The Silent History

the silent historyThe Short Version: Around the year 2011, children begin to be born without the ability for language.  Over the next 30 years, humanity struggles to come to terms with its silent brethren: some reject them, others seek to be like them, and several seek to cure them.  Told over the course of short interview-based installments, the oral history of the silent pandemic is a groundbreaking event in the history of the novel.

The Review: So I am (if you haven’t noticed) a staunch supporter of the book as an object.  The physical object, held in one’s hand, creates a tangible interaction unlike anything else you can read.  Your e-reader isn’t so different from your phone, your computer, your tablet… but a book is a book.  It’s nothing else, even when it is constructed in strange and challenging fashion (see: Building StoriesComposition No. 1 or really any Visual Editions book, etc).  But I’m also deeply interested in technology and the future of the art form (of all art forms, for that matter) – so John Warner’s reference to this book in the match commentary of this past year’s Tournament of Books intrigued me.  An epistolary story, serialized in delivery, feels like the right way to get someone like me interested in a tech/app-based novel: the knowledge that every morning, when I woke up, I’d receive an alert that the newest chapter was available… that was pretty cool.

But even cooler was the idea that there were these other parts of the story, these Field Reports, where I had to literally be there in order to read them.  Suddenly my mind was awash with possibility – and I had to see this first hand, to see whether or not it worked.  Because, I thought, if it did?  It would change the game, single-handedly.

And I’m thrilled, excited, and a little good-scared to say that it does.  This is the future.  It is a remarkable cohesion of storytelling, crowd-sourcing, adventure, intellectual and existential questions, and technology – all swirled together to make a novel that wholly transcends the boundaries of the printed page.  The sensation when you read your first Field Report – the red dot on the map suddenly going green, the careful scan of the street scene to see just where the character was standing… there’s a sense of, yes, history about it.  In the same way that we go to see historical sites because we want to “stand where George Washington stood”, we’re experiencing this slice of this story from exactly where a character stood.  It is a thrilling – and thrillingly simplistic – way to bring a reader deeper into the world.

Being a part of the experience as it was unfolding before me was also quite exciting.  I have regretted the death of the serialized novel – to have read a Dickens novel over the course of sometimes two+ years! – and this was (until that Danielewski book starts and… even then…) as close as I’m like to get to that experience in a modern context.  This morning, when I finished the last ‘chapter’ and the Epilogue sprang forth before me, I had the sensation of true surprise: one more (tiny, yes – but it was something) piece of the story!  And to have to wait even the two days of the weekend in between pieces of the story when during the week I got one every day… I was hooked, I guess, is what I’m saying.

I will say this: the story is not perfect.  The earlier stages of the story are far stronger than the eventual resolution and I felt like some of the choices post-2039 felt a little… well, they felt as though they were made in order to continue a story I hadn’t quite been aware that I was following.  There are several recurring characters throughout the novel and I realize, belatedly, that there was one story we were meant to see as the sort of “prime” storyline: one of the first silent children, her family, her child – the child of two silents, silent himself.  But as their story became more engrained with the goings-on of the silent community, I began to see it as stretching the narrative a bit.  A personal preference, to be sure – but I enjoyed it more when I felt like this was just a hodge-podge of short stories telling me about the silents.  Each with their own arc, like a World War Z sort of thing, but none of them really overpowering any of the others.

I think I may’ve had a stronger sense of this at the beginning, though, because I was voraciously tracking down Field Reports.  One day, without any plans, I tracked down nearly every single FR in Manhattan (still missing the far UWS ones) and had the remarkable sense of this story sprawling far beyond the bounds of my iPhone.  At the time of this writing, I’ve had at least one of my own FRs added to the collection and the continued existence of the storyline – the shading and depth that can occur outside the bounds of the prime-text – is like what gamers talk about when they talk about “replayability”.  I can come back to this story in six months – or tomorrow, in a different city – and find new segments, new fragments.  It’s a fascinating and open-ended way to tell a story.

The quality of the writing, not surprisingly, varies a bit – although the three listed authors clearly have a hand in smoothing everything into the same general style.  Still, there were some passages that dropped with a thud – even moreso when they were abutted on either end by a passage that truly soared.  Calvin Anderson, another of the first silents, has perhaps the most engaging arc of the story and he is the novel’s Tarzan.  Brought to speech (I won’t say how and I’ll keep clear of any further spoilers), he provides a delightful toy for the writers to use to challenge our concepts of language and understanding.

Really, that’s the other thing that this novel does best: make us think.  Even if we were reading it in paperback, I have to imagine we’d feel the same way: what would it be like to be completely without language?  To have absolutely no concept of what anything “is”?  And they raise the possibility that we might adapt to something else that didn’t require it.  It’s fascinating to consider and nearly impossible to ACTUALLY consider – making for a brain-tingling thought experiment.  But, of course, the content experiment is less important (and will, undoubtedly and as in all of these first forays into new forms, be less discussed) – because it is the format that makes this book SO revolutionary.

Rating: 4 out of 5 if it was just a book-book – there are some problems with the story that are insurmountable – but the presentation itself deserves its own Rating: 5+ out of 5.
I can’t tell you just how exciting it is to experience a book in this way.  To read it serially, yes – but to have it become a part of my mental landscape… that’s impressive in a way that few books ever achieve.  I walk past certain spots in Manhattan now and think “oh, that’s where that guy left that silent kid on the ledge” or I see a previously well-known spot (like The Public) and think “oh, remember that time it showed up in that story?”  My own imaginative world has been forever altered by the content of this story because it felt that much more real to me through the way that I experienced it.  I don’t believe that this will ever usurp the primacy of the traditional novel – but I also do believe, quite firmly, that we’re seeing the beginnings of a movement (led by the fine folks at YYYHHHQQQ and their “Yarn” publishing engine) to burst through the boundaries of not just fiction but music, theater, film, and all other artistic fields.  Trust me, I’m already coming up with some sort of project I can do that’ll involve this sort of thing.  It’s an exciting time.

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