The Silent History by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby, and Kevin Moffett.
Fiction. Publisher: FSG Originals
The Book Itself: An interesting choice of how to display the title. The penciled in letters are indented in the cover, so that when you run your finger across them, it almost feels like someone wrote them on personally. The black cover is embossed with what look like tree rings (sound waves?). Overall, I think it’s very fitting: it looks like a taped together documentary, a book world focused on language.
My Review: Sometime right around now, doctors, nurses, and—most of all—parents begin to notice an epidemic spreading among children. Children who are physically normal in every way except that they do not speak and do not respond to speech; they don’t learn to read, don’t learn to write. Theories spread—maybe it’s related to a popular antidepressant. Maybe these children, without the ability to use or comprehend language, have special skills of their own.
Unfolding in a series of brief testimonials from parents, teachers, friends, doctors, cult leaders, profiteers, impostors—everyone touched by the silent phenomenon except, of course, the children themselves—The Silent History is both a bold storytelling experiment and an unexpectedly propulsive reading experience. Originally conceived and serially published as an award-winning iPhone/iPad app by Eli Horowitz, the former publisher of McSweeney’s, along with the acclaimed novelists Matthew Derby and Kevin Moffett and the intrepid coder Russell Quinn, the book has been reedited and, at times, rewritten into a definitive, nuanced, and unputdownable text, a story that is timely, timeless, and terrifying.
Sprawling. The one word to describe this book. It covers a great many years, a plethora of characters, and touches on a great deal of political and social hot topics. This novel’s sprawling-ness (not a word!) isn’t always a great thing.
We follow the epidemic of silents from the birth of the first wave of children, to decades later, when these children have reproduced, their parents have become estranged, their condition “cured,” then protested, and then the whole thing brought to an overall unsettling conclusion.
It’s a book you have to pay attention to. The first dozen chapters (none more than five or six pages) are dizzying. You are introduced to a new narrator every chapter, each with their own story and relationship to the silents. And then you have to remember all these different stories, each with multiple characters each. It gets to the point that you see the name of the narrator at the beginning of the chapter, and you struggle to recall who they’re linked to, and what was the last thing that happened to them? It’s honestly difficult at first.
But then it’s like getting hit in the head again and again: eventually you learn to duck. Eventually you remember the characters and stories by sheer repetition. It’s a big book. There are a lot of stories going on. And decades of fictional history. Some characters are infrequent narrators (a shopkeeper at a mall, a politician). They come up to spice up the monotony the authors feel you’re going through, hearing about the same core group of people. But these infrequent narrations tend to confuse, and muddy up the steady timeline.
It gets a little easier toward the end, where all “main” characters (only in quotations because there are like, eight) are in the same place, at the same time, dealing with the same enemies. Even then, things are complex.
There were some odd choices that I found distracting. Whole characters – the hippie woman who spends a couple chapter in a full body condom, and who bolts herself to a door for months on end without food or water and supposedly lives, and the mentally unstable guy who really wants to be one of the silents, and develops an unhealthy, weird relationship with a wallaby (yes, a wallaby) for a bit – as well as products. There are random snippets of products that could feasibly be sold in the near future: fat bread (an addivtive snack bred filled with various fillings), “Slush,” and “Spray Ya Face” (chemicals that kids spray each other with that make them feel good?). All of these feel incredibly random. They didn’t add to the world for me, they were something that had to take the time to be described, fleshed out. Spray Ya Face is given a few paragraphs, only to never be mentioned again.
Whew! Now, it is a good book. No doubt complex, which is the one thing I would expect from a piece written by three different people. But the concept of silents, and the way most of the characters approach them and support or act against them, are plausible reactions people would have were this situation a reality. I like the idea of a worldbuilding/dystopian characteristic (a section of the population born without speech) approached so big-picture, so broadly, and from so many angles. It’s fascinating in a scholarly way, and the fact that most of it is so well-written really helps.
The ending is eerie and disturbing, in an interesting and bittersweet way. It’s a good way to end the epic that was The Silent History, which was a unique approach to a fascinating idea.
My Grade: B