The Rest is Silence

From North Mountain, Nova Scotia, the apocalypse looks quaint and non-threatening. A minor inconvenience. The unnamed protagonist in Scott Fotheringham’s The Rest is Silence is found here, digging a new bed for the tomatoes, building a one room cabin with his bare hands, and befriending the locals sparsely scattered across the land. He seems not the least concerned with the ongoing fall, or at least stumble, of civilization.

From North Mountain, Nova Scotia, the apocalypse looks quaint and non-threatening. A minor inconvenience. The unnamed protagonist in Scott Fotheringham’s The Rest is Silence is found here, digging a new bed for the tomatoes, building a one room cabin with his bare hands, and befriending the locals sparsely scattered across the land. He seems not the least concerned with the ongoing fall, or at least stumble, of civilization.

In New York, the year previous, a brilliant young scientist named Benny slaves away in a research laboratory attempting to breed a strain of bacteria that can digest waste plastic, breaking it down into its environmentally harmless components. Her supervisor’s eyes might as well be dollar signs, but Benny has bigger plans. She is carrying around so much pain inside her, from the tragic loss of her parents, from the disease she inherited, and from her disillusionment with society as a whole, that she is unable to forge even a single human connection without sabotaging it from the start.

“Word becomes deed.”

This quote from the opening of The Rest is Silence references a fragment of unsourced wisdom often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson because, well, why not.

“Watch your thoughts. They become words. Watch your words. They become deeds. Watch your deeds. They become habits. Watch your habits. They become character. Character is everything.”

Emerson was famously the mentor of Henry Thoreau, who wrote Walden, which is also heavily referenced throughout. And thus, it is no surprise that, when Benny finally does crack the genetic code and develop a viable strain, she keeps it to herself. Rather than breeding it for contained and controlled digestion, she selects for rapid reproduction and maximum resilience. It is no accident that it escapes into the wild.

As the narrative of Fotheringham’s debut novel unwinds between Nova Scotia and New York, the contrast between the feeling of isolation in the big city and the sense of community in the middle of nowhere is poignant. The characters and the relationships between them are coloured with subtle and evocative brushstrokes. The love stories in this book are heartbreaking and real. It is a densely literary effort. Its biggest problem, really, is that its grand reveal is entirely superfluous. Half the readers will have already figured it out and two thirds won’t care. Going for the gotcha cheapens what is otherwise a meticulously crafted emotional trajectory.

This novel is half The Windup Girl and half Pilgrim at Tinker’s Creek, which is not a combination I would ever have expected to hear in an elevator pitch. To tell the truth, Fotheringham is better at evoking Annie Dillard than he is at evoking Paolo Bacigalupi. The result is a strange work of post-apocalyptic fiction that I almost feel may have been targeted at no-one but me. As is always the case in novels that attempt to tell two parallel narratives, the author is always fighting against the reader’s natural urge, each time the narrative shifts, to jump ahead. I remember that it wasn’t until the third time that I read The Two Towers that I actually encountered Theoden.

In The Rest is Silence, surprisingly, it is the down-tempo Nova Scotian sections that compel and the sci-fi New York chapters that drag.

This is a beautifully atmospheric novel of the sort that genre fiction needs to see more of. But the tradeoff is that it does not seem entirely clear that the fantastical elements are strictly necessary. It’s not too much of a spoiler to say that the actual cataclysm occurs almost entirely off camera. The American section ends just as the end is beginning, and the Canadian section begins with it already underway. The truth is that any random newsworthy act would have done. What matters is that Benny must run from what she has done and that our unnamed friend in Nova Scotia must live in a changed world. I can understand why Fotheringham chose to go the route of science fiction, but there are certainly other paths he could have chosen to tell the same story while remaining on the Literary Fiction shelves.

It is an uneasy introspection to determine how I feel about this. There is a petty homunculus within me who wants to say this is not real science fiction. But it is fantastic and it embraces our tropes without winking even once. What this is, really, is a natural continuation of Margaret Atwood’s extrapolation of Canadian Gothic into speculative fiction. The garrison mentality is a natural fit for technological apocalypse and so I welcome Scott Fotheringham into the fold with open arms. Let the boundaries get as fuzzy as they want. This is good stuff.

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