Are we all reading The Silent History? It’s a cool experiment in fiction: a novel in the form of an app that releases installments every day, in the spirit of old serials. The book is segmented into five “volumes,” which span the years 2013 and 2043 (volume 3 starts next week), and the plot revolves around what happens when children start being born with a new type of "disorder," in which they don’t use language. The kids are called “silents.” Think X-Men meets autism clusters and you're on your way.
The Silent History guys, who are formerly McSweeney’s-affiliated, are doing a lot of interesting things all at once, but they're also setting themselves up with some serious constraints in terms of story and structure. Each daily installment, or “testimonial,” is about 1,500 words. Written in the style of oral histories, testimonials are narrated in the first person — and there are dozens of characters, many of whom appear only once.
So, two months in to its six-month launch, how does the book read? Where does it read best? (We recently asked the same question of Zadie Smith's NW.) And is it, you know, good?
Here are a few of the places and times I've been in the company of The Silent History:
In the morning, in
Upon waking, the first-person narratives feel urgent and foggy at the same time, as though they’re coming from inside my own subconscious. Sometimes there’s someone else in my bed with me, and sometimes he reads a chapter out loud as I doze in and out of actual dreams. Once I get up and out into the day, and it’s loud everywhere and life clicks and buzzes at me, the dream fades, and I forget about the story until tomorrow.
On the train, evening
Reading The Silent History on public transportation, where everyone is already hiding their senses inside tiny screens and speakers, adds a creep-factor that complements the story's dystopian leanings. Here we are, in our private space bubbles, not talking to each other or listening to anything but whatever is inside our heads (or headphones). On the train, we’re all on our way to becoming Silent.
In between things, everywhere
The chapters are short enough that you can finish one in the time it takes the kettle to boil, or your friend to go to the bathroom at the restaurant, or your boss to notice you're not paying attention at the meeting. That’s the cool thing about having a book that exists only as an app: it’s everywhere you are, and it takes advantage of those millions of times a day you idly glance at your phone. The fact that those glances can be about story, to me, elevates the nature of the smart phone. Now I’m not just reflexively checking Twitter or email when I shouldn’t be; I’m reading a novel. And what’s wrong with that?
Imagine your favorite TV show was on for 3 minutes a day. Would it stick? After the first volume, I stopped reading The Silent History immediately upon noticing its push notification pop up on my phone. I wasn't waiting for new chapters anymore. I like the idea of a book becoming another part of the background noise of life instead of a sacred, separate act. But the problem I’m having with this particular book is that, so far, the noise is winning. Despite the book's compulsive format, the story itself isn’t yet hooking me. And no wonder: it's told from multiple viewpoints, in first person, about a group of people who don’t communicate and are hence inscrutable, all set in a vague and undefined near future. At only 1,500 words a day, none of this has room or depth in which to burrow into my imagination. I have faith The Silent History can pull it together — the plot is getting tighter — but right now? I’m waning. And it’s the story, not the technology, that’s making me feel that way.
Next volume, I plan to save up the installments and read one week's worth in one sitting. I’m hoping this will make the characters' constantly switching viewpoints easier for me to digest and I’ll be able to better track the story, find characters to root for and against, and care more. Regardless of whether I love the story, the project has me constantly searching for new ways, new places, to read. And that, I like.
I also like their Tumblr.