I was born into all that, all that mess, the over-crowded swamp and the over-crowded sematary and the not-crowded-enough town, so I don't remember nothing, don't remember a world without Noise. My pa died of sickness before I was born and then my ma died, of course, no surprises there. Ben and Cillian took me in, raised me. Ben says my ma was the last of the women but everyone says that about everyone's ma.
The Knife of Never Letting Go (2008), by Patrick Ness, is a noisy book. A certain amount of this is down to its central character, 12-year-old Todd, whose boisterous, gossipy narration regularly spills over itself with his eagerness to explain! everything! all at once! What's he doing, what's he feeling, what he's thinking, what he's trying not to think, what he knows about the background of anyone and anything with which he comes into contact: all of these are shared, shared and shared some more. For such a quickfire, chatty, action-packed novel - and I'm going to talk about the plot as little as possible here, because one of the great joys of it is how compulsively it keeps you turning the pages to find out more - Knife is a very interior story.
Or rather, it is an interior story that is forced to be exterior. Todd lives in on a planet where everything is out in the open. Animals can speak, including Todd's ace dog Manchee. ("The first thing you find out when yer dog learns to talk," Todd tells us in the novel's opening paragraph, "is that dogs don't got nothing much to say. About anything." Right on cue, Manchee provides the first direct speech of the novel: "Need a poo, Todd.") Related to this - although no-one is sure why - is the fact that men and boys are incapable of keeping their thoughts to themselves. Todd's inner monologue, and more besides, is broadcast to everyone in his vicinity in the small settlement of Prentisstown; he, in turn, can hear every word that passes through the minds of his fellow inhabitants. The effect is known as "Noise"; it is overwhelming, "like a flood let loose right at me", says Todd, "like a fire, like a monster the size of the sky come to get you cuz there's nowhere to run".
All of which is another reason why this book is quite so loud:
"Squirrel, Todd! Squirrel!"
Goddam, animals are stupid.
I grab Manchee by the collar and hit him hard across his back leg. "Ow, Todd? Ow?" I hit him again. And again. "Ow? Todd?"
"Come on," I say, my own Noise raging so loud I can barely hear myself think, which is something I'm about to regret, you watch.
Whirler boy, Whirler boy, thinks the squirrel at me. Come get, Whirler boy.
"You can eff off, too," I say, except I don’t say "eff ", I say what "eff" stands for.
And I really, really shoulda looked round again.
I've chosen this excerpt from the first chapter - which you can read in its entirety here - because it highlights several important aspects of Ness' storytelling style. The first of these is the voice of Todd: brusque when he feels himself losing control in a situation ("Goddam") but nonetheless ruefully reflective ("I'm about to regret..."), slightly ungrammatical ("shoulda") but bashfully self-editing ("eff"). For all his air of ebullience, Todd is deeply self-conscious about the image he presents, prone to rushing headlong into dialogue and description alike, then correcting himself; at times - particularly when he has done something that might look like weakness (or cowardice, in his eyes) - he even argues back against the imagined responses of his audience:
"Run!" I shout to Manchee, turning and making a break for the back doors. (Shut up, you honestly think a knife is a match for a machete?)
The second aspect of the book's style that the passage above demonstrates is the palpable glee with which Ness whips the rug out from under the reader, through abrupt changes in tone, sudden bursts of action, and cliffhanger scene and chapter breaks. It's been a while since I read a book that was so hard to put down - I galloped through all 479 pages in the space of a day - or that made me gasp aloud quite so often!
The third aspect is the sense of overload, for both character and reader: of everything happening at once, of hearing so many shouts at the same time that you can't possibly concentrate on - or properly process - it all, and end up missing what you most need to know. As Todd notes, early on:
[T]he swamp is the only place anywhere near Prentisstown where you can have half a break from all the Noise that men spill outta theirselves, all their clamor and clatter that never lets up, even when they sleep, men and the thoughts they don't know they think even when everyone can hear. Men and their Noise. I don't know how they do it, how they stand each other.
Men are Noisy creachers.
For the men of New World, Noise is deeply intrusive, and - short of leaving human society behind altogether for a life in the wilderness - inescapable. It is a brutalising, systemic lack of privacy that brings Todd close to run-on sentence hysteria whenever he discusses it ("[T]he town knows all about you already and wants to know more and wants to beat you with what it knows till how can you have any of yerself left at all?"). At intervals, Todd's experience of this is represented in the book by chaotic blocks of bold, spiky, all-caps text, half-sentences and random words scattered across the page and over the top of each other, offering partially intelligible flashes of others' stories - glimpses of pain, laughter, rage, mundanity - that get under the skin in just the right way. It is easy to see how someone could go mad in this sort of environment: the compulsion to try to separate out the threads, to uncover the secrets that lie beneath this strange, angry, all-male town, is strong; and the notion of everyone around you hearing everything you think or feel is disturbing in the extreme.
Unlike men, and all the other 'creachers' of New World, women and girls don't have Noise. This is something Todd only discovers by accident; all the women of Prentisstown died before he was old enough to develop memories of them, and women are now never spoken of, except in Noise, with great longing and regret. Prentisstown is, in any case, hardly a place where reflection on such matters is encouraged: books are banned for being "detrimental" to mental discipline, and punitive violence is endemic.
Thus it comes as quite a shock to Todd when, out in the swamp one day, he happens across "a hole in the Noise",
like a shape you can't see except by how everything else around it is touching it. Like water in the shape of a cup, but with no cup. It's a hole and everything that falls into it stops being Noise, stops being anything, just stops altogether.
The source of this quiet turns out to be the lone, terrified survivor of a scout ship that has crashlanded near the town: a girl, named Viola, part of the advance party for a new group of colonists en route to New World. Much of the subsequent story revolves around Todd's effort to understand who Viola is, what her existence means for everything he has been told about Prentisstown - and, most pressingly, how he can even begin to relate to someone without Noise:
She seems like maybe she's calming down. She's not shaking as much as she was, her arms aren't up so high, and she's not looking like she's about to run off at the first opportunity, tho how can you know for sure when a person's got no Noise? How can they be a person if they ain't got no Noise?
Todd is bewildered by Viola because, unlike everyone else he has ever met, he is not a party to her every waking thought and mood. It is a neat, and thought-provoking, reversal of gender assumptions. The 'statistic' that women naturally use over twice the number of words per day that men do may have been plucked out the air by a self-help writer, but the myth persists even after being thoroughly debunked because it speaks to a fondly-held stereotyped: after all, everyone knows that women communicate promiscuously, and men don't. In Knife, however, Todd is the one who talks, Todd is the one who frets about the communication barrier between them (he accuses her at one point of keeping her thoughts "secret"); Todd is the one whose heart is on his sleeve at all times. Viola, meanwhile, is the taciturn one, the one who hoards her words, unwilling to share herself and for a long time only disturbed by the amount she learns, unwittingly and unwillingly, about Todd. Todd's lack of privacy in this information-saturated world thus takes on a new dimension: he must learn to trust someone without automatically knowing everything about her.
This isn't to say that even Noise is synonymous with truth, of course. It is information only, and with self-discipline it can be used, and distorted. Early on, we learn that at least some of the native fauna have adapted to manipulate their Noise: Todd has heard swamp foxes "faking their Noise to sound like the squirrels they eat". Meanwhile, the central villain of the trilogy, Mayor Prentiss, derives much of his power - and his forbidding aspect - from his control over his Noise:
His Noise is awful clear and I mean awful in the awful way. He believes, see, that order can be brought to Noise. He believes that Noise can be sorted out, that if you could harness it somehow, you could put it to use. And when you walk by the Mayor's house, you can hear him, hear him and the men closest to him, his deputies and things, and they're always doing these thought exercises, these counting things and imagining perfect shapes and saying orderly chants like I AM THE CIRCLE AND THE CIRCLE IS ME whatever that's sposed to mean and it's like he's moulding a little army into shape. [...]
It feels like a threat. It feels like the world changing and leaving you behind.
In the land of the Noisy, the man who can hide his intentions is king.
This is a story thread that is taken up in the trilogy's second volume, The Ask and the Answer (2009). Again, I will try to avoid discussing the plot in too much detail, but if you intend to read the trilogy - which I highly recommend! - skip this second half of the review until you have.
The tale resumes with Todd and Viola imprisoned, separately, and the supremely creepy Mayor in control of the city of Haven, which is now dubbed New Prentisstown. What follows is an astonishingly tense and at times punishingly brutal novel: a study of how individuals and societies alike become warped beyond recognition by persistent, pervasive violence, whether it is used to dominate, to punish, or to defend; of the many and varied ways in which the ends fail to justify the means, because the means define the ends.
And despair. There's quite a lot of despair.
Stylistically and thematically, Ask is in many ways more of the same as Knife, only larger: the breathless action, bursts of violence, and multiple cliffhangers are all present and correct, but this time round the stakes are higher and the canvas is larger. Todd's narration still tumbles over itself in its haste, but in Ask the strain is clearer when he exposes his anxiety about his masculinity and fragile first steps into adulthood; the speed with which he denies any perceived weaknesses in himself, under even the most upsetting and stressful circumstances, is a much more obviously damaging strategy this time round:
And thru it all, the Mayor says nothing. He just walks round me, over and over again, listening to me yell, listening to me plead.
Listening to my Noise beneath it all.
And I tell myself that I'm doing all this yelling, all this begging, to hide in my Noise what she told me, to keep her safe, to keep him from knowing. I tell myself I have to cry and beg as loud as I can so he won't hear.
That's what I tell myself.
And I don't wanna say no more about it.
(just effing shut the hell up)
Todd has been trained by his upbringing in Prentisstown to think of adulthood, manhood, as something wrapped up in violence and requiring detachment from emotion. In this second book, the Mayor steps up the campaign he waged in Knife: to make Todd - the last boy born in Prentisstown, and thus hugely symbolic - complicit in a blood-soaked vision of masculinity, one predicated on a kick-or-be-kicked model of social standing.
In this brave new world - which looks more than a little like an exaggerated version of our own - a young man's self-worth derives from the degree of arbitrary power he can wield over others. Here, for example, is the Mayor's son Davy beating up the drugged slave labour - the indigenous population of New World, treated like semi-intelligent cattle by the human colonists (given the way the book ends, I suspect they will feature more prominently in part three) - to make himself feel better about the fact that his dad largely ignores him:
He smashes the butt of his pistol into the Spackle's face. You can hear the crack of bone and the Spackle falls to the ground clutching at his jaw, long legs twisting in the air.
There's a wave of clicking around us and Davy lifts his pistol again, bullet end facing the crowd. Rifles cock on the fence-top, too, soldiers pointing their weapons. The Spackle slink back. [...]
"Know what, pigpiss?" Davy says.
"What?" I say, my eyes still on the Spackle on the ground, my Noise shaky as a leaf about to fall.
He turns to me, pistol still out. "It's good to be in charge."
The Mayor doesn't just want to defeat those who resist him, he wants them to be a party to their own defeat. He asks questions over and over again - and creates a whole wing of his government dedicated to doing so, the Office of the Ask ("a building where no secret may be kept") - because he doesn't just want to take information, he wants people to surrender it to him, and know that they're doing so. That way, they know who holds the power:
"If you know she’s from across the worlds," I say, "then you must know her name."
And then the Mayor smiles, actually smiles.
And I feel more afraid than ever.
"That’s not how this works, Todd. How this works is that I ask and you answer. Now. What is her name?"
The Mayor wants the people he conquers to become like him. This is where Ask's far-reaching alteration to Knife's formula - it gives Viola a narrative voice, too - becomes crucial. Through Viola's eyes, the picture is complicated considerably. While Todd is co-opted into the ranks of the conquerors, Viola moves among the conquered: she tells the story of the women of Haven/New Prentisstown, and of the men who support them in secret. To a man like the Mayor who rules because - as he himself notes - he has absolute control of information, women and their lack of Noise are a natural threat. It is made clear, furthermore, that the gulf that Noise has introduced between men and women, the unequal footing on which it places their interactions, has created enough simmering resentment for many men to go along with him when he notes in hushed, sinister tones that women are "different", and that the "blurred" boundaries between the sexes that had become the norm in Haven have to be reintroduced.
Many of the women, meanwhile, are ready to meet violence with violence, in the form of a guerilla movement known as the Answer. As the two sides progressively step up their tactics, and the lines between men and women in the city are drawn ever more starkly, the book asks difficult questions about aggression, resistance, and surrender; is it better to suffer injustice than to perpetuate the cycle of violence? Or does peaceful resistance just get your crushed beneath the treads of a tank? While it is evident that there is no compromise with someone like the Mayor, who systematically lies and delights in torture, there is a clear sense that every bomb the Answer detonates plays into his hands: making the Answer more like him, lending justification to his distrust and oppression - as well as steadily eroding the possibility of not taking up arms for non-Answer women. Viola's narration shows us this debate at work:
"Everyone here is someone's daughter," she says quietly. "Every soldier out there is someone's son. The only crime, the only crime is to take a life. There is nothing else."
"And that's why you don't fight," I say.
She turns to me sharply. "To live is to fight," she snaps. "To preserve life is to fight everything that man stands for."
The Mayor and the Answer feed off each other. The Answer does not create the problem of the Mayor, but it gives him the excuse he craves to dominate and punish women for their difference; the leader of the Answer, meanwhile, revels in the power that the atmosphere of distrust and division gives her. Given the way the Mayor and his men interact with the Spackle, though, you rather suspect that, in the absence of the Answer, the Mayor would just invent an excuse to be a tyrant - and, indeed, there are several occasions on which the Mayor exaggerates or even fabricates the threat of the Answer (information and lies, again) to frighten the populace of Haven into obeying him.
Overall, quite dark, then, and the ending is grim indeed. But it isn't without hope, or without moments that made me want to cheer, like this rousing speech of Viola's:
"The Mayor thinks he knows everything. He thinks he knows what's coming. He's just sitting there waiting for me and Todd to show up and try and stop him. [...] But what he's forgetting," she says. "What he's forgetting is that me and Todd, we ran halfway across this planet together, by ourselves. We beat his craziest preacher. We outran an entire army and survived being shot and beaten and chased and we bloody well stayed alive this whole time without being blown up or tortured to death or dying in battle or anything. [...] Me and Todd? Together against the Mayor?" She smiles. "He doesn't stand a chance."
Thrilling stuff, and it finishes with another heart-in-mouth cliffhanger climax. Roll on the Arthur C Clarke Award nominated volume three, Monsters of Men.