Don DeLillo, the Super Bowl, and the Fragile Language of the Game

Throughout Don DeLillo’s nearly fifty-year corpus of fiction, the number seven appears and reappears as a kind of talisman, a charm that ...


Throughout Don DeLillo’s nearly fifty-year corpus of fiction, the number seven appears and reappears as a kind of talisman, a charm that his characters carry through the crossfire of American history. Jack Gladney, the narrator and professor of “Hitler studies” in “White Noise” (1985), pauses mid-monologue to stare at the carpet and count to seven, a moment of private ritual as he lectures about the Führer. Lianne, of DeLillo’s 9/11 novel “Falling Man” (2007), whose husband has narrowly survived the attacks on the World Trade Center, finds “a tradition of fixed order” in the act of counting down from a hundred by sevens. And, in “The Silence” (2020), DeLillo’s most recent novel, set on Super Bowl Sunday in the year 2022, one character turns to the same habit after a mysterious digital apocalypse blacks out the big game—and everything else.

Seven, too, is the value of a touchdown (plus an extra point) in football, a sport that George Plimpton, according to his “Small Ball Theory” of sports literature, found distinctly inhospitable to good writing: “the smaller the ball, the more formidable” the book, he argued, in 1992. It’s a theory borne out by some of the masters: baseball was fodder for Philip Roth, tennis for David Foster Wallace. And it makes sense insofar as literature is a practice of containment: small-ball sports—the slow pace of nine innings or eighteen holes, the pleasing quid pro quo of a tennis rally—can be tidily pinned to the page. But DeLillo embraces a big-ball sport, perhaps because it’s the strain against containment that interests him most: football is a sport that’s always on the brink of, or in the midst of, total collapse. In his hands, the game is full of metaphor—and not just for the systematized expression of America’s fundamentally martial character. It’s fertile material for a career-long investigation of language: its dissolution and distortion, its (often false) promise of imposing order on the chaos of modern life, like hash marks on the gridiron.

In “The Silence,” a global digital disruption, its cause unknown, takes place just before kickoff, stalling a plot that hasn’t even begun. But for DeLillo’s characters, like his readers, the Super Bowl is a conceit, just an excuse for five New Yorkers to gather in front of a television, as nearly a hundred million Americans did last February, and even more, presumably, will this year, when in-person attendance at the big game is limited. If Super Bowl Sunday is a national ritual of counting by sevens, “The Silence” asks what happens when that tradition and its promise of fellowship falter. Unmoored, the spectators begin to glitch, like the precious devices of which they’ve suddenly been deprived. “This team is ready to step out of the shadows and capture the moment,” Max, a middle-aged man “accustomed to being sedentary,” says, waiting for the broadcast to resume. He’s got the cadences of a seasoned sportscaster down, but in front of a blank TV screen, the conventions of color commentary are revealed to be absurd. “All these decades of indigenous discourse,” his wife, Diane, observes, have been “muddied up by the nature of the game, men hitting each other, men slamming each other into the turf.”

But what is the “nature of the game”? In his second novel, “End Zone” (1972), a blackly comic tale of a West Texas college football team (which Plimpton admitted he admired), DeLillo describes the “exemplary spectator” of the sport as someone who watches not to playact fantasies of warfare but to be immersed in its polyphony of “impressions, colors, statistics, patterns, mysteries, numbers, idioms, symbols.” Football “is the one sport guided by language, by the word signal, the snap number, the color code, the play name.” It’s a seductive game for the verbal detective, not least because sometimes the only things differentiating one team’s playbook from another’s are the names given to the plays.

This world of sensory intrigue is irresistible to Gary Harkness, the narrator and disaster-fantasist of “End Zone” who, trapped in the prison of his own mind, seems desperate for a wider playing field on which to stage his anxieties of mutually assured destruction. The Cold War hangs heavy, and Harkness, equal parts brain and brawn, has arrived at the small Logos College in the Texas desert after failed stints at multiple big-name universities. He’s in the midst of a bad bout of depression: as a running back at Michigan State, he was involved in an on-field collision that left another player dead; at the University of Miami, a course on “modes of disaster technology” led him to a fascination with the prospect of total annihilation, itself a sort of end zone.

But he seems more preoccupied by the “modes” than by the disasters. Lost in the language of catastrophe, and thereby alienated from its costs, he’s unable to turn the page. “I became fascinated by words and phrases like thermal hurricane, overkill, circular error probability, post-attack environment, stark deterrence, dose-rate contours, kill-ratio, spasm war,” he says. Vietnam looms in the background; nuclear war seems always on the horizon. But in football Gary finds another theatre of war with its own consuming lexicon, and soon one organizing obsession has displaced another: “My life meant nothing without football.”

That meaning, of course, is shaped by language. At first, Gary describes the sport from a lyrical remove. As he watches an N.F.L. game in a dorm room, the television gives it a noble coherence, “making poetic sport of the wounded.” And indeed, obscured by the anesthetic effects of jargon, or “elegant gibberish,” as Gary calls it, the crushing blows of football mostly occur off the page, except in the novel’s climax, a big game between Logos and its rival, West Centrex Biotechnical.

The face-off begins in rhapsody: “small wars commencing here and there, exaltation and firstblood, a helmet bouncing brightly on the splendid grass, the breathless impact of two destructive masses, quite pretty to watch.” But the play continues and the jargon compounds, becoming more primitive and parodic, the dialogue sputtering along with crunches, twists, and pops, exhortations to kill and to survive. As these modes of descriptions change, so, too, does the distance from the thing being described. Gary’s stylized language gives us a “benign illusion” of order that comes from being high up in the stands. But to actually get involved in visceral, uncomfortable reality seems to require losing language. When the coach howls at his players to “get fetal”—protect the football, he means—he’s also taking them back to some pre-verbal state. And they respond in kind: in the locker room after the loss, Gary expects a team prayer to be delivered, but instead there is only silence, and the sound of one of his teammates muttering something in German. “He said the German words gave him comfort,” Gary explains, “though not as much as they used to when he didn’t know what they meant.”

Guided by their cultish coach, Gary and his teammates embrace an ascetic life, forfeiting the contrivances of football-speak in pursuit of an ending that’s more than just a “W” or an “L” on the scoreboard. Giving up the “benign illusion” of football-speak sounds like an honest pursuit, but it isn’t a happy one. By the novel’s end, one coach has committed suicide; another is in a wheelchair. Taft Robinson, the superstar running back and lone Black player, quits and spends most of his time reading about the gas chambers or listening to the radio between periods of self-imposed silence—a “spiritual exercise,” he explains. And in the book’s final sentence, after Gary’s been offered the team captainship, it’s revealed that our narrator is being force-fed through plastic tubes at the campus infirmary. DeLillo is known to traffic in unsatisfactory endings, but this one is apt: Gary has at last renounced both sport and speech.

“The Silence” dramatizes a similar linguistic breakdown but asks what collapse looks like now that language itself has changed. For the New Yorkers of 2022, the psychobabble of football and apocalypse have migrated to—where else?—their personal screens. “Algorithmic governance,” one character speculates, moments after the grid collapses. “A selective internet apocalypse.” If silence offers hope of salvation in “End Zone,” in “The Silence” it’s an unsettling prospect from the very start. In the wake of the blackout, DeLillo’s characters keep talking while saying very little. They speak in lists and fragments, sloganizing about Einstein cryptocurrency, and the neural interface, as if they’re Amazon Alexas. Not much else happens in the novel; glued to their broken televisions sets, the characters venture out occasionally and aimlessly. The virtuosic, almost manic density of detail that defined DeLillo’s earlier work is replaced by stillness, which might be a commentary on the nature of modern disaster: it’s not chaos but quiet that spells trouble.

After the outage, Max leaves the apartment to make sure they aren’t the only ones experiencing technical difficulties. “We stood in the hallway becoming neighbors for the first time,” he reports back to his wife. “Men, women, nodding our heads.” It’s a hushed but loaded moment in a novel about lexical glut: in the collapse of technological systems, some sense of neighborly, collective experience is recovered. But DeLillo imagines them too far gone to have a meaningful exchange. At the close of the novel, Max retreats from the group and finds himself spiralling back into the past, remembering his childhood home:

The stairs. Coming back from the crowds in the streets. Here and now. Counting the stairs. I used to do this when I was a kid. Seventeen steps to count. But sometimes the number changed, or seemed to. Did I miscount? Was the world shrinking or expanding?

Either way, DeLillo suggests, the individual will seek ways to cope, enumerating the past and enacting its rituals, until cell service brings the future back into view. All talked out, his money riding on the game, Max returns to the television, with nothing to do but wait.

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Newsrust: Don DeLillo, the Super Bowl, and the Fragile Language of the Game
Don DeLillo, the Super Bowl, and the Fragile Language of the Game
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