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Life in the Post-Internet Dystopia

Don DeLillo’s and Jonathan Lethem’s new novels imagine the end of electronic communication.

In my speculative fiction course this fall, my students identified a place and time we referred to as Dystopia TM, a sort of abstracted postapocalyptic landscape that has become as familiar a backdrop as Victorian England, 1950s America, or any white suburb on television. The polluted sky and water, the ruined city, rebels living in the outskirts, the authoritarian government that took over after some vaguely named Troubles, all of which might as well get a TM, too. My students raised the possibility that we were living in a dystopia where people read Dystopia TM novels that didn’t tell them much about how the world worked, and that remains, to my mind, pretty much where we are right now in the United States.

The Silence
by Don DeLillo
Scribner, 128 pp., $22.00
The Arrest
by Jonathan Lethem
Ecco, 320 pp., $27.99

When I started teaching this course in 2011, I began with the idea that while realist fiction had come to function as PR for the status quo, speculative fiction reimagined parts of the culture that people cannot bring themselves to name but instead dress up as monsters, gods, demons, and aliens, or as dystopias, apocalypses, and postapocalyptic landscapes. Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties, Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah’s Friday Black, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower—these are a few of the texts I’ve taught in this class.

My students were struck by how much the world of Butler’s Parable felt like ours, and not the anodyne version sold to us in more recent popular entertainments. Published in 1993, Butler’s novel is now recognized as oracular, predicting among other things a president who runs his campaign on making America great again. If you’ve read the novel, it is hard not to see the man we just voted out. But describing a taboo by imagining a future where it can be described isn’t the same as predicting the future.

This was the conversation in my mind when The Silence, by Don DeLillo, and The Arrest, by Jonathan Lethem, arrived in my mailbox. Together, the two novels read as if they tell two parts of a single history, of our possible near future and a more distant one. The Silence is more of an urban, contemporary fable of horror, if the end to electronic communications is your idea of horror. It takes place at the moment of an apocalyptic event, when the exact shape of the disaster is still unclear. The first line of another DeLillo novel—Zero K—provides a close summary of The Arrest: It’s a novel in which “everybody wants to own the end of the world,” or at least, produce the TV series based on it. Here, the apocalypse has already happened, and the characters, steeped in television and film dystopias, are trying to understand what might come next.

The fantasy that both novels express, as a central event or a historical setting, is the end of the internet. In both, the significant factor is that the screens are dead; both feel like revenge fantasies on social media and electronic connectedness. They arrive not so much as oracles as scolds. They may not offer a guide to the future, but to the present.

In her 2011 essay “How Novels Came to Terms With the Internet,” the literary critic Laura Miller diagnosed American writers with a collective anxiety concerning the depiction of technology—an anxiety born from what she characterized as the conflict apparent between Anthony Trollope’s mission, to depict “the way we live now,” and what she termed, memorably, “the chapel of profundity.” “Literature,” she wrote, “is where you retreat when you’re sick of celebrity divorces, political mudslinging, office intrigues, trials of the century, new Apple products, internet flame wars, sexting and X Factor contestants—in short, everything that everybody else spends most of their time thinking and talking about.”

Miller despaired of an American literary scene sorely lacking in depictions of the internet and cell phones, despite the ubiquity of them in our lives. Notably, she praised Jonathan Lethem as one of the few contemporary novelists to incorporate technology in his work, with his depictions in 2009’s Chronic City of Manhattanites “holed up in their apartments, bidding for the elusive things on eBay.” For the most part, writers of literary realism, she observed, had “ceded the field to authors of speculative fiction.” It seemed as if the flood of historical fiction emerging at the time was just another way for everyone involved to avoid putting a cell phone in a novel. A decade after her essay appeared, I wonder if the postapocalyptic novel wasn’t also a way of expressing our anxiety about writing about technology: making up an event that takes all the technology away.

Set in Maine in the undefined near future after an event known as “The Arrest” has brought down all connected technology, the postapocalyptic landscape of Lethem’s new novel feels a little like those fantasy vacations, well-known by now: no email, no television, no social media, no internet. Locally grown foods, made artisanally. The main character, Journeyman, is a white former screenwriter, and his sister, Madeleine, a lesbian biodynamic organic farmer. He lives in Tinderwick, and his sister, in East Tinderwick, in an intentional community called Spodosol Ridge Farm. His life has settled into a satellite of hers—he delivers the food they grow, and assists the butcher. The two towns are on a peninsula separated from the mainland by a more violent community called the Cordon, and they exist together in an uneasy peace that replicates some tensions in Maine today between liberals and conservatives.

The novel’s action begins when a surreally strange supercar—illustrated with a vintage Jack Kirby drawing to underline the pulp comics fantasy of it all—pulls up to this compound. Inside is an old friend: Todbaum, a screenwriter also, who has driven for nearly a year across the country, from Malibu to Maine, hoping to reconnect. This is its own kind of horror—that civilization as we know it could effectively end, and the old friend-slash-nemesis, a best friend who would try to seduce your younger sister, would show up again in a flashy car, hoping to get you on board with their new project.

Before Journeyman circled his sister’s world, he circled Todbaum’s: They had been collaborating on a postapocalyptic television drama. Almost immediately, Journeyman is drawn back in. Todbaum is the sole survivor, by his account, of one of those compounds for the rich that will go awry as soon as currency isn’t worth anything. He had the sense to invest $14 million into this supercar, a nuclear-powered mining machine refitted as a semiautonomous car, with an out-of-control self-teaching AI and an espresso machine. Within minutes of Todbaum’s arrival, Journeyman is having himself the first espresso he’s had in years, sharing his friend’s single cup in what feels like an erotic surrender. Todbaum is the sort of character more familiar to us from British novels—Brideshead Revisited, or The Stranger’s Child—the man who is in love with a brother first, and then, his sister. He blew their lives up once before, many years ago when they were young, and he seems to have come all this way to do it one more time. As the espresso kicks in, Journeyman soon understands his life is uncannily like the television series he had been working on with Todbaum at the time they parted ways. Oscar Wilde claimed that what you write comes true, and it seems, for Journeyman, this is the case.

It wouldn’t be a Lethem novel if there weren’t baroque big picture touches like this. And small ones, too. A favorite detail is the 2020 Telluride Film Festival backpack Journeyman uses to make his food deliveries. I tried googling it to see if I could find one, as I knew the festival, like much else, had been canceled by Covid. This is the sort of swag the festival doesn’t sell but that interns would hang on to and sell on eBay. This backpack, like a portal, from this world to that one. Whoever it is that might become Journeyman most likely already has one. The result is a clever shape-shifter of a novel, one that feels almost too clever, until it begins to outline its underlying—and satisfying—conceit.

The two lovers who make up one-half of DeLillo’s The Silence—Jim Kripps and his beautiful mixed-race girlfriend, Tessa—are returning to New York from a trip to Paris, in time for the Super Bowl. Tessa’s background is offered up through Jim’s sense of it being rare (narrator’s voice: It is not so rare), and so we can assume not only that he is white, but that he is the sort of man who doesn’t have many friends who aren’t white. I say this because Tessa is the sort of person who is well known to me—her “obscure” poetry, as it is described, her literary ambitions, all seemed familiar. I could name 10 friends like this, and I would even offer that I also am like this person.

The lovers fall out of the sky, their plane crashing, and emerge from the wreck more or less unscathed, though others are not as lucky. They go to the hospital to be examined, but the hospital’s systems are down. They have what seems to be survivor victory sex there before they head to the apartment where their friends are having a Super Bowl party—the novel’s other half. Those friends, Max and Diane, and their other friend, Martin, seem to handle their incipient panic by speaking in non sequiturs about Einstein, philosophy, Jesus. Martin throws out seemingly random facts, as if he is the churn of the internet now lost to them, a human twitter reeling off posts in his mind. It felt, ironically enough, like reading Twitter during a national emergency, a historical event unfolding there in real time. In a seeming parallel to the uncanny sex Tessa and Jim have at the hospital, Martin drops his pants.

Deceptively simple, the plot is a framework for conversations while something we cannot quite see destroys civilization. The apocalypse such as it is feels off-kilter, as I suppose it would: You can still go to a Super Bowl party after falling out of the sky, but you can’t text your friends to tell them you made it, or Uber a car to their house. You can only tell the story once you get there—but there’s nothing to watch, of course. “All my life I’ve been waiting for this without knowing it,” Martin says near the end of The Silence. And in that he seems to announce an unspoken expectation for many of us who have seen the internet transform our lives so intensely, and who remember life from before it—when does this all come crashing down?

The people in this novel do not seem very concerned about their situation. No one fills the bathtub with water, no one goes to the store to bargain for food with cash—food the owners had to sell or it would spoil due to lack of refrigeration. The characters all seem to be expecting the power to come back on, despite the obvious catastrophe. A second narrative had emerged in my mind as I read, in which I imagined being Tessa, on a flight back from Paris with my boyfriend who wants us to go to a Super Bowl party on our return. And who takes us there, even after we fall out of the sky and our plane crashes. As if, of course, there was nowhere else to go. When Tessa, near the end, speculates that it might be time to prepare for the disaster that seems to be happening, I could feel the impatience that I would have, too.

Which is to say that DeLillo’s characters here seem unlikely to survive this first wave of the blackouts. They will be the people waiting for the power to turn back on, likely to become the bodies found in apartments by other cannier survivors. The power they were waiting for was, unknown to them, not the source of their power but the sign of it, a sign of their privilege. As a novel about people who are used to things going their way when things don’t go their way, it is an exercise in watching people struggle to take seriously the danger they are in and to let that really change them. And this may be the most frightening thing in the novel, more so than any phone without signal or dead laptop.

To say The Silence is not the novel it should be is to engage in a kind of existential wishful thinking. Is the novel oracular if the novel’s events begin to occur while you are reading it? Even as I write this, ransomware cyberattacks are taking entire hospitals offline in the state of Vermont, where I live. The staff are not philosophical about it, as the characters in The Silence are. They’re trying to do what the computers do for their chemo patients, who require sophisticated equations to make sure the medicine can keep pace with the illness. Doctors at the University of Vermont fear they will not know the damage done for months. “All my life I’ve been waiting for this without knowing it.” The naïveté in that line made me almost laugh.

The Arrest is the more satisfying novel, though I think it is clear that The Silence doesn’t mean to satisfy anything—it means to be uncomfortable. The Arrest unfolds with an awareness of Dystopia TM, and brings us into the process by which that particular sausage is made. The question it asks is, “What if the people who write dystopian fiction had to then go live in a dystopia?” That is the novel’s true premise, and if Lethem does not come up with answers, he puts forward good questions about community, and whether we are living in a simulation, and what it is like to try and rehumanize yourself around the people who ask whether we are living in a simulation, usually as a way to ignore your suffering. Lethem’s novel comments on the kind of person who reaches for this kind of novel as entertainment—the kind of person who would in fact be reading the latest dystopian fiction from Jonathan Lethem.

It isn’t enough to say, any longer, that realism fails us as writers or readers, or that postapocalyptic fiction more closely approaches the conditions we live under now, and so that is why we read it. We are, most of us, already connoisseurs of disaster. These novels arrive as we find ourselves able to contrast our current conditions to those in these novels. But perhaps Lethem’s last line is the best for this essay’s last line: “They were tired of the old stories, those birds. They wished to hear new ones.”