I am a person who has spent a good deal of time in loud, crowded cities all over the world, and an almost equal amount of time in rural areas where the silence is sometimes so heavy that breathing it in feels almost like smoke. I have always had a complicated relationship with sound; I am easily distracted and prefer silence, but I can’t go more than a few months without needing to clear my head in the all-consuming noise of a big city. When it’s winter, or when I visit friends and family in quiet rural areas, my skin starts to itch after a day or two of quiet.
For this reason, the premise of Kevin Brockmeier’s knockout story “The Year of Silence”—in which a normal, unnamed city begins to fall intermittently, inexplicably silent, then becomes a city its surprisingly contented residents work together to keep silent—was intoxicating to me on a personal, nostalgic level as well as a literary one. It is precisely the kind of strange, conceptual, lyric story that I as a reader am always searching for in literary magazines.
Although it was first published in Ecotone volume 3.1, I read it for the first time earlier this fall, when we were ordering the anthology. I was reading as fast as I could manage in order to catch up. I had read about eight others before I got to “The Year of Silence.” It immediately captured my attention in a way few short fiction pieces in my life have. It was exhilarating in a purely physical, sensory way—the way a poem sometimes feels—but with the breathing room of a short story.
What struck me first was its structure: small, lyric paragraphs separated into numbered sections. Little luxurious and meditative moments, mirroring the moments of silence that begin to overtake the city. That’s the thing about this piece—it isn’t one you want to read quickly. Brockmeier’s prose is fresh and poetic, and the plot itself is unexpected and moving in the quietest way (perfect for a story about silence). It’s the kind of story you want to sit in a while.
The story is written in second person plural—we—which gives it a collectivity that pairs nicely with the consequences of the city’s newfound silence. After each short, intermittent pause, the city’s residents are astonished by the way their lives seem to have suddenly gained a new sense of meaning; a pervasive sense of peace falls across the entire city. In an effort to recreate that feeling permanently, they work together to develop new silencing technologies. The result of their efforts, like the story itself, is mysterious and maybe even a little magical.
Here’s an excerpt. You can read the full story yourselves in the anthology, due out March 11, 2014:
“Every time one of the silences came to an end we felt as though we had passed through a long transparent passageway, a tunnel of sorts, one that made the world into which we had emerged appear brighter and cleaner than it had before, less troubled, more human. The silence siphoned out of the city and into our ears, spilling from there into our dreams and beliefs, our memories and expectations. In the wake of each fresh episode a new feeling flowed through us, full of warmth and a lazy equanimity. It took us a while to recognize that feeling for what it was: contentment.”
Excerpted from “The Year of Silence” from Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade. Copyright © 2014 by University of North Carolina Wilmington. Used by permission of Lookout Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.