[Clash Books; 2020]
In late 2019, Rone Shavers said to Saint Rose Magazine, “Lately, I’ve been writing crônicas. They’re these very disjointed narratives that don’t completely fit together — they’re not intended to; the reader has to do some work.” Deriving from an avant-garde genre of journalism popular in Brazil, Shavers adds that “some are just daily writings or simple reportage. Some are just gossipy snippets of overheard things. Others are confessional. I like writing them as experimental fiction.”
Silverfish appears to be the result of Shavers’s recent interest in the kind of short, disjointed, experimental prose characteristic of the crônica. It certainly requires some “work,” as he puts it — appropriately so, as the learning curve Silverfish imposes on the reader forms the core import of the narrative itself. It is a novel about adapting, about learning, and about pushing the possibilities of language, conveyed in a way that stretches the reader’s ability to adapt, to learn, and to push the possibilities of language.
I am disinclined to reveal the magic trick whereby the reader becomes the protagonist of Silverfish. For that, you should buy the book. Not just because Shavers’s first novel and the independent press with which he has released it are worth your support, which both certainly are, but because I don’t think this process should be described. It should be experienced. Certainly, like learning itself, the product can only be meaningfully grasped by undergoing the process — Silverfish is a process, and a lastingly enjoyable one at that.
I did not expect this to be the case. Some of the praise-blurbs on the opening flyleaf are rather unctuous and gushing, which put me on my guard from the get-go. The narrative is further preceded by two epigrams on writing “changing the world” (or failing to, which is just as corny). The introduction is uninspired and, frankly, somewhat poorly written. Then there’s the prologue. It confronts the reader off the bat with the declaration that “for what you are about to receive, may you be truly thankful” and then hits you, shortly thereafter, with the following gem: “Are you confused yet? Good. Confusion is good. It’s the first step towards an attempt at understanding what’s beyond what you already know.” After two pages of Silverfish, I started wondering whether my eyes would stop rolling long enough to focus on the narrative. Of course, it later becomes clear that this prologue is written in the guise of the novel’s fitful antagonist, Dr. Beagel, whose mysterious alchemy of biomechanical engineering and linguistics first precipitates the apocalypse and then generates the impetus to create the world anew. The grandiosity and smarm is thus retrospectively understandable — absent context, however, I first thought I was in for some puffed-up litzine fictocriticism that lazy reviewers would probably think of as “witty.”
I hate “witty.” I hate that so many young writers want to be “witty.” “Witty” is a defense mechanism, replacing genuine humor with empty snark and intelligence for what often passes for it at an academic conference cocktail party.
But, thank god, Silverfish is not witty. It is actually hilarious and actually profound. The narrative — once you hack through all the prolegomena — opens on a hyper-commercialized world, where armies are led by financial planners and their operations are bent solely on incorporating so-called “primitives” (a thinly veiled reference to global-south subsistence farmers) into the world economy. “Combat associates,” as soldiers are termed in this capitalist hellscape’s dominant corporate-speak, are led by Angels: nigh-unstoppable cyborg warriors created by the mysterious Dr. Beagel. The Angel whose journey forms half of Silverfish’s central plot opens by telling us, “We’re travelling to the underserviced market of Cape Verde to incentivize trading. Mainly by doing some killing.” The italics are important — Silverfish’s experimentalism extends to the typographical, and italics designate the Angel’s interior monologue, while boldface designates the Angel’s speech, and Roman type designates all other characters’ speech. There are also frequent irruptions of bracketed, italic, boldface type, the significance of which is unraveled over the course of the narrative.
During the Cape Verde mission, the combat unit is attacked by a hardware-devouring horde of cyborg locusts called silverfish. These disable the Angel and leave her in the possession of her creator. Beagel himself has undergone a biomechanical metamorphosis and, thus born anew, is now bent on retooling his creation to save the world he damned.
It’s an ambiguous apocalypse, one that emerges piecemeal through Shavers’s experimental prose, which is composed almost entirely of dialogue and admits of no direct exposition. (“The reader has to do some work,” as he says). Like all good apocalyptic fiction, though, once its contours are articulated, the reader is able to recognize the hyperbolized features of the landscape in which she herself lives. Death is called “premature downsizing” and “an opportunity for growth potential.” The Dow and NASDAQ dictate who the army will attack, when, and how many need to be killed. Many basic pleasures are“limited to those of paygrade Job-Creator or higher, or those who have sufficiently achieved the tax-status of brand”. Belief in the invisible hand of the market has been consecrated into a genuine religion. Altruism is “a malicious category 5 felony”. I could go on — Silverfish is filled with lines that make you laugh and shudder at the same time, because it is just not that far off. It often reminded me of the war room sequences of Dr. Strangelove. In the Kubrick classic, when it becomes clear that the United States is in for nuclear war, General Turgidson suggests that the U.S. strike first, remarking to President Muffley, “Mr. President, I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed. But I do say no more than ten to twenty million killed, tops — uh, depending on the breaks.” The reason this is hilarious is not only because such a profoundly unsettling notion is conveyed with such flippancy, but because we can so easily conceive of military strategists and politicians actually talking that way. Kubrick made an absurd world that we could only laugh at insofar as we laughed at the absurdity we all otherwise tacitly agree to ignore in our own. And we, today, literally live in a world where the US President demands praise for presiding over a public health catastrophe in which a quarter million citizens are now dead because, according to him, it could have been two million — uh, depending on the breaks.
It’s all there. Or here, depending on how you look at it. As Dr. Beagel asks, “What if the apocalypse happened and no one noticed?” For Beagel, this apocalypse was put in motion through a process of semiotic entropy: “a semantic shell game of gigantic proportions. Simply put, the apocalypse happened when humans saw fit to end metaphor and use euphemism in its place.” The meaning behind this takes some labor to excavate, and perhaps a full understanding would take a second reading of the book. Essentially, Shavers explores what happens when machine language, with its efficiency and rigor, is imbued with the suppleness and dynamism of human language. The formula for dystopia seems to entail that the latter be subjugated to the former, while a chance at a world renewed seems to demand the opposite. Readers might get a whiff of Samuel R. Delany’s Babel-17, though Shavers is certainly more interested in the proliferative potential of language than speculating on the contours of a new Adamic idiom. For Shavers, the apocalypse stems from “the absence of metaphor,” which is“the absence of the chance to make alterations or substitutions, new patterns.” Metaphor entails counter-narrative, the ability to think and create otherwise, and thus to generate new worlds.
When the Angel is first introduced to the kind of doubling inherent to the alteration and substitution that are constitutive of metaphor, she malfunctions, unable to conceive that something can be both itself and something else in a machine-brain ordered around binary meanings. At this point, a bracketed, italic, boldface interruption into the text echoes across centuries: “[Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes].” A ghost in the machine, Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself, 51” becomes a monkey wrench in the gears of the Angel’s mind as well as the reader’s — a metaphor for the very movement of metaphor that the narrative describes. And from then on, the Angel and the reader alike begin to be able to question the world of Silverfish, and they both begin to create a new one. Silverfish is a story about constructing a (new) story, itself masterfully and creatively constructed. And for that, may you be truly thankful.
Cory Austin Knudson is a graduate student in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. For him this mostly means writing about porn, Nietzsche, and climate change, and trying to prove how intimately related those three really are.