The Silent Land
Gollancz hardcover £9.99
review by Jonathan McCalmont
In his book The View From Nowhere (1986), the philosopher Thomas Nagel frames the challenge of seeking 'big answers' to 'big questions'
as a problem of:
How to combine the perspective of a particular person inside the world with an objective view of that same world, the person and his viewpoint
included. It is a problem that faces every creature with the impulse and the capacity to transcend its particular point of view and to conceive
of the world as a whole.
In other words, in order to grasp the objective nature of the world we must transcend our nature as creatures of that world. Transcendence is
an act of philosophical projection with a daunting difficulty curve; the scientific method allows us to isolate variables and screen-out subjective
biases but the bigger the questions, the greater the number of variables and the harder it becomes to gain traction on the objective facts. By
the time we get to big questions such as 'what is the meaning of life?' transcendence stops being an act of rational projection and it becomes
a leap of irrational faith. The world is immune to our calls for big answers and to fill the awkward silence we play make-believe and pretend
that we know what we are talking about.
The world's indifference to our demand for answers is the central theme of Graham Joyce's short novel The Silent Land. Ostensibly set
in a village in the French Pyrenees, The Silent Land tells the story of a young British couple named Jake and Zoe who survive an avalanche
only to return to their hotel and find it empty. Convinced that the hotel has been evacuated out of fear of a second much larger avalanche, the
couple venture forth in search of aid only to realise that they are alone. Completely alone... Try as they might to make their way back to
civilisation, the couple find themselves drifting back to the same hotel, their plans foiled by weather, geography and weird psychological quirks
that rise up out of nowhere only to recede back into the Freudian undergrowth the second Jake and Zoe return to their hotel. It takes them a while
to get there but eventually a conceptual-breakthrough takes place: they are dead.
According to The Encyclopaedia Of Science Fiction (1999), the conceptual-breakthrough is one of the central tropes of modern science fiction.
Representing a shift from one Kuhnian paradigm to another, the conceptual-breakthrough is a moment of perfect transcendence whereby an old understanding
of the world is swept away and replaced with an entirely new (and presumably correct) one. In the case of The Silent Land, the conceptual-breakthrough
is reminiscent of that which takes place at the end of William Golding's Pincher Martin (1956). However, where Golding's moment of transcendence
transforms the novel from a tale of survival to an allegory for damnation and purgatory, Joyce's revelation merely kick-starts a much more drawn
out process of existential ruination whereby the characters shift from one beautifully realised epiphany to another.
'God's reserve list. Nature's reserve list. Like everyone else is on the ordinary menu and we've been kept back here cos we're on the reserve list.'
- page 47
'No, you're right. We can be free, together, staying here, playing in the snow like children, with all our needs taken care of.' - page 90
'Oh. Yes. But I worked it out. I know where we are. We're at the place where the laws of physics and the laws of dreaming meet.' - page 147
While Jake and Zoe are only too eager to 'try on' these new explanations of their continued existence and their place in the afterlife, the universe
of the dead seems no more interested in their desperate acts of speculation than the universe of the living. Jake and Zoe throw themselves into
one act of transcendence after another, and yet the land's only response is silence.
What pushes the couple into these absurd acts of projection is what can only be described as the passing shadow of God. From the very first page
of the novel, the devoutly atheistic couple feel as though the landscape is somehow alive and watching them. When Jake first makes his appearance
in the novel, he shrieks his joy at being alive and Zoe promptly castigates him for failing to show proper respect to the mountain. This creeping
tendency to animism becomes all the more pronounced once the couple realise they are dead as death brings with it a growing obsession with the
idea that there is some intelligence behind their situation and that some further disaster is poised to descend upon them.
'In all our folklore about death, someone comes to collect us. You know, Uncle Derek in a surgical gown telling you to go into the light. The
Devil shovelling you into his furnace. Charon to row you across the River Styx. I can't help feeling someone or something... is coming.' - page 91
This need to work out what's going on before something bad happens serves a dual purpose. Firstly, it provides the novel with a plot and, secondly,
it provides the couple with a means of structuring their increasingly meaningless and aimless existence. Indeed, with no God to judge them, no Devil
to punish them, and no reason to do anything aside from eat lavish food, drink expensive wine, and fuck like minks, the couple latch onto the quest
for big answers as a means of simply passing the time and so this quest drags them through their afterlife just as it drags us through the novel.
The couple's search for meaning in death and their growing belief that someone out there is coming for them mirrors our own searches for meaning
in life and meaning in the novel as we too are sucked into trying to work out why Jake and Zoe are stuck in a Pyrenean purgatory.
If the book's primary thematic currency is the search for meaning, and the universe's indifference to that search, then the book's dramatic currency
is the ups and downs of the couple's relationship. Right from the start, Zoe and Jake relate to each other in quite an endearingly confrontational
manner. They swear at each other. They crack jokes. They snipe. They tease. This, combined with the fact that Zoe is pregnant but does not dare
tell Jake, suggests that this is a couple with quite a shallow relationship. However, as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that
the couple are incredibly well attuned to each other. So well attuned, in fact, that even the slightest nuance in behaviour is immediately picked
up on. This means that as Jake and Zoe begin to react very differently to their respective deaths, their differences in attitude begin to creak
and groan as ominously as the distant snows that seem poised to descend upon their village sanctuary. The differences between the couple are embedded
in their names; Zoe shows her Greek roots by clinging to life while Jake seems perfectly jake with the idea of being dead.
While these two strands of the novel are perfectly consistent and beautifully realised, Joyce's attempts to integrate them are profoundly problematic.
Indeed, while Joyce's depiction of Jake and Zoe's relationship is delicately realised and genuinely affecting, its heart-warming nature stands in
stark contrast with the chilling indifference of the land that the couple inhabit. This means that when Zoe realises why they are trapped and that
those reasons are to do with the extent to which they love each other, the conceptual-breakthrough feels not only arbitrary and inauthentic but
also actively manipulative. Given how many attempts the couple make at finding big answers, why should the truth be so sentimentally hospitable?
Why should the needs of transcendence so perfectly mesh with the needs of emotional fulfilment? Why should truth be so easy to come by when the
entirety of The Silent Land screams the world's complete indifference to us and our suffering? Sadly, by allowing his silent land to finally
speak, Joyce seems more intent upon winning the reader's affection with an up-beat ending than remaining true to the themes of the book.