Square Wave by Mark de Silva
Two Dollar Radio, 2016; 374 pp
Reviewed by Jordan Williams
Mark de Silva’s first novel, Square Wave, is a challenge to the literary world rather than a debut. Readers should be tipped off by the fact that its central protagonist, Carl Stagg, is a frustrated academic aiming to publish a genre-bending account of colonial warfare in 17th century Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka). De Silva is as insistent as Stagg when it comes to letting his own interests, rather than the expectations associated with his chosen form, determine the scope of his writing. As a result, character development generally takes a backseat to introspection on this intellectual tour de force.
Depending on a reader’s perspective, each character’s esoteric observations might actually serve to anchor de Silva’s otherwise digressive prose. Edward Laurent, an experimental bassist searching for his signature sound, contemplates Ptolemaic scales with a fastidiousness that might enchant ardent music theorists. As a musician less steeped in theory, I find Laurent to be at his most relatable when, upon entering a nightclub, he compulsively takes a detailed inventory of the instruments on stage. This is the kind of simple habit that meaningfully animates his character and is likely to resonate even with nonmusicians. Everything in Laurent’s world relates to the performance of music and patterns in sound. His memories are infused with and informed by the sounds he hears. This eventually takes on a key significance in the novel’s plot.
Although the novel takes particular interest in sound, Square Wave is perhaps most ambitious in its treatment of violence. Carl Stagg exists in the near future, when America’s political landscape has become so fractured that various groups take turns carrying out bombings aimed at disrupting upcoming elections. Stagg moonlights as a member of the Second Watch, walking the streets to provide human intelligence for an increasingly exasperated network of law enforcement agencies. His route exposes him to the plight of sex workers in his city as they are increasingly being targeted for brutal attacks by a mysterious john.
There were several times when I questioned de Silva’s treatment of the violent sexual obsessions of some of his characters. Sexual violence features in Square Wave in a way that feels both relevant and reckless. In one particularly revealing scene, Stagg finds himself unable to look directly at a prostitute without fantasizing about the bruising oral penetration he assumes she submits to on a regular basis. The ferocity of Stagg’s fantasies reflects the apocalyptic reality in which he lives but contrasts with a preceding scene, in which the reader watches as the prostitute in question takes in a wheelchair-bound assault victim. Violence leaves a more vivid impression on the mind and, as a result, the novel tends to feel more sensational than thoughtful in this regard.
That de Silva has showcased his intellectual vigor in this novel can’t be doubted. He has also written a story that is fundamentally unconventional. In addition to the themes discussed above, de Silva also uses the novel to consider the ethics of weaponizing weather systems. All of this innovation probably makes Square Wave more suitable for debate than review. However, those willing to slowly digest de Silva’s ideas may find the experience rewarding, even refreshing.