IN OTHER WORDS

The Silent His­tory by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby, and Kevin Mof­fett; Far­rar, Straus & Giroux Orig­i­nals; 528 pages

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words -

Co-writ­ten in part by Eli Horowitz, the for­mer man­ag­ing ed­i­tor and pub­lisher of McSweeney’s, The Silent

His­tory is a fan­tas­ti­cally orig­i­nal story that chal­lenges our as­sump­tions about hu­man com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Its premise is straight­for­ward: for rea­sons no one knows, a per­cent­age of the world’s chil­dren never de­vel­ops the abil­ity to un­der­stand or ex­press lan­guage. They’re called “pha­sic-resistant,” or “si­lents.” At less po­lit­i­cally cor­rect mo­ments they’re re­ferred to as “mu­tards.” As the chil­dren grow into adult­hood, they grav­i­tate to­ward one another, com­mu­ni­cat­ing via a mys­te­ri­ous sys­tem of sub­tle fa­cial move­ments and ex­pres­sions called “face- talk­ing.” Var­i­ous di­ag­noses and treat­ments, though well-mean­ing, are ul­ti­mately mis­guided.

The book, which be­gins in 2011 and ends in 2043, is told through dozens of first-per­son, three- to four-page ac­counts re­lated by var­i­ous in­di­vid­u­als — teach­ers, par­ents, politi­cians, and food ven­dors among them — with the con­di­tion. Th­ese peo­ple’s lives in­ter­sect through­out the story in un­ex­pected ways. Writ­ten in a con­ver­sa­tional, easy-to-read style, the book’s 120 tes­ti­mo­ni­als are re­fresh­ingly frank. My fa­vorite character is the hi­lar­i­ously neu­rotic Francine Chang. At the start of the book, Francine is a kinder­garten teacher who hates her job. She calls her stu­dents “lit­tle need-ma­chines” who are “all miss­ing teeth” and have “chaot­i­cally spelled names like Jaylenne and Beauxre­gard.” Francine won­ders why Colin, her fa­vorite kid in class, is the one who doesn’t talk. When he moves away over hol­i­day break, Francine quits the school.

Some of the most pow­er­ful tes­ti­mo­ni­als come from oddball David Di­et­rich. As a child, he pre­tends to be silent when start­ing at a new school, but his mom finds out and makes him con­fess. David re­mains doggedly pre­oc­cu­pied with silent kids — an ob­ses­sion that ini­tially seems born of sheer cu­rios­ity but is later shown to be mo­ti­vated by some­thing more si nis­ter. De­spite his moody, of­ten disturbing tes­ti­mo­ni­als, David’s in­sights are some of the most mem­o­rably weird and funny. “Peo­ple talk too much any­way,” he says at one point. “A life of talk­ing and you say prob­a­bly three good things.” Driv­ing across the coun­try, for ex­am­ple, he com­plains that “In­di­ana smells like con­doms and scorched birds” and vows to stop vis­it­ing “silent-porn sites.”

I read The Silent His­tory after its pa­per­back re­lease in 2014, but the book be­gan in 2012 as an app, writ­ten and de­signed for the iPad and iPhone. Pur­chasers of the app re­ceived a tes­ti­mo­nial a day, amount­ing to a fast-paced mod­ern se­rial novel. Wo­ven through­out it are bizarre, of­ten very funny peeks into a fu­ture that no­body will have too much trou­ble imag­in­ing. A wellmean­ing en­tre­pre­neur de­vel­ops a mouth-ex­er­cis­ing im­plant for silent chil­dren called the Chat­ter, which claims to stim­u­late speech — and which par­ents ma­nip­u­late via re­mote con­trol. Char­ac­ters non­cha­lantly de­scribe places like “Rum­pus Run, that restau­rant with the il­lu­mi­nated tread­mill,” or an af­ter­noon spent at “a pet-friendly gambling park.” For en­ter­tain­ment, young peo­ple visit “vir­tual ac­tion booths,” which sim­u­late ex­treme, un­pleas­ant phys­i­cal sen­sa­tions like fall­ing down a well or be­ing at­tacked by go­ril­las. For the most part, how­ever, we’re privy to poignant, deeply per­sonal bits of in­sight, like when Francine tries to ex­plain face-talk­ing by de­scrib­ing a silent girl’s ex­pres­sions: “I’d be re­minded of a meal, a feel­ing, a mem­ory, weather … a wharf at dusk.”

A par­tic­u­larly beau­ti­ful pas­sage is told by Lithua­ni­an­born Gor­ton Va­her, now “chief of edi­ble ice art” on a cruise ship where the theme is en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ters. The sculp­tor carves “dessert-size repli­cas of fa­mous ecosys­tems and oil spills, col­ored with fla­vored syrups,” which, of course, makes him melan­choly. Gor­ton falls in love with fel­low cruise ship em­ployee Perse­phone, which makes him feel “un­sta­ble, like my heart was pul­ver­iz­ing it­self into mush.” Kiss­ing her at last, he “in­haled her breath and froze and didn’t ex­hale for a long time,” and he ob­serves that “ev­ery­where she had touched, pulsed.” In as­sign­ing such poetic lan­guage to non­ver­bal ex­pe­ri­ences, the au­thors em­pha­size just how dif­fi­cult it is to try to de­scribe the myr­iad ways we com­mu­ni­cate with­out say­ing a word.

The book’s tes­ti­mo­ni­als, in turns self-dep­re­cat­ing, fear­ful, and blis­ter­ingly emo­tional, force us to ex­am­ine the huge amounts of things we think about ( and of­ten ver­bal­ize). But they also en­cour­age us to ex­am­ine what life would be like with­out our con­stant in­ter­nal di­a­logues. If any­thing, the in­abil­ity to ver­bally com­mu­ni­cate must cer­tainly en­hance other, more sub­tle means of ex­pres­sion. This en­ter­tain­ing and bril­liantly con­ceived novel may be­gin with a disturbing and fu­tur­is­tic di­ag­nos­tic, but it ul­ti­mately makes us ques­tion the true na­ture and ob­jec­tives of hu­man in­ter­ac­tion.

— Iris McLis­ter

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