:: Article

Got Anything to Say?

By Anna Aslanyan.

Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett, The Silent History (Jonathan Cape, 2014)

A decline in society starts with a decline of language. This aphorism, used so often it is hard to attribute, has often been illustrated in fiction, particularly by those who train their sights on America. Using different methods and addressing different subjects, these writers focus on language – as something taken for granted yet sensitive to any societal changes – sometimes to a great effect. David Foster Wallace achieves it by launching his verbal fireworks, so brilliant that anything you read after they have gone off can be seen as a sign of degradation. As a narrator says in Oblivion, “I was able to hoodwink even myself into thinking that I really had the Spirit moving through me and was speaking in tongues when in reality I was just shouting ‘Dugga muggle ergle dergle dergle’ over and over”. Helen DeWitt takes a narrower aim: once she has chosen, for instance, corpospeak in Lightning Rods, she goes for it with “an innovative system of proactive sexual harassment management” and keeps firing until her target turns into a sieve. Ben Marcus in The Flame Alphabet shows that human speech is a gift, and that it comes at a high price is only to be expected: “The profound cost on the brain itself. Its limited resilience in the face of, what, language?”

It was Marcus’s latest novel that came to my mind when I first saw a press release for The Silent History. The parallels seemed straightforward enough: in The Flame Alphabet children’s speech is dangerous for their parents; here children are born without the ability to speak or comprehend words. In fact, Marcus is name-checked in the acknowledgements, but this book has none of his novel’s literary flair. What started as an “award-winning app”, developed by the former editor of McSweeney’s and two of its contributors, took a more traditional form after being “re-edited and rewritten in this definitive text”. As mentioned in my summer reading list, although the book is rather heavy, it can be read anywhere, unlike the “Field Reports” in the original app, available at certain locations only. The differences between the two formats still intrigue me, of which more later.

The book is a compilation of accounts by various people, including parents and teachers of “the silents”, as well as other witnesses to dystopian events unfolding between 2011 and 2044. In this it is similar to World War Z, Max Brooks’ novel also written as a series of testimonials about apocalyptic developments, amounting to social commentary. The commentary offered in The Silent History varies in quality: there are parodies here that are recognisable and hilarious, but the authors’ attempts to tackle serious subjects in full seriousness look somewhat out of place, stuck as they are in the same satirical rut. A couple reading a three-step manual in order to “achieve the state of Total Flow Productivity”, containing such gems of wisdom as “If you’re not thinking simply, you’re simply not thinking”, is an easy target. So is a new age junkie who, upon arrival at a silent commune, immediately starts making plans: “Permaculture farming and a barter economy and goats with bells around their necks. Hourly hugs. Meditation hikes. A smoothie barn. Rustic permanent housing for the dedicated nonsilents, and temporary housing for the curious ones”.

No matter how well-trodden, these themes still make for an entertaining read. The gallery of freaks portrayed here is a useful guide to modern (and future, as suggested by the dates) America, taking us to “Kentucky, whose every citizen should be mustard-gassed for parts, and Indiana, which smells like condoms and scorched birds”. These are the observations of a character who travels with a wallaby after having an epic fight with the animal: “I gouged one of his eyes, and he bit my left nipple clean off. […] The two of us awoke at the same time, hours later, nestled together amid the cooling corpses of his brethren”.

What disappoints are the parents’ testimonials: presumably meant as indicative of the 21st century family crisis, they often make you cringe. Take this description of a mother-and-son reunion: “He was a grown man, without my help. He looked at me with this sense of – there were layers and layers, and I knew that he knew who I was and why I was there, and that he wanted me to be safe, and that he might someday be able to forgive me for what I’d done to him, but not yet”. When the parents start talking about their children’s condition, they sound a bit like the founder of Morgellons Exposed, a US-based website informing you that “sufferers of this diabolical disease” have “tissue coming out of their body with embossed Arabic numbers on it”.

As the silents multiply, society becomes more and more concerned about them, seeing them sometimes as a threat, sometimes as a godsend. A search for a cure begins, and soon produces an implant, the Soul Amp, that enables people to speak words generated by a system called PhonCom. Before the first implanted silents can shout “Dugga muggle ergle dergle dergle” to express their joy, though, things go haywire. A virus spreads across the whole globe, leaving some terrified of losing the power of speech, while others find bliss in their new, more natural, wordless state. The hint is crystal-clear: since most of us have nothing to say that has not been imposed on us from outside, shutting up is the best option.

Like the books mentioned at the start, this one has different, if not equally distinctive, voices – a prerequisite for a work of fiction which takes language as its central theme. I would not go as far as Wired, whose blurb quote reads “Entirely revolutionary”, although this dark, not-too-distant vision does bring up a number of important questions. The most interesting of them is, for me, that of the future of traditional books. Thinking about the differences between the original app and this text, I tried to get beyond the most obvious ones, such as the hardback’s weight against that of a gadget, the appeal (or lack thereof) of screen-friendly pieces printed on the page, the effects of collaborative practices and so on. What makes this publication relevant? Perhaps it is the sheer fact that, looking at its entries – “Oakland, CA, 2041”; “Washington, DC, 2044” – you feel that this edition is unlikely to be read as far into the future as these dates. Perhaps the authors are trying to say: look, the printed book is an outdated medium, the app is what you should be reading or, better still, contributing to. If this “definitive text” is indeed a self-ironic statement, it is an artistic gesture that deserves our attention. The question that remains is, how long will the app last?

Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 28th, 2014.