By Mark De Silva
Two Dollar Radio, February 2016
384 pages, $17.99
Reviewed by Nick Sweeney
There are experimental novels and novels that experiment and I wager that Square Wave aims to be the latter. I don’t mean that this novel will recreate the novel, rather, I believe it recreates what to do in the space between the covers. Mark De Silva’s debut is enticing and enthralling, it aims to hit all the literary neurons, seemingly all at once. This might be the closest we get to David Mitchell on LSD. But Mark De Silva doesn’t sit and smell his own achievements that he sets out to accomplish in this novel, he is constantly moving forward, pushing on much like his many narrators. While they stumble across obstacles and dilemmas, De Silva never relinquishes control. This novel is one of disorder and the eventual new one that created soonafter. It is about the process of rebooting humanity. As one of our many narrators sardonically says, “We must wait, I suppose, for events to unfold.”
The novel should grab readers easily enough. How could one go wrong with exploring weather modification and possible militarization? Can we ever truly get enough of Orwellian-like governments? Don’t we live for histories of fictional worlds? The key is that De Silva is able to make the right combination of all of the above. Square Wave is the perfect concoction to for the thirsty mind. The novel has three major roots: Carl Stagg and his operations as a night watchman, Carl Stagg’s detailed history of 17th century Sri Lanka, and his partner Revan and his family of highly ranked government and military officers and the attempts to properly control weather for the best and worst of situations. De Silva takes on a lot and is able to balance his way through all three of these plots with the most minor of missteps. With risk comes great reward. At times, the ambition seems to catch up to the story, and De Silva seems to understand this for he comments on the function and power of it: “That was the problem, the virtue, of poetry, of art. It outran you.”
De Silva is on point, or rather most at home, with the philosophy of writing itself. His goal to figure out the very necessary aspects and importance of history should not go unnoticed. The Sri Lanka plot highlights the upside and pitfalls of reading any history, “The only imaginations at work here, if any, are the authors of the source documents. What it is, is a completely granular history.” And yet De Silva is the author of this very own source document. He is giving us his own history. Fiction, here, is the incest of history. It is the stories we tell time and time again for the sake of believing them. Whereas a majority of the novel is spent developing reasons why history is important to the reader, some of his best points are in relation to why history is important to the writer: “They might also achieve what any one of the essays could not. In the space of one lecture, the only one there might be now, he could still suggest a whole narrative, a destiny, this way. Because even dust could be shaped into a trail. What matter was arrangement, order.” Late in the novel, one of his characters even questions this. “The prevailing thought,” he believes “in the priesthood was that their role was to write the present, not interpret the past or consider the veracity of the Chronicle, which was, after all, composed by them, their predecessors in the temple.” History grows because we allow it, we are both its masters and its servants.
Although the history subtext of the novel is one most worth noting for the writer, the political story also serves as a counter, a one-two punch courtesy of De Silva, to keep the reader entranced. There is an election coming and one that seems filled with controversies as important as the ones in our current run of elections. But De Silva doesn’t investigate the big players, or plays with the All The Kings Men plot. Instead, he explains why we are magnets to conflict, and why it simultaneously matters and doesn’t matter for us, no matter what happens:
One can’t help but observe these unities. Who gains from Celano and I being locked in a conflict that can only be internecine? In some sense, many do. The Christians and Muslims. The libertarians. But they have their own waves of crises. It’s just not their turn. So, in the largest sense, who games—who is strengthened—by the sight of so much strife between all of these rivals, as we head toward elections? We may say this much, I hope, without danger: these clashes can only imbue the elections themselves, along with the government responsible for holding them, with greater authority. Very likely the government will win them too, if they are seen to bring stability now. Conveniently, they can probably choose whatever means they please in bringing it. In a state of emergency, the people grow eager for a heavy hand.
This is the very core of modern humanity. We love and hate it for it is our master and our servant.
Square Wave is a lot of things. It is ambition and addicting, it is filled to the brim with depth and detail. It is a novel that isn’t quite like the others. And it is loaded with thoughts and characters that will stay with you long after you finish with the book and place it on the bookshelves with the other indie press books. It’s not the novel you expected when you first started and you still may not be sure what novel you ended up reading. De Silva says it best, “Nothing is perfect. And no process, not at all, is really, truly stable.” But there is an inherit beauty in reading something we don’t have control over, something that we can’t quite figure out.