It's a common enough story, taken to uncommon extremes. Hiram, the protagonist of Darin Bradley's debut novel Noise, was surrounded for most of his teenage years by a circle of friends. The young men built forts, played Dungeons & Dragons, formed a secret order of knighthood, read manuals on how to be ninjas. Broadly, they constructed a group narrative, an agreeable ordering of the world and their place within it. Then friends went to college, drifted out of touch; men paired off with women outside the group. They grew up, and the circle was sundered, the group narrative failed. Except that Hiram never really grew up. For him, these experiences were part of a string of failures of the world to cohere--family, romance, and religion all soon succumbing as well.
Then, in the near-future timeline of Bradley's novel, a final failure occurs. There is an economic "Event" in the United States, a collapse of trust in existing economic institutions that results in the breakdown of national order. It is a failure of group narrative writ large, individual devastation multiplied by the hundreds of millions. And this time Hiram, now in his twenties, is prepared: prepared to use the chaos to carve out a new group, to establish a new community based on a narrative of his own creation. It is this interplay between national and personal tales of collapse and reconstruction that drives Noise.
Bradley handles the juxtaposition of internal and external narratives with impressive structural skill. Hiram's account of establishing and securing his new group is interspersed with reveries and flashbacks to Hiram's past. At first, these narrative strands are firmly separated within the text. But as tension escalates, past and present blend ever closer together, until individual sentences flicker back and forth in a literary montage. The near stream-of-conscious writing represents the cacophony of Hiram's thoughts and mental state, while showing how he became who he is. In an early chapter, Hiram reminisces about learning to hit a baseball off a tee and the teambuilding associated with the experience, which blends into learning how to swing a sword, and finally into actually striking a looter exiting a store:
I didn't even stand. I just swung the sword into a pair of running shins. [...] I remembered T-ball. Team Yellow Jackets. [...] It always hurt to connect the aluminum bat with the ball, and we couldn't hear our dads through the regulation safety helmets. [...] This would hurt, so you couldn't be yourself. You couldn't most importantly, have fun. You were not yourself in your T-ball disguise. You were a Yellow Jacket
There is no I in team.
The ringing in your ears is not what you think it is. (p. 20-24)
It's a revealing passage, from the mantra-like way Hiram adopts the idea of endurance in the name of the group, to the dissociation of self that comes with being part of a group, to Hiram's specific desire for his father's words. Interwoven are ideas of signal and noise, noise as a deterrent to signal, to the clarity and order that Hiram craves. Extraneous sound, ideas, people: for Hiram, all are best eliminated. While the past-tense narration removes any tension of immediacy—there is no question that Hiram will survive—this puts the tension more squarely on the question of what will Hiram do to others.
In between the narrated chapters, Bradley presents selections from The Book, a survival manual that Hiram and his friend Levi—sole remnant of his teenage friendship group—have pieced together from a hodge-podge of sources. The Book offers a plan of escape from their small Texas college town of Slade, advice on who to take and how to travel, rules for setting up the government of a new community. It is important to remember who assembled The Book when reading Noise: although presented as a found document, it's not an externally-produced handbook. Rather, Hiram and Levi have selected and debated The Book's contents (though we never see these debates). It represents their plans and expectations, and the tradeoffs they view as necessary—the community they establish isn't intended to be precisely utopian, but to be sustainable in the wake of the national dissolution. Despite their preparation, however, many of the important milestones of Noise occur when Hiram and Levi choose to go against The Book. Often this is when they find certain human values and impulses less easy to abandon than expected, for better or worse—and Bradley achieves some clever juxtapositions between The Book and the adjacent narrative in this regard, another way that narrative can be cut. Hiram's deviations from The Book can reward our hope in humanity, as when Hiram disregards The Book to rescue a friend of his neighbor Mary; on the other hand, they chillingly hint at how mutable the rules governing Hiram's new society may be. The Book is also largely responsible for the few instances of rather macabre humor that surface in Noise, mainly when certain prescribed phrases are uttered too late ("we don't want to hurt you") or are palpably inadequate reassurance ("you did the right thing").
The Book is not entirely believable, though, as the construction of two young men who have D&D to-hit tables memorized, and who legitimately believe its blueprint will be the key to their survival. It is full of vague rules such as "limit the length of the terms of your Senators and Final Leader" (p. 196), with the Senate having the power to overturn decisions of the community's Leader "with a sufficient majority" (p. 177). To what length, with what majority? Another section suggests that "your vehicles should not drive so closely together upon the open roads that they would be disabled simultaneously by anti-vehicle fire, roadside bombs, or other devices" (p. 115)—where to be useful, the distance would need to be specified, and in the age of Google and Wiki, this doesn't seem impossible research. This vagueness is one example of how Noise begins to feel undercooked when both its external premise and its characterization are considered more closely.
The conceit of Noise's national collapse is that following America's switchover from analog to digital television, the Federal Communications Commission allocated a portion of the old analog bandwidth for civic use. An unauthorized pirate community sprang up around these bands, coalescing into a broadcast network of do-it-yourself survivalists called Salvage. Salvage communicates advice, plans, narratives for when the end times come. A good portion of Salvage broadcasts are advice on committing violence for people unused to doing so, strategies for dissociation: "they should take new names" is one (we never learn Hiram's birth name); another, echoing Lord of the Flies, is wearing masks or face paint when prepared to engage in violence. As a result, when national order does collapse due to an unspecified economic crisis, Salvage and its audience are ready. Groups with roughly similar bylaws, modes of operations, and plans all act in a decentralized manner to eliminate those outside Salvage (the noise of society) and the utilities they depend on such as electricity, as well as other remnants of "Old Trade". (Exactly how the "new trade" will work is left ambiguous, beyond the suggestion of barter for services and a few nods in the direction of something like a Bacigalupian calorie economy.) By hastening the social and economic collapse, Salvage hopes to better prepare its members to form their own societies, free from intervention by the old centralized authorities.
Much of this is very contemporary, from the analog-to-digital television switchover in the US that happened in June 2009, to renewed fears over the limits of capitalism on one hand and big government on the other, to the growth of various DIY movements and their possible intersectionality. It is also all, I think, fairly absurd. The prerequisites of the narrative are unbelievable: from the pervasiveness of Salvage; to its lack of competitors; to the blinkered idea that other world powers would leave the former US territory—filled with resources natural and unnatural—sufficiently alone that countless small-scale utopian groups could flourish in anything other than the shortest of short terms. Like The Book, the novel's background story of national collapse can feel too transparent as a literary device.
Of course, a key reason for this is that the national condition is meant to serve as something of a dark mirror for Hiram's inner devastation. Contra the now inevitable back-of-book interview with the author, which spends most of its length trying to situate Bradley's novel in the utopian-dystopian spectrum, Noise is largely a novel of character. Events outside of Hiram's control are developed just enough (or not) to plausibly allow Hiram to remake his world, and no further. It is in this remaking that Hiram's character is revealed to us—and in what is Bradley's most daring choice, we slowly realize that this means we're perceiving the world through the mind of a madman. Hiram's need for the order of an external narrative is pathological, all-consuming. Growing up for most people is a process of making peace with the fractured nature of the world, building a sense of self by selecting fragments to incorporate, binding them with personal experience into something, someone, unique. But Hiram is less interested in personal uniqueness—which just results in being alone—than in a world that coheres, that presents an unassailably "real" narrative that can be shared. He needs a world that responds when spoken to. No surprise, then, that he sees noise as his enemy. Bradley isn't the only recent novelist to use the concept of noise to represent the unstructured world of adult thought as a barrier to selfhood: it also features prominently in the young adult Chaos Walking Trilogy by Patrick Ness. And like Ness's trilogy, Bradley's Noise has crossover potential between the adult and YA markets, chronicling as it does the struggle for adulthood, for selfhood. (Although Hiram's cultural markers may feel oddly dated to young adult readers, as most date from the mid/late 1980s—the era of Bradley's boyhood, not Hiram's.) Beyond this basic struggle for self, Laura Miller, in a recent essay in The New Yorker, identified several other common characteristics in the contemporary wave of dystopian novels with young adult protagonists. They represent, she writes, "a fever-dream allegory of the adolescent social experience" and its "brutal social hierarchy." There's certainly a lot of this in Noise, from Hiram's extended digression on the social hierarchy implied by high school parking lot spaces, to his fearful equation of teenage sex with lobbing grenades, violence as the dark mirror of sex. And many of the individual details Miller notes are present in Noise as well: a "snow-globe timelessness," archaic forms of combat, and an Internet that "plays a less important role in these novels than you might expect." (Indeed no role at all in Noise; yet Bradley is certainly familiar with the Internet, having served as a copyeditor here at Strange Horizons before editing the experimental online journal Farrago's Wainscot.)
As a protagonist, however, Hiram breaks the YA mold. The common protagonist in a young adult postapocalyptic novel is a young everyman or woman, boy or girl. Someone who we can identify with. Young adult dystopias, writes Miller, are "conduits for universal experiences" of teenage years in which teens feel like they've been dropped into a "a hostile, confined place without an identity or any notion of what you’re supposed to do or how you can get out." But point for point, Hiram is something of a Pied Piper figure in Miller's scenario. Via The Book, he does know what to do, does know how to get out to a new place, and he uses this knowledge to assemble a group of (mostly younger) followers and grant them new identities, new names. While he does slip once—"Maintain the illusion of control," he orders his lieutenants in a moment of crisis (p. 159)—overall he presents a figure in control, one who has made sense of the new world and extends that narrative sense around him like an umbrella.
The characters who fall under that umbrella can get short shrift. Hiram's friend Levi, their neighbor Mary, her friend Four: we never know what they feel about Hiram, how much of their choice to go along with him is motivated by psychological need versus calculated sense of survival. And Hiram himself—as the character the novel wants to reveal—is occluded by the somewhat clichéd nature of his core experiences, by the lack of insight into them. Hiram reads as a Hollywood-prototype geek psychopath. He plays D&D, went through a phase of reading "only fantasy novels and books about space" (p. 155), and attends Renaissance Faires, so we know he Has Trouble Telling Fantasy From Reality. He was rubbish at sports, so is Not A Team Player. His family was Southern Baptist, but because he never personally felt the presence of God he has something of a Religious Crisis. His father was a victim, first of economic downtimes, and then of failing health, so as a teen he Lacked A Proper Father Figure. He clearly Loathes Women—the girlfriend who drew him away from his youthful friendship group is now referred to only as "Her," he mentions his mother and sisters only once (and is quite content to leave them to their fates), and similarly he's content to plan a community with no means of reproducing itself. It's not that it's impossible that there are people like this, but I've never met one, and after reading Noise I still don't quite feel that I have. Noise reads very much as a hierarchy of needs story, and if Bradley is making an argument, it's a Stanley Milgram-esque one for narrative as high on that hierarchy—although events at the end of the novel suggest reproduction is ultimately higher (and personal survival higher still). But such determinism doesn't preclude the illusion of personal choice, and character-revealing nuances in this regard are largely absent from the novel. How close did Hiram, who formed a boyhood order of knighthood and until the national collapse played a knight character in D&D who knelt when receiving honors, come to attempting to create a society based on honor rather than pragmatism? Is he really as lacking in self-awareness as he seems to be over the connections his mind makes, or is this a choice to ruthlessly suppress the extraneous in a crisis, the acting out of a role?
While Noise isn't especially satisfying in its construction of character, it does shine in its illustration of the character that results. There's a very revealing account Hiram shares that may not make intuitive sense, but that illustrates Hiram's strong mindset of group-before-individual:
When I was twelve [...] I'd quit the Boy Scouts. It had been something [my father and I had] done together. [...] When I quit, he was commuting back and forth, from Dallas to Little Rock, because he'd lost his job. [...] The Scouts had been ours, not mine, so I didn't go because he couldn't go. I went back when he did.
That was the first time we ceased to be a family. (p. 87)
A more pervasive showcase of Hiram's mental life is his personal mythology, the role of stories in his thinking. Between his Southern Baptist upbringing and his boyhood exposure to Greek mythology at school, much that Hiram sees is drenched in religious and mythological overtones—and so is what he creates. Amaranth is the name he gives to the place he will found his community (from which comes the graffiti "A" on the book's cover); Amaranth the fadeless bloom, the undying flower sacred to the Greek Goddess Artemis the Huntress, the virgin. Mary is the name he gives to his lesbian neighbor, Mary the immaculate mother of the group. His own role is to be Prometheus, bringing fire; to listen to the Oracle, the voice of the world:
If there was another squad, they’d blow a new hole in the road, taking people down into the darkness to live dead forever with flowers that wouldn’t die. Zunis and Greeks and kids from Slade, trading all the final answers with the oracle. Giving them back, maybe, at Delphi. Asynchronously. Offering answers from the future, when things Collapsed, to the classical ancients waiting patiently to be as intelligent as we were, at twelve years old, in our seventh-grade classroom, reading Mythology and Native Americans.
The answers hadn’t made sense to the ancients because they’d been for us, in the future. (p. 117)
Finally, The Book itself represents a significant artifact of Hiram's character, beyond its specific prescriptions. The Book, Frankenstein creation that it is, is Hiram's attempt to externalize the notion of a foraged, fragmented self as a set of universal truths, as a collation of metadata of the world's workings. It is, as writing so often is, an attempt at conversing with the world. If the world will not reply when Hiram speaks to it, then he will reply to the world when it speaks: when the world speaks chaos and dissolution, Hiram's reply is the compendium of rules for group-creation and survival that is The Book. There is a reading of Noise in which many of Hiram's actions are products of insanity, chaos making monster of a man; but there is also a reading that the chaos gives him the necessary excuse to implement the rigid structures that can keep him sane, making a man of a monster via the strictures/scriptures of The Book and the goal of Amaranth. There is tension throughout Noise between the two readings.
Tension indeed carries Noise for nearly all its length: the tension of understanding Hiram's inner battle; the tension between the ideal of Amaranth—Hiram's personal utopia, an "undying flower"—and the reality that utopia means "no place," that even The Book acknowledges that future collapses are inevitable. Novels built on the tension of superposition, novels whose end goal is no place, can rarely end well, if they end at all. Bradley, unlike Hiram with his order of knighthood, can't simply end things before they stop being real. If my immediate reaction upon finishing the final page was disappointment, then, it's because Noise ultimately doesn't quite manage to make good on the tension-raising indulgences it begs along the way, the vagueness and the hints of possibility that go unfulfilled. Yet there's enjoyment to be had in the process of reading Noise, in seeing Bradley weave together the strands of Hiram's character. Ultimately the measure of the novel isn't signal to noise, but bandwidth: what feels like a novel set up to cover a broad band of concerns ends up using all its signal to boost a more narrow beam of content.
Matt Denault (firstname.lastname@example.org) has never lost the seriousness of a child at play—especially when it comes to reading. He lives just outside Boston. Depending on when you are reading this, he either has or had a blog called Lingua Fantastika.