The Short Version: Sometime in the future, in a city called Halsley in an America not quite dystopic but certainly worse off than we are now, several lives intertwine: a writer interested in 17th-century Sri Lanka, a musician exploring microtones, the son of an Indian scientist researching weather modification, and more all come together not quite in harmony but in a sort of harmonic dissidence as the presidential elections loom…
The Review: I’ll admit that for quite a long time with this book, I didn’t quite know what the hell I was reading. On the one hand, it is a “novel of ideas” in the classical sense: chapter-long digressions on musical theory, philosophy, excerpts of a historical novel (or at least historical storytelling) about Europeans in Sri Lanka circa 1640. But these moments, at the beginning of the novel, seem so disparate and disconnected that I sometimes wondered what the hell was going on here.
But then a moment arrived, about halfway through, that threw the whole book into perspective for me, as Stagg is thinking about his Sri Lankan writing: “Perhaps, then, Stagg’s work was just historiography as an extension of radical interpretation, recovering the past as one recovers the meaning of sounds leaving mouths, a world, an idiolect, on every tongue.” Suddenly, the novel and its aims made sense to me: de Silva is not just creating a future version of our world, but he’s engaging it as a historian might, seeking to capture as many angles as he can of a particular moment. In this, de Silva’s book is almost a history of a time yet to come – or, as Stagg says near the end of the book, “he would be telling two stories at once, one about the past and another about the future.” The combination of those two stories is often written, as with Stagg’s Sri Lankan stories, set in the past to illuminate the future… but really, couldn’t an author just as easily set it in the future? Isn’t that just science-fiction?
But de Silva’s book is far less easily quantified. There certainly is some science fiction here, specifically in the collapsing U.S. state as well as the weather modification project that lurks in the background only to rise up suddenly at the denouement, but nothing about this novel feels like it needs the future to come to pass or like it needs some scientific advancement to become reality. This dystopia feels far more disturbing for the way it echoes the past – specifically, the past of Bret Easton Ellis and New York in the late 1980s, with shades of Ireland during the Troubles.
One of my favorite things about Ellis, especially in his run of great novels (Less Than Zero, The Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, even arguably Glamorama [although that may be more personal preference]), is the relentless numbness that his characters feel and that he seeks to evoke. There is a washed-out nihilism to his stories, a bleakness that only a few authors have ever really pulled off, because he captures how tiny our lives actually are. No matter how many drugs we do, how much money we make, how many people we kill, we will always only ever be a tiny blip on the timeline of humanity. de Silva’s character seem to be stuck in this same existential hole, even as they (all of them) seek to overcome these limitations through creativity, sex, drugs, discovery, or even just understanding another human being. Lewis- the son of a wealthy family with a wife he hates who goes out and beats working girls to within an inch of their lives – is the closest Ellis-ian analogue but so, too, is Stagg, whose inability to sort out his emotional life is reminiscent of Clay.
(ed. note: I bring up Ellis so heavily here because I have the great privilege of, in just a few weeks, talking to Mr. de Silva about his book and about Less Than Zero for So Many Damn Books – link forthcoming soon as the episode goes live.)
Where the book far outstrips any comparisons is in its intellectual rigor. It should be stated: this is not for the faint of mind. There are only a handful of truly world-class intellects in the world and de Silva makes a great case here that he should be considered one of them – and not just because he writes brilliantly about so many things but because he writes about so many things, brilliantly. How many authors could not only write equally well about such disparate concepts as cloud-seeding, the Dutch presence in Sri Lanka in the 1600s, and microtonal music… but who could then bring these stories together, in an almost dazzling feat of rhetorical skill? It’s easy to forget, in light of the intelligence on display, that de Silva is also a magnificent writer – a favorite image, one I hope will stick with me for many years, is the description of dissonance as wolves within the sound. I was reminded very much, in all of this, of Will Chancellor’s A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, another book that blended deep knowledge of art with even deeper knowledge of philosophy and history – and managed to spin wonderful flights of prose in the doing.
Sometimes, this intellectual heft does tire the reader – not in an irritating way, but in a literally exhausting way: you have to put the book down and rest for a bit, maybe even going back to re-read something a second time (and pausing again) in order to really approach some level of understanding. Even the political philosophy, in this America where the general populace has lost faith in democracy and where anarchist organizations carry out meticulously planned acts of destruction that don’t kill anybody but instead destroy edifices, monuments, even something as specifically targeted as the interior of a pool hall – even the politics can be difficult to follow for a moment, and I have studied more about politics and political theory than most. This book requires some dedication on the reader’s part, but the dedication is paid off when, as the page count dwindles, you find that you simply can’t put the book down.
I won’t speak too much about the actual developments of plot, partially because they are at times quite thin – the book still feels, more than anything, like it’s painting a picture of a moment in time, much like a historian might attempt, except that the moment in time has not yet occurred – but also because to give too much away would do de Silva a disservice. The not-immediately-obvious success of this book is, in fact, how well he builds narrative tension. I think the best analogue may be Laurent’s chapters that digress on the imperfection of widely-accepted musical theory and his pursuit of ever-more-outré sounds. (There’s a funny moment that could winkingly be applied to the dangers of the novel itself when, after one particularly destabilizing concert, a character berates Stagg saying that the audience was never meant to be there for the whole show, saying, “you weren’t supposed to stay to the end, Carl! Only the fools did! Or the ones with earplugs, like us.”) de Silva seems to be putting together moments that don’t coalesce, that seem to be at odds with the moments just before and just after, but as the novel winds towards its conclusion, they begin to resonate within the echo, building to a coherence and a harmony that is absolutely unsettling and undeniably masterful, even beautiful.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. There is, admittedly, a high entry cost to this novel. It requires the reader to be intellectually engaged in a way that, quite simply, they may not be able to achieve throughout the entire book. In these moments, one has to let it crash over them like the wave of a song and know that they will bob back to the surface again in the next chapter. I was gratified that de Silva didn’t lean too heavily on plots that could’ve been considered predictable, instead keeping this dystopic America in the background of the whole story, the scenario ever-present but ill-defined. It feels like a place we might not be too far away from, all the more so for the fears bubbling through the population. But even in the midst of this frightening global circumstance, the day-to-day still remains – the pursuit of beauty, truth, history, companionship. Square Wave is a history about a time yet to come. The question that lingers long after the book is done is whether it is an alternate history or one eerily prescient indeed.