I teach composition to college freshmen who uniformly hate it. Sometimes it’s fun, but it often causes me to say odd things, things I don’t likely believe. Occasionally, then, I hear myself announcing to recalcitrant ears that good writing is considerate of the reader in that it makes reading easier. The writer does more so the reader can do less – that’s something that might come out of my mouth in the classroom. Whether or not it’s true, the payoff is that teaching the arcane and tendentious inanities of the Modern Language Association’s compositional demands becomes one degree easier if formal writing is a matter of niceness and not intelligence. It’s a more familiar expectation, a way for words like attribution and typography to sound like harmless social necessities akin to combing your hair before church or smiling at a customer from the other side of the counter. Don’t worry, I say, just be nice, be civil, and you’re good.
Mark de Silva pretty well does not think a writer’s job is to make reading easy. His debut novel, Square Wave, is difficult and trying in ways that make it slow, arduous reading. Its best candidate for protagonist is Carl Stagg, a young historian of 400-year-gone Sri Lankan history; many chapters of the novel include long sections of his short-story-style historical essaying, including a lecture at the end. He moonlights on a crime watch, errantly looking for a serial rapist whose sociopathic musings on sex and art also fill chapters of the novel. It’s set in the dystopic near future, but the book is more about the meaning we want to manufacture out of daily living than predictions or armageddon. The novel’s best passages follow a composer and double bassist who experiments with non-traditional harmonics and monotonous melodies that drive classy audiences away. De Silva writes beautifully and knowledgeably in these scenes:
He imagined the Crip walkers then, asphalt dancers with picks buried in lightless hair, isolating this constellation, the background hum of another world, together, a dozen of them in a circle. All the while, their immaculate sneakers kept gliding across the pavement, and the men kept whirring about the circle, their motion counterpointed only by that peculiar chord they would hold until their lungs were raw.
So one reason the book is difficult is that de Silva writes magisterially on decidedly different subjects: experimental music, historiography, philosophy, academia, the printing industry, radical politics, meteorology, and even some abstract math all push and pull the characters in this novel. It gives you the feeling that de Silva is more than one man – I thought about starting this review with a list of things I had to research in order to keep up with him (in fact, most reviews and blurbs for the book call it a “novel of ideas,” which, if it means anything at all, I guess refers to this). Square Wave is also difficult because it’s so violent – whole chapters involve calculated rape and hardcore pornography, both described in medical detail. I’m not done: it’s also difficult because it’s so ambiguous, shuffling a half dozen plots, including the one in medieval Sri Lanka Stagg writes about, into a loose bundle in which nothing of definition or clear consequence can be said to happen. Square Wave is impressive in that it feels like it presses in on you, bullying your thoughts around; it confuses things taken for granted and makes an issue of things simple, messing around in the spaces between the keys on a piano.
Reading Square Wave, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the novel would probably not pass Composition 1 as I am supposed to teach it: I’d have to take off points for lack of clarity, or something, I’m sure. However, this is hardly an indictment. De Silva knows perfectly well that he’s failing against rubrics that demand compelling language or relatable characters. In fact, he champions arduous literature in “Distant Visions: Putdownable Prose and the State of the Art-Novel,” an 8,000 word essay for 3:AM posted on the eve of Square Wave’s publication. As if priming the reception of novel, de Silva here describes “putdownable prose” as arty stuff that does not yield itself passively to the reader, but instead demands energy. It’s work to write and work to read, making it different than the “unputdownable prose” we can find everywherefrom the New Yorker’s reportage to Jonathan Franzen’s novels, according to de Silva.
In this sense, I think reading and writing for de Silva are a matter of ease against rigor, and he decidedly puts himself in the latter camp. More than New Agey journey-over-the-destination-style platitude, though, de Silva’s conception of good writing in this sense seems to entail a particular contract of reciprocity between reader and writer. He says of good art fiction, “if the reader will commit the energy necessary to carefully work through the book, the writer will deliver to him a sensibility-shaping experience.” Needless to say, this is not a philosophy amenable to character limits or the tl;dr mindset.
But maybe you’re thinking it’s starting to sound a little staid and priggish. Probably this is just a recipe for pretention. All the same (or therefore?), I think I agree with him. Good fiction, and good art for that matter, probably cannot be familiar and easy and still say anything new. Don’t get me wrong – entertainment has its place. But if a book is going to be something other than entertaining, it can’t just point to what you already know or recognize in the world. If it’s going to do more than just fill your time, then it has to be different from the time it fills – it’s probably only in this difference, however vague or minor, that good fiction can make connections, assumptions, accusations, jokes, pathos, bathos, profundity, absurdity, and God knows what all out of what had been routine living. This takes time and patience in a way that Facebook and manners, both shortcuts in their own ways, do not.
Of course, alas, it’s not really that simple. De Silva follows the likes of Thomas Pynchon – he mentions the reclusive writer in both “Distant Visions” and Square Wave – who is not so simple. I read Gravity’s Rainbow last winter and thought I was losing my brain. Given the time, Pynchon’s fiction can get into your thinking and disrupt the normalcy plaguing it. It is difficult art par excellence, confronting the root causes of the Holocaust and postmodernism in one million pages of sometimes offensive and sometimes boring chaos. But plodding through, I learned more about the experience of reading than I ever have elsewhere. Moreover, I encountered some of the most beautiful writing and most thoroughgoing thinking available to punish oneself with. And, man! are there shit jokes! I’ve never laughed so hard at guerrilla warfare or schizophrenic paranoia or catastrophic violence or penis puns (his misogyny is no question, I’ll admit). I was confused and thrilled and zapped by the novel largely because it is so difficult in ways that can’t be paraphrased – only the enormous difficulty of the novel can be what it has to say.
I think this is exactly the tradeoff de Silva describes in “Distant Visions” and wants for Square Wave: for better or worse, escape from the dullness and prescription of regular romance, work, and art comes in complicating reliable distinctions and making fuzzy what had been formidably solid. This isn’t easy and it’s not what is usually celebrated in 2016. And though I can’t say whether or not Square Wave is successful, I’m not sure that it matters either. Perhaps de Silva would say that, more importantly, it has me thinking.
Max Martini is working through his MA in American literature at Southern Illinois University. He teaches and reads and likes music.