June 19, 2013
I Can’t Hear Myself Think
Posted on May 25, 2012
By Dexter Palmer
It is difficult within the space of this review to convey how digressive this book is. Without notes and appendices, it comes in at 222 pages. Three of those pages are used for an anecdote about Senechal’s childhood trip by ocean liner to the Netherlands; ten are dedicated to a competent if unremarkable summary and analysis of Sophocles’ “Antigone”; seven more are taken up with a pedantic retracing of a proof from Newton’s “Principia.” There is even a brief defense of digression included that focuses on Laurence Sterne’s novel “Tristram Shandy.” However, Sterne was a comic writer who let his readers know that they were being played with, and encouraged them to take this in good spirit. A nonfiction book of this kind has a different standard to live up to; its tangents should be in the service of a central organizing principle. It is certainly possible to have a highly digressive nonfiction work that is all of a piece—William T. Vollmann’s monumental study of the motivations of violence, “Rising Up and Rising Down,” comes to mind—but this isn’t the case here. The organizing principle that governs “Republic of Noise” is tenuous at best; the overriding impression is of a collection of fragments that have been harvested from other sources and stitched together in a crazy-quilt fashion.
Part of the problem is Senechal’s slippery use of the word “solitude,” which is meant to yoke a number of disparate concepts together. As profoundly moving and as necessary to one’s mental health as solitude can be, Senechal poses that it is more difficult a concept to grasp than it in fact is: “One could thumb through all the dictionaries for a definition of solitude, one could drink up all the literature, and yet no definition would do unless it tightened a gulp or unsheathed a grin.” Sometimes Senechal speaks of solitude as the quality of being alone, either literally or figuratively (as in being alone with one’s thoughts); sometimes solitude is a matter of dissent or iconoclasm, a need to assert one’s uniqueness amid groupthink. Sometimes its meaning is more woolly: it is “nothing more or less than integrity” in one case; in another it “consists partly in our affinities.” And so since the word “solitude” shows up in so many different instances, often with an unclear usage or a meaning that’s been grafted on, the result is a text that’s been made more opaque than it needs to be, in the service of providing the illusion of thematic coherence—in many instances “solitude” could be replaced with “iconoclasm” or “self-esteem” or “loneliness,” with increased clarity and no loss of sense. This slipperiness of usage also shows up with other words such as “discernment” and “sincerity.” “There is something miraculous, indeed, about sincerity,” Senechal writes at one point, and then, in the paragraph just before: “When working out a mathematical proof, one keeps an eye out for hidden flaws and pitfalls. ... When learning a language, one becomes increasingly aware of idiom and syntax. All of these sharpenings are forms of sincerity.” Or they are merely the result of paying close attention: No miracle need be involved.
Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture
By Diana Senechal
Rowman & Littlefield Education, 263 pages
The prose style of the book is adventurous if uneven. Again, when she is dealing with education and pedagogy, Senechal’s writing is strongest—clear and unornamented, with an occasional sting when she feels the subject deserves it. The further the book drifts away from education, though, the more likely the writing is to take a turn toward the poetic and labored, with mixed results. Her metaphors can sometimes be playful, if deliberately absurd: “We will always be a garageful of things, but when we go on a bicycle ride, we may leave the rake behind. It’s an awkward thing to carry on a bike.” But she can also privilege sound over sense; often her chapters aimlessly trail off into a series of precious images in lieu of a proper conclusion. (“A word or line [when singing in a chorus] makes you shiver, and you know that the shiver is not yours alone, but a rhythm passed from mind to mind, a passing ghost, a frisky gust, the tug of something wrong in the world, a cadence of water and pebbles.”)
And so instead of a straight-ahead critique of current pedagogical practices in public schools, “Republic of Noise” is something altogether more disorganized and strange: If it is not an autobiography, it is perhaps an attempt to portray its author’s interdisciplinary, magpie-like, iconoclastic state of mind. If it fails, it doesn’t compromise, though unvarnished self-expression always runs the risk that the only person who will be sympathetic to your aesthetic choices is yourself. If the price of that form of integrity is a certain kind of solitude, it is a price that Senechal seems more than willing to pay.
Dexter Palmer is the author of “The Dream of Perpetual Motion,” selected by Kirkus Reviews as one of the best works of debut fiction of 2010. He is currently at work on his second novel.
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