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