The Silent History
by Fiona Crawford - May 11th, 2013
I’ve been reading and hearing about an award-winning transmedia app created by former McSweeney’s managing editor Eli Horowitz. Suffice to say, I was both intrigued enough to want to download this app, but wary enough that it might be so hipster I’d want to avoid it.
I gave it a whirl after finding out The Silent History (please excuse my dodgy phone pics) was partially free for a short time—the classic first-hit’s-free way to turn you into a junkie. I have to say it’s worked. Last night I caved and bought the remaining instalments. Then I shirked work and responsibilities to plough through to the novel’s end.
The app design, with its beautiful, functional, and communication design-considered circles and complementary navigation is fantastic. And, as a typography-obsessed nerd from way back, the fonts and layout are like crack.
Crucially, though, underpinning all of this is a compelling story that combines serialised, multi-narrated, interview-based testimonials detailing a generation of children born silent but not stupid. Basically, Horowitz and co. have assembled an app around a good tale, not tried to tack on tales to high-tech tools.
The story begins with an emerging phenomenon: people start giving birth to Silents, or people who are born without language or any ability or willingness to obtain it (some characters disparagingly and politically incorrectly refer to them as ‘mutetards’). It’s new, it’s widespread; no one quite knows what’s ‘wrong’ with these people or what to do with them. Some people consider them freaks; others try to save them; still others try to take advantage of them for their own purposes.
The story is told through 120 individual testimonials that equate to about 500 hundred pages of text. These contained, snapshot-like segments subjectively narrated by parents, teachers, friends, doctors, opportunists, and impostors—an array of characters touched by the silent phenomenon, each with their own agenda and point of view; none entirely (or not clearly) reliable.
Complementing the testimonials are field reports, or short, site-specific stories that expand on, and are related to, the main story. You have to physically be at the location (i.e. your device recognises the GPS co-ordinates) to unlock these reports. Being in Australia, I’m clearly a long way away from doing so, although I didn’t mind—the story was meaty enough without these and I’m often annoyed by periphery.
Besides, I was too gripped by the testimonial writing, which is incredibly strong. Many of them are reminiscent of McSweeney’s monologues: understated, finely crafted, and containing incisive, view-altering insights that sucker punch you.
It’s impossible to convey some such entries here, although I will say I loved their reference to a ‘pet-friendly gambling park’ and how two characters hire a car for a dollar as long as they’re willing to be injected by microchips that make them thirsty every time they see a drink called Slush (these premises are beyond the realm of comprehension, and yet they aren’t).
The McSweeney’s monologue-isms were especially strong in the middle of the app, presumably because the writers had gotten the scene-setting aspects out of the way and could flex their creativity. Which they do, writing characters that are at times entirely unlikeable, bona fide crazy, and yet impossible to turn pages past.
Having finished the novel quickly and having read it chronologically, I’d be interested to go back and cherry pick characters’ versions and re-read them from the start. But I’m time poor and, I’ll admit, wasn’t entirely satisfied with the ending. It was—spoiler alert—not really an ending, slightly cop out-y and certainly without any concrete answers to what caused the Silents and more.
Still, The Silent History has set the future-of-storytelling benchmark high and it’s given me plenty of food for thought for my own attempts at transmedia work. I recommend checking it out (even if it’s only the first section while it’s free).