Language For the End of Time


How do you write about the end of the world? Take that question at face value: how does one’s prose suggest that something cataclysmic has occurred in society, some rupture that has altered our means of communication? Consider it the flip side of Octavia E. Butler’s short story “Speech Sounds,” in which society as we know it crumbles after a biological condition causes humans to lose the ability to speak. The landscape that emerges in Butler’s story is an combination of modern technology and brutal violence, the “state of nature” talked about in political science popping up next door. It’s a scenario as terrifying as it is evocative, suggesting horrors both literal and societal that could emerge. In the case of Butler, the power of her story can be found in the gulf between the lucid prose used to describe this nightmarish situation and the spoken language on which her characters can no longer rely.

Two recent novels take on the challenge of rendering a deeply altered society through the language in which they are told. Carola Dibbell’s The Only Ones is the story of a woman named Inez Fardo, who lives in a near-future New York City (Queens, specifically) where modern-day class divisions, surveillance technology, and diseases have accelerated to a nerve-wracking extent. Mark Doten’s The Infernal nestles a series of parallel narratives into the story of a horrifying interrogation of a terribly burned youth; these accounts, these voices, act as a kind of funhouse mirror of early-21st century American society and societal fears. Each of these novels is told in a distinctive manner; for each, the way they use language is as essential to the story being told as the plot itself.

From the first page of The Only Ones, Inez’s voice emerges, tersely laying out the world in which she lives.

I been to Pennsylvania. Once. Well, I think I been in Connecticut. But the van they took me in did not have windows. Pennsylvania was in a Dome. I did not see a single Dome here. Maybe they keep them in some other part of New Jersey.

This isn’t a book that holds your hand, that walks you into a strangely altered landscape and helps explain what everything is. Inez’s language is terse and matter-of-fact. It creates an immediately lived-in feeling for this city, for this society. It’s left to the reader to suss out what the Domes are, and what they imply; later, there will be similar language used for strains of disease that have ravaged the world, as well as names for the kind of genetic immunity that certain people (Inez included) have to them. It can take some time to fully immerse oneself into Dibbell’s novel, but it proves to be incredibly rewarding once you do fall into the rhythms of Inez’s voice: guarded, angry, and unflappably sincere. This is a novel that juxtaposes the ordinary with the extraordinary. It powerfully shows how today’s concerns might become tomorrow’s nightmares, all the while telling a primally compelling story.

The Infernal is a bleaker book, and a more formally adventurous one. Each of the narrators uses a wildly different tone: a traumatized veteran’s voice is straightforward, then abruptly veers into hallucinatory body horror; two drone strike survivors speak in stylized dialogue that evokes (by Doten’s own description) early-20th century comics; and one narrator eludes lucidity altogether. Some of these narrators are funhouse reflections of real people, including Jimmy Wales, Alberto Gonzalez, and Doten himself. And the text is sometimes interrupted with bursts of textual noise:

It’s why they had to be destroyed.

The studio and Polanski, even Jack, they all agreed, eliminate them, do so at all costs, they’d only make the movie ridiculou1JHDOROX

In his acknowledgements, Doten cites the methods used to alter the text; one section was run through the Dialectizer, and a script was used to add noise throughout. The effect that it gives is of a fragmented transmission from somewhere else–and given that the book wrestles with (among other topics) the underbelly of American foreign policy, the corrupting influence of power, and the looming presence of “the cloud,” this effect seems entirely fitting.

An even more dramatic approach can be found in Russell Hoban’s 1980 novel Riddley Walker, which is set in a post-apocalyptic England. The narrator’s use of language reflects just how much society has changed. A passage like “1ce we got a good offing from Bernt Arse we come down be twean Brabbas Horn and Sel Out Form” gives a sense of the altered language and geography of this world. In The Guardian in 2010, Hoban wrote about the origin of this storytelling choice:

I started Riddley Walker in straight English but my characters wouldn’t wear it, they insisted on breaking up long words and imposing their own grammar, syntax and pronunciation on their vernacular.

And while some alternate world’s version of Riddley Walker might well be as satisfying as this one without those linguistic differences, it’s hard to imagine it working as well without them.

Each of these works is set in a world that’s been fundamentally altered in some way. These changes to the language used to tell them, then, make those worlds even more vivid. They accentuate the alterations and the differences, powerfully utilizing language and structure to make the stories they tell resonate even further.

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