The Short Version: Zloty Kornblatt, ringleader of a shoddy circus, has been arrested on charges of sedition. His band of mismatched performers set out to save his life before he’s executed, through a strange totalitarian state full of very briny treats…
The Review: I’m relentlessly fascinated by apps and app-books. Although I don’t believe anything will ever take the place of a good ol’ paper copy, displayed on the shelf and easily snatchable to flip through, I do think that technology provides interesting ways to experiment with storytelling. Device 6 remains the gold standard, combining reading with design and even a little bit of gaming, but The Silent History was an early entrant in the possibilities of storytelling via your phone.
Eli Horowitz, one of the masterminds behind The Silent History and The New World (originally from the short-lived and gone-before-its-time Atavist Books, as well, who delivered an excellent Hari Kunzru piece that was meant to be read on your phone), has brought forth the newest app-based storytelling adventure… but he’s done it in a way where there are, in fact, three versions. One is the app, which feels to me like the way the story was designed to be experienced (more on this in a spell). Another is a beautiful slipcased two-volume hardcover, the alternating parts of the story told across the alternating volumes. The third is a hardy little paperback from FSG Originals.
It is the last that I read and, to its credit, it is still a wonderful experience. Horowitz writes with a Daniel Handler-esque wit, engaging in a sort of serious silliness that delights me whenever someone does it well. The story alternates points of view between an ambitious reporter who serves as a mouthpiece for state propaganda (told through his daily column) and a somewhat defeated second-in-command at the circus, who delivers her updates under the guise of recipes contributed to the titular index – which all citizens must submit to or share from at least once a day, under pain of badness – and this construction alone allows for humor everywhere. Hank Hamper’s breathless reporting (and his not-so-hidden love for the ruler of their land, Madame J – who carries with her at all times a pet octopus) is pitched just right, taking itself seriously enough that it never becomes farce but never becomes overly serious in any regard. Meanwhile, Flora Bialy’s recipe submissions – which are in fact just diary entries – are so open and un-self-conscious that it seems utterly reasonable that they could spark a trend and even, perhaps, a revolution.
But I can’t help thinking, after exploring the app as well, that the story is actually better served by the slight interactivity of the digital version. For one thing, the recipes are slightly better hidden in that they begin as a recipe might as opposed to just… jumping right into the story. There are little things that make you feel a part of the world, such as having to request the recipes (which are sent via scroller, sort of a portable fax machine – another delightfully whimsical invention) and being able to submit your own. Also, the fact that the story plays out in real time – ten days of story, doled out over ten literal days (no speeding up, no workarounds) – allows you an interesting amount of connection to the tale. Where I burned through the paperback in about two days, the app forces you to take your time and live with the story a little longer. This moderated engagement has, I would think, the side effect of making the story impact the reader a bit more strongly.
Still, a story is only as good as the story itself – the trappings of an app couldn’t disguise an uninteresting tale – and this one is great. A particular scene involving a strongman-turned-mime, two prison guards, and a demolished wall is one of the most brilliant pieces of humor I’ve read in a very long time. And even though the particulars of this dictatorship are blurry at best, the ten days (whether in real time or as quickly as you can read) pass without ever needing to really know more or to delve deep. The world is sketched out and full of pickles; what else do you really need to know?
Rating: 4 out of 5. Solidly silly, no matter what form you consume it in. If you’re interested in exploring the possibilities of digital storytelling, this is a great place to start – more interactive than The Silent History but still very much a novel (as opposed to Device 6). I feel that Editions at Play is about to change the game again, but Eli Horowitz and his team at Sudden Oak will always be the first ones to really see what digital storytelling could be. Of course, it helps that Horowitz is a great writer, too – meaning the book works as well as a simple paperback as it does with all the bells and whistles. If you need a grin, this one will suit you well.
BONUS CONTENT: check out the episode of So Many Damn Books where Christopher and I get our Pickle on and talk about alllllll kinds of app-books! Listen on iTunes!