off from the world - like, there's no TV signal, their phones go dead, their computers go dead - what you see is the mental stability of these characters really start unraveling. And I just want to ask you - you know, you have been writing about how technology reshapes our daily lives. You've been writing about this for quite some time now. How would you compare the way technology shapes our connections with each other now as opposed to the way it did, say, 30 years ago?

DELILLO: Oh, we depend on it much, much more. We can't live without it. It's part of the air we breathe. The question is, does it enrich our lives? Yes, in many, many ways it does, of course. But are there certain drawbacks? Do people get to depend on it too heavily? And then there are those who use technology to create certain kinds of chaos and panic and violence and cause deep grief.

CHANG: I want to go to this one line in the book that you write. Let me read it to you.

DELILLO: OK.

CHANG: It says, (reading) what happens to people who live inside their phones?

As I'm reading the way these different characters are talking, they don't seem to be talking to each other; they seem to be talking past each other. So I'm wondering, what do you think they're actually learning from each other, ultimately?

DELILLO: I think that they are somewhat stricken by the circumstances in which they find themselves. The fact that power has failed, that their powers of communication have also failed to a certain extent. They are stranded, and that affects the way they address each other and the way they think.

CHANG: You wrote "The Silence" before the pandemic. And in a way, your book paints a picture that's the opposite of what's happening now during the pandemic. You know, in your book, there is no technology; people are simply left with the people around them to interact with. Whereas now, during this pandemic, people have crawled into their phones, into their computers even more than they used to in order to connect. So let me ask you, how concerned are you that we will emerge from this pandemic even more trained to bury ourselves in our devices for human connection? What do you think?

DELILLO: Well, it's true. I don't think of it as a concern. I hope that people get to know each other better - those who live together, those who share their lives. I hope that this turns out to be a positive element and that their connections deepen as a result of the time they have to spend together.

CHANG: Don DeLillo's new book is called "The Silence."

Thank you so much for spending this time with us.

DELILLO: You're very welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.