Friday, December 19, 2014

Noise: A Review

Darin Bradley's Noise is an apocalyptic novel set in the college town, Slade, Texas (a stand in for Denton, TX near Dallas) in the near future.  The action occurs within a short time frame when a severe economic crises is collapsing the U.S. economy.  Retrospectively, the novel covers the much slower progression toward that tipping point.  The author has a second novel, Chimpanzee,  that also has apocalyptic elements, but is not part of this story line. 

The marking on the cover is based on the graffiti tag used by the group in the book

Darin Bradley went to school in Denton, Texas, and after a brief stay in Greenville, SC, has returned there. Although he has spent a considerable amount of time teaching at the university level, he appears to be working as a writer, and  software developer at the moment.  As noted, the college town Slade, is a slightly reworked Denton, Texas.  There is an interesting video of a reading from the book which I think tries to give a flavor what the intended effect of the writing.

Because of the offbeat, some find it off-putting, nature of the novel, the author was forthcoming about the psychology of what he is trying to produce. In this first case, the interview is actually occurring at a very early stage in writing the novel.
My work typically addresses the "weird" as an operating metaphor for alienation, but I sometimes work with more straightforward, mythic themes. I'm fascinated by dissolution, decay, and the unstable nature of "self."...
When asked about the music he was playing while he wrote the novel (then being titled Amaranth):
I chose these particular artists and albums because the novel I was working on is very bleak. There is only one arguably "happy" scene in the entire story (which is really more of a textual artifact than a story), and I wanted a writing environment that reflected the ambient solitude expressed in the text. Some of these albums are experimental "noise music," and others are simply wild audio recordings of vast, bleak places. I found writing some of the material both challenging and disturbing, and this playlist helped me echo that . . . troublesome nature of the project. It made for some somber writing periods, but they were all ultimately rewarding.  Author Interview: Darin Bradley, Writers and Their Soundtracks, 8 April 2008

In an interview explaining the fully written novel:
I wanted to explore how environments destabilize identity, including our feverishly held beliefs about life, the universe, and everything, to intone Adams.  
So, I decided that an otherwise normal person, when thrown into a social environment that no longer supports (or makes room for) the conveniences and niceties of social coexistence that we know now, would have to re-examine his or her personal mythologies to re-purpose them for a more violent environment. I mean, what good are the lessons you learned playing T-Ball when you’re concerned about people kicking in your door to steal your flour? What does it matter if you excelled at finger-painting when you spend all day hunting for desiccated potatoes in the barren earth? How could one change the meanings of these identity-building experiences so that they rationalized violent, survivalist behavior? What we know, what we think, about our selves and those around us is really just convenience. A lot of it doesn’t mean anything, even though we’d desperately like it to. Interview with Darin Bradley, author of Noise, Samuel Snoek Brown, 31 August 2010
Specific to the story line, the author describes it as such:
Noise is a story about the collapse of American society. It follows a handful of characters in their early 20s–people who are just coming of age in college when the world they’ve been studying falls apart. The novel concerns itself with what one has to do to establish and maintain a survival group as society descends into barbarity. In fact, the novel includes “The Book,” which is an instruction manual for building a newer, stronger nation-state around your survival group on the other “side” of the collapse.

So understanding that the story is delivered  a bit disjointedly, as the narrator, the self-named Hiram, is looking back on what has transpired.  So we know that he has survived, but we don't know how exactly, and as we come to see, we are not sure to what extent they will remake themselves in their effort at building a new culture for these apocalyptic times. Hiram flashes from the recent past, to the distant pass as he tries to build a narrative that  makes sense of what has happened. 

Anyone who has ever tried to look at a detailed narrative of life events that have gotten "off schedule" knows, that the events are much more confused, the information much more limited, than the simple explanatory stories we come up with later.  Hiram, to his credit, does not attempt to simplify or disavow his/the groups actions. In yet another interview, the author notes, Hiram and his friend, Levi, take a no holds, hard-line, no-exceptions, survive-at-all-costs attitude to the collapsing world around them. They have given themselves Old Testament style names, not because they are Christian or Jewish (Hiram was raised Southern Baptist), but because they are founding a new social order. So the "Noise" is the effort of pulling together a coherent story line out of the chaos. And as the old testament identities implies, it is going to be brutal.   Amaranth, the name of their destination, is a type of flowering plant that holds onto its blooms for a long time. The name of the comes from the archaic Greek, amaranton, which means unwilting, and thus by extension immortal. They are not playing for low stakes.

In planning for their survival, the two friends, Hiram and Levi, have written out a book which is their outline plan of what to do in the coming collapse.  As noted, it is a horrifically brutal approach, something like what Hitler might write without any of requirements for social justification. It is an exercise in pure-survival, and for the neo-tribal group, power.  It is this book, which they follow closely in spirit, but less so in detail, which is the core backdrop to the novel.

A  second core idea, beyond the book, is the local and national, anarchist-style underground group: Salvage. Salvage has taken over the tiny amount of bandwidth left over from the analog to digital television conversion, and much like the earlier pirate radio, various groups use it to publish their various personal agendas.  Through the use of repeaters, the Salvage network spreads through a variety of locations, but one suspects mostly centered around liberal arts colleges where the students might have both the time and inclination to parse out the often cryptic messages. Within the greater confusion of the collapse storyline, the Salvage broadcasts are a beacon, but also with a fair amount of noise peculiar to its own delivery form.  The anarchistic nature of the groups, sometimes working in parallel with each other, but often at somewhat competing purposes, adds additional noise. 

As far as the small group that is the focus of the novel, the novel follows a fairly simple bug-out novel time line:  Go to central meeting point in town (named the House of Cards), gather up supplies, go to bug-out location.  But events don't exactly transpire as planned.

The supply gathering is required because they are not wealthy and don't have a supply of guns and ammo at their disposal.  Of course, as we come to see, some of this "poverty" is simply a factor what they choose to accumulate and work on, rather than purely a factor of money.  Even at the planning level, which Hiram views retrospectively, a lot of money was spent researching the local situation as they debated the tactics of bugging-in versus bugging-out.

Most of the novel involves the snatch and grab portion of the storyline.  The actual bug-out is not ignored, but by this point the narrative is at freight train velocity and their is a certain numbing momentum toward the conclusion.  I wouldn't say the conclusion is a let down, but the power of the novel is in the getting there.

Did I like it?  Yes.  A lot of people don't like it because they object to the character's being sociopaths, or evil, or both.  To me, calling every brutal person with an agenda a sociopath, is a cop out.  If the world collapses do you want your family, however you constitute it, to survive.  If you do, what are you willing to do?  The author came to the conclusion that he would pretty much do anything, and given some time to think it out before hand, the results get scary.  The novel is far more realistic than the many prepper wish fulfillment novels where the preppers take the place of the gunfighter heroes in some gritty Western novel.

An example:  if you are going to survive a total collapse of society, you might come to the conclusion that it is better to be sharing resources with fewer people.  There are a couple of ways you could do this.  You could kill your non-preparing neighbors, you could destroy competing prepper groups, or you could accelerate the collapse time line so that the non-prepared have less time to work out partial, but ultimately futile, solutions.  All of this is explored to some degree in the novel in very brutal terms.

Mind you, you don't have to take Hiram and Levi's solution as being the correct one for the end times.  But if you reject it, you would need to come up with a plausible alternative for survival. Because if the Hiram/Levi's of the world are the only people left standing, they will get to dictate the storyline going forward.

We now come to our two descriptive (not qualitative) ratings: 1 to 7 with 4 the mid-point and 7 high. Realism does not include the cause of the collapse or apocalypse, but is otherwise an assessment of how close to today's world is the setting. Could you imagine your friends, or families living through the situation. Readability is not literary merits, but literally how quick and painless of a read.

The time frame of the immediate action is relatively short.  Some of the combat strikes me as being a little overly proficient of neophyte combatants.  But given that even the National Guardsman, who make an occasional appearance, may not have tons of combat experience in a built up urban area, it is not completely unbelievable.  Obviously, the group, in its own unique way, has made a lot of plans, and thought through a lot of contingencies.  The world is very close to that of our world today.  It is a seven.

Readability is uneven.  As you would expect a college student writing a memoir, there is a bit rambling going on.  But in general, the author gives you the information you need to figure out what is going on.  So while it is not a linear narrative, it is not a complete mass of confusion either.  There are points where the storyline is a bit of a page turner.  As a fast moving 222 pages, I will call it a 5.


PioneerPreppy said...

Sounds interesting at least. Although from your description it doesn't sound like the author even considered my favorite theory of the new "haves" being those who own land in rural communities becoming basically the new gentry but most do ignore that possible outcome.

russell1200 said...

Pioneer: Oh yes he does! But as with everything else in the novel he puts a rather horrific twist on it. The bug out is a relatively short portion of toward the end of the novel, but at this point you know who the various folks are so you don't need as much time spent on details.

James M Dakin said...

Russell, you wonderful bastard! Another prize of a book I'd never hear about except from you. Thank you.

russell1200 said...

Sorry to be slow responding.

James: The kids missed the stew pot, but you will appreciate their brutality otherwise. What is really fun is that the brutality is coming out of modern kid-culture, not the usual prepper middle America. Kids are more brutal.