At some point in our futures there will be no more books. Maybe. Probably. In that future there will be a university course focusing on the journey from physical books to electronic information. Students will handle paperbacks in the same way a medical student today may get to hold a hacksaw once deemed sufficiently sophisticated for amputation surgery. In the course list for The History of Literature: from Tablet to Gutenberg to Tablet to Memory Chips, The Silent History will sit at about the halfway point.
Originally published as an app, The Silent History tells the story of a generation of children born without language, or at least without language as we understand it, words, writing, speech. They become an underclass in a world that is not set up to cope with their lack. The book spans about thirty years, from the birth of Flora in 2011 to a society forever changed by their presence. The history of the ‘silents’ is told through the testimonies of various witnesses to the phenomena, parents, doctors, teachers, politicians, and those drawn to them, mostly by loneliness, greed, paranoia, or a need to connect with the cosmos in a meaningful way.
The Silent History is an important text for two reasons. Firstly it was successful as an app (both commercially and critically) and expanded what the experience of moving through a text might mean (for example, certain parts of the text, certain eyewitness accounts, were only accessible if the reader was in a certain location – O’Hare airport, some streets in New York – so the text set up a hierarchy of knowledge that could be seen as being excusive or inclusive depending on your viewpoint). Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, despite its success, The Silent History has been published as an actual book after its time as an app. The blurb on the inside rear cover of the novel describes this as the ‘definitive text’. This brings up many questions about publishing today.
Why does The Silent History need to be published as a book? Should the definitive electronic version of this definitive text be shorn of the maps and graphics that appeared on the app? And, if the silent history is an exploration of the possibilities and limitations of language, why does it need a definitive version anyway?
Like most American novels, The Silent History is suffixed on the cover by (to British eyes) that strangest of markers ‘a novel’. But in this case the affectation is more pertinent than normally so because its presence, like the presence of the physical book itself, is a claim of legitimacy. It is a flag planted firmly in the territory of the canon, a seriously-now-though face, a when-I-became-a-man-I-put-away-childish-iphone-downloads proclamation, a claim for immortality. Because, when we dream of being novelists we still dream of holding our novel in our hands, not downloading it onto a Kindle. Say whatever you like about the future of publishing, releasing your work as an Amazon download-only is always a compromise (whether that is with yourself or with the industry as a whole) an acceptance that the book will not, probably, ever exist as something that can be held. This may not always be the case but it is at present. Even the most successful ebooks are judged as such because they sold enough copies to merit a physical printing.
The ipod made it possible for me to carry 12,000 songs with me wherever I go but now, with my cds stacked in plastic boxes in the loft, I often wonder whether it actually improved my experience of listening to music. Its random selection function seems to constantly be drawn to the same songs, I cannot see my music collection at a glance but have to scroll through a ‘coverflow’, meaning I usually listen to albums whose artists first name begins with a letter in the middle of the alphabet. The movement from music to downloads has meant the end of so many sources of information about new music. Whither Melody Maker? Whither The Chart Show? I make the sacrifices I do because cds are ugly things. Books aren’t. I like being surrounded by them. I have learned my lesson. I don’t want them locked behind a plastic screen too. I love books. I love second-hand bookshops, and trawling charity shops in unloved towns; I love the heft of a hardback, a well designed cover, book signings, pages, fonts, smells…
I can see the benefits of an ebook, the value of them, but I can also see the benefits of fracking and nuclear weapons and Westlife, it doesn’t mean I feel the need for them in my life. Being open-minded to both sides of an argument does not mean I have to acquiesce. And so, I welcome The Silent History to the fold of paper things. (Do I insert an origami joke here? No, I’m probably off topic enough, yes?) If it wants to be treated as a book-book then I will open my arms to it. I am glad, no, relieved, that writers still see the physical book as the marker of respectability because when they no longer do I will be as separated from fiction as I am from music.
But while I celebrate The Silent History’s move from the virtual to the actual I also acknowledge it is in a rare position to be able to do so. So many literary apps (and by this I mean apps that use technology to augment story, not apps that publish stories electronically) are let down by weak writing. Device 6 for example, despite all the beautiful things it has to say about narrative and gaming, would not stand up on paper – the text requires the labyrinth as the skeleton requires the flesh. Once read/played it is disposable. This is not true of The Silent History which manages just fine as words alone. (I guess, to stretch the metaphor a tad uncomfortably, that makes The Silent History those Ray Harryhausen skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts – yeah, we’ll go with that).
The Silent History works as a stand alone novel. The only weakness of moving from an app to a book was that the differences between the narrators become blurred. This is almost inevitable when there are so many of them (twenty four, I think) and some only occur once or disappear for a hundred pages at a time. The problem is not that the voices are similar, but that as all the narratives are first-person, the reader is not given the gentle nudge of having their names repeated every page or so. The format is very similar to a talking-heads style documentary, but without the advantage of seeing people’s faces. I found myself constantly flicking back to catch up with who everyone was; eventually giving up and writing down the character names and who they were (nurse, loner, hippy, mother) on a piece of paper. I think this would be less of a distraction in the app version but I couldn’t definitively decide whether it was actually a problem or not. After all, if the novel is about language and understanding then perhaps it should push the limits of one or the other.
It doesn’t push the limits of language, though I don’t mean that as a slight. The prose is clean and interesting. The only real problem I had with the writing was something that I find problematic with a lot of writing connected to the McSweeney’s stable – a propensity toward being cute.
David Dietrich is a loner who finds happiness in following and imitating ‘silents’. We get glimpses of his home life and why that might drive him toward depression but it is not enough that his mother has a string of bad boyfriends, she has to date an albino who “said he was a magician”. Cute. Steven Grenier, the journalist character, picks a town to write about because “it was so much easier to get laid in Philly” than New York, but that line is there not because it tells us important information we need to know about the character (it doesn’t, if anything it is out of character) but because it is a cute line. Another character reads “soft-core Viking-romance novels”, another gets “dry humped by a group of teenage girls in football uniforms”. Most blatantly, the character Arturo Cordero Garcia only exists so that one of the three authors can do an extended skit about a mime artist with delusions of grandeur – “I’m not miming for the fucking masses. I’m miming for the discerning middle class. The ones that matter, the kind of people who can tell the difference between Noh and Kathakali.” And I don’t mind cuteness, really I don’t. I’m guilty of it myself – that reference to Ray Harryhausen three paragraphs up being a case in point. But the real strengths of this novel are in the feelings of loss and confusion the characters experience when faced with people, often their own children, who they are both stuck with and irreparably separate from. Like when a mother of a ‘silent’ remembers hoping, “I’d go in and he’d look at me and smile and say ‘Mama’ for the first time. But it never happened.”
Because The Silent History deals with big subjects (various parts of this novel can be seen as about, or metaphors for, Aids, thalidomide, consumer culture, the need to conform, privatised medical services, how we communicate and why we communicate and what we actually are) the power of the novel is cheapened by too many of the characters having this trait of reaching for the inappropriate existential knob gag in the middle of what should be quiet soliloquy. This is all very subjective, I know, and McSweeney’s are a big deal precisely because this style is popular, but I mention it as an explanation of why I am not as enthused by this novel as I might be.
The Silent History manages to be an important novel without quite being a great one. It is just one step too ironically detached from its subject to fully grasp its potential. A tad too cool for school, but only a tad. There is much in this massive, sprawling, flip book of a novel that is beautiful, much that is true. It is definitely worth exploring, but its splintered narrative might have found its truer calling as an app.
Any Cop?: The Silent History is an honest attempt to grapple with what it means to be alive in this century, albeit one, perhaps, too detached from its subject.