Reviewed by Maude Lapierre
The Rest is Silence. Goose Lane, 2012.
Scott Fotheringham’s debut novel, The Rest is Silence, is a “back-to-the-land” narrative that follows an initially unnamed protagonist who has recently moved to the Nova Scotia countryside. The narrator justifies his relocation by mentioning that he “had grown weary of a world that didn’t make sense” (20), and his distaste towards technology, civilization, and consumerism are ever apparent in his internal monologues and snide comments regarding his neighbours’ wasteful habits. The present-day narrative strand focuses on the details of the protagonist’s new lifestyle, from the hardship of obtaining food, water, and shelter, to his interactions with his neighbours and growing relationship with Lina, a Metis woman who shares the narrator’s desire for an alternative lifestyle. Thankfully, the narrator interrupts his overly-detailed account of the day-to-day minutia that dominates the contemporary section of the narrative through storytelling. He initially divulges details from his past, in which his mother abandoned the family, while his father committed suicide. Then, as reports come in of plastic-eating bacteria whose unstoppable progression threatens apocalyptic consequences for the consumer culture the narrator incessantly criticizes, he begins to relate the tale of Benny, a female graduate student in molecular biology, to his neighbour Art.
Through Benny’s narrative strand, the novel aligns the protagonist’s eco-consciousness with scientific research. At first, the connection between the two narrative strands hints that environmental preservation requires both systemic change and individual action. It is in the sections dealing with Benny’s life in New York City that Fotheringham displays the most promise as a writer, as his moralizing tone sees its confrontational edges dulled in his depiction of Benny as an inherently flawed and irrationally single-minded character. A promising but quickly disillusioned graduate student, Benny longs to dedicate her scientific research to the betterment of humanity and the environment rather than to corporate profit. Through her experiences and her brief, unfulfilling relationships, readers witness the consequences of sexism and competition in academia, and perceive that she and the protagonist are profoundly connected: they share a similar past, the same scars, the same commitment phobia, and the same ever-moralizing tone on environmental issues. Once the male protagonist reveals that he and the female Benny are the same person, Fortheringham orients the narrative towards a discussion of genetics and gender: the narrator/Benny is genetically male (XY chromosomes), but “physiologically and socially” (293) female. This revelation indicates that Benny’s motivation for her scientific research is, somehow, biological. Because she cannot have children, she conceptualizes the plastic-eating bacteria as her “child” (191), which explains why she obsessively pursued her research despite its negative consequences on her health and social relationships. It is at this point in the novel that readers realize that the protagonist’s justification to live outside civilization as described at the novel’s onset is not the whole truth: having unleashed her bacteria on New York City, Benny escapes the legal consequences of her actions by moving to Nova Scotia and living as a male.
The Rest is Silence deals with the important topic of environmental degradation, but remains unable to do so without moralizing and confronting its readers with the tacit assumptions that they are passive, complacent, and reckless. The novel is full of sentences that preach “our days are numbered. We choose to ignore this for blissful stretches of time” (194), “something is wrong with the sun, with the air, with the food we eat from the store” (194), “I know that we are going to destroy the world that holds us” (320), and “we won’t survive” (322). These statements might very well be true from a scientific point of view, but they add very little to the narrative, and recur with such frequency that they incite eye-rolling rather than an engaged commitment to social change on the part of readers. The novel’s multiple narrative strands are also poorly interwoven, as the issue of gender as a genetic and social construct occurs too late to inform the narrative’s eco-consciousness as anything other than the cause of Benny’s character flaws. In other words, it functions as a distraction from what appears to be the novel’s political intent, although it does force the readers to examine why they chose to imagine the protagonist as male despite the fact that gender-specific pronouns only appear at the very end of the novel.
As a political project, the novel works best in its description of Benny’s life in New York, where her desire to eliminate plastic at all costs portrays her as a short-sighted scientist bent on swift solutions rather than social change, much like Atwood’s Crake, of Oryx and Crake. The consequences of her actions do not seem to trouble her as long as they remain connected to the destruction of plastic, but once her neighbour Art becomes infected with the bacteria, she realizes the unintended amplitude of her actions. In this way, the novel comments on the belief that scientific progress can provide a quick fix for environmental problems and criticizes reckless consumerism much more effectively than the narrator’s constant references to environmental degradation. Ultimately, the novel provides no viable options to prevent further environmental damage, as the narrative’s overtly political project yields to revelations about the protagonist’s past, identity, and gender. Fotheringham leaves little unsaid, describing everything from the protagonist’s tedious lifestyle to Benny’s passion for long jogs, and this attention to details slows down the narrative instead of contributing to its intricacy or verisimilitude. If Benny’s declaration that “the rest is silence” can be interpreted as a refusal to divulge more information about her past, as it does in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the readers might nonetheless feel that Fotheringham divulged much more than was necessary.
At press time: Maude Lapierre is a PhD candidate at the Université de Montréal, department of English, where she is completing her SSHRC-funded dissertation entitled “The Hybridity of Violence: Location, Dislocation, and Relocation in Contemporary Canadian Multicultural and Indigenous Writing.” ACQL-ALCQ awarded her the Barbara Godard prize in 2009 and an honourable mention in 2011. She has also published articles in Studies in Canadian Literature, Canadian Literature, and Canadian Literature Online.
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