This review first appeared on Fourth & Sycamore.
Mark De Silva’s Square Wave (Two Dollar Radio, 2016) is an ambitious and wholly unique novel. The book feels hewn from the stuff of another literary age while at the same time feeling relevant in a way that will age gracefully. The multiple story lines are less intertwined than complementary, harmonious. They sometimes touch, but their direct connections are rarely the point. The concept for Square Wave could have been confusing, boring, or pretentious had the scaffolding of its execution been unable to support the weight of the project. De Silva was up to the task. This is a writer doing what he pleases, and doing it well enough to deserve the permission. The expansive novels of Victor Hugo came to mind throughout my reading of this book.
Square Wave primarily takes place about a decade from now in a recognizable America slightly less impervious, less sure of itself, more paranoid and for better reasons than the America we live in today. Domestic terror attacks have the populace edgy and the government edgier. Much of the civilian population is employed to walk the streets at night looking for suspicious behavior. One of these individuals, Carl Stagg, is a philosopher working on a hybrid book that will explore philosophy and his own personal background through a history of 17th-century Sri Lanka. Stagg is the character we spend the most time with, but Square Wave has the cast of a Tolstoy novel. There is an avant-garde musician obsessed with the possibilities of mathematical harmony, searching for a truth underneath the tones like he’s looking for a singularity to explain the origin of the universe. There is a prostitute who has been brutally beaten, a woman of education who turned to her profession when she was desperate for money. There is the man responsible for her beating, and for those of a dozen other sex workers in the city, a man who feels he is working for some deeper cause through these vicious attacks. There is a monk in 17th-century Sri Lanka, and several European men in the same time and place. There is another musician with a PhD. in meteorology whose father and brother have been working for the government of India for years to figure out how to create–and disperse–storms. There is the head of a prestigious think tank who abhors the term “think tank,” a labor organizer, a crime boss with political ties, and a dozen other minor characters.
De Silva picks up these pieces and turns them over in his hands, patiently giving each as much attention as makes sense at any given point, then setting them aside again. I can’t quite deduce the structural alchemy that keeps these transitions from being jarring or the various threads confusing, but they are not. More than merely jumping between divergent story lines, Square Wave explores the deeper obsessions of various characters with an astonishing level of detail. When the character of Larent loses himself in the intricacies of harmonic rhythm, we are given pages of contemplation that spare us none of the complexity of the subject. When Ravan is explaining his father’s experiments with storm creation, the science is not dumbed down for us. We (I) don’t understand every concept being explained, but it’s explained with a poetry that allows it to make sense conceptually even if the details are beyond us. De Silva has done something remarkable in these passages: he’s created a vertical depth of meaning that can be understood at various levels of knowledge. A wine novice can recognize a glass of wine tastes good even while being aware they are a novice and don’t understand the nuances of the wine like a trained expert might; that trained expert, however, will be rewarded for her learning when she tastes that same wine. Both can stand on a patio together and enjoy the wine and conversation. These passages in Square Wave work much the same way. I am not a musician, and when I read the sections of this book dealing with complex harmonies, I know there is tremendous depth I am missing that a trained musician would reap rewards from. Still, there is the beauty of the language, and an intuitive level on which even those concepts beyond my learning coalesce into meaning, and the recognition of this character’s obsession and talent. This is repeated throughout the book with concepts of meteorology, philosophy, politics, history.
“He carried on forming dyads this way, twelve of them, taking each rising fifth as the new root, locking it in place with the pedal, and bowing a fifth above. He made his wave through the circle of fifths, climbing seven octaves this way, seven and a remainder. The E at the top was not an E, could not be. It overshot E by a Pythagorean comma–less than a quarter of a semitone, and nowhere close to superparticular: 531,441 to 524,288.
This wasn’t his mistake. The glitch was in the mathematics itself. You couldn’t return to the root pitch through pure fifths. The circle wouldn’t close. Instead it spiraled upward, a comma for every twelve fifths. To close the loop, to make E meet E, you had to narrow that last fifth by a comma. This was how a wolf was born, a howling, beating fifth.” – page 147
There is a way in which these crescendoing arcs of complexity, billowing from the minds of human beings existing in a scene, beginning and ending in the physical details of that scene, work as symbols for the book as a whole. The book is irreconcilably complex, just like the variables of storm formation, or the infinite logic of musical tones, or any attempts to nail down human thought and existence through philosophy. But the unfathomable data of atmospheric physics creates storms of breathtaking power and beauty. The countless possibilities of sound can be winnowed down to music that moves us. The exercise of plumbing the depths of human thinking sharpens the mind and yields great insight. As each of these arcs in Square Wave ascends its own heights, disperses its offerings, and returns to the ground to give way to the next, one can’t help but see the echo of the book as a whole, the way its seemingly unrelated themes and settings form a more logical whole, a work that makes sense beyond and above the diagramming of its plot. They are unaware of each other, but reverberate off each other, like the chords Larent bows on his double bass, each multiplying meaning in its neighbors while simultaneously reducing the magnitude of each through the proliferation of detail. Appropriately, the book begins on a quiet morning with a character making coffee in his kitchen, and ends with a character checking his phone. Domesticity and simplicity bracketing tremendous abstraction and complexity in the lives of characters who, for all their brilliance, still must eat and drink and talk and love.
Two Dollar Radio has been publishing exceptional experimental fiction for years now, but nothing so far with the ambition and scope of Mark De Silva’s debut. Square Wave is a stunning achievement.