University of Vermont

From Dickens to Dystopia, Serialized Fiction Meets the Age of the App

'The Silent History' makes it possible to enter an entirely new world of storytelling. (Photo: Sally McCay)

It’s not exactly a new idea that technology is overwhelming readers. Clever blogs and author Tweets, e-books, the Times online with compelling video, the New Yorker appealingly designed for iPad. Nonstop intellectual seduction can saturate the mind despite the impossibility of catching up. But a unique new literary project, a collaboration including UVM assistant professor of English Kevin Moffett, turns that reality on its head. You literally can’t have more until they say so. The word junkie will wait

The work, The Silent History, is an app for iPhone and iPad that employs intriguing visuals, video, audio and GPS-enabled opportunities for active engagement. Central, however, is the writing, an imperative for Moffett who has published two story collections and had work included in three editions of The Best American Short Stories. To what’s become the inevitable question, Moffett responds, “If I thought this was just castaway content masquerading as a book then I would think of it as gimmicky,” he says. “But I think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written.”

The Los Angeles Times doesn’t think it’s a gimmick either. In their review they quote a digital content strategy consultant for publishers who said, “It’s artistically exceptional, and also built around technological innovation. These guys have just raised the bar – a lot.”

What Moffett and these other guys have created – a team that includes Eli Horowitz, former editor of the independent publisher McSweeney’s, who conceived and produced the project, another award-winning writer and a software developer – is a fictional dystopian narrative that uses oral testimonies, spanning from 2011 to 2043, to make sense of a mysterious epidemic that breaks out among a generation of children who come to be known as “silents,” cut off by an inability to generate or comprehend language of any kind.

The testimonials come from parents, teachers, medical professionals, faith healers, neighbors, imposters – no doubt some the most up-to-date reader hasn’t yet met. Within these characters there is a range of human response from desperation and empathy, fear and curiosity, hopelessness and idolatry.

Even the most sympathetic among them, a father who has given his life to finding a way to reach his daughter, working with other parents to build a school, admits, “The school building was this crazy clown house that we were using to keep us focused on the future, on this fantasy of the day when we believed our kids would be normal, where they could talk to us, tell us what was going on in their heads. Instead of the present, which was where our kids were sort of dead. Walking dead.”

Testimonials are arranged into six volumes with 20 stories of only about 1,500 words in each, some characters appearing throughout, some only once. For those who have already downloaded the app (which is free; content is $1.99 per volume or $8.99 for all six), one testimonial appeared on their device each weekday – extra tapping gets you nowhere. Buy it now, and you can gobble up the content of volume one, but there’s a pause before the next serialized volume begins.

“Odd global book club”

The wait is not intended as an exercise in frustration – and yes, they have written and edited and rewritten and edited all 120 testimonials, multiple times. In fact, it's a close exchange Moffett misses now that he’s alone at work on a novel. What the creators hope is that readers will take advantage of the downtime to explore the second and most innovative feature of the app: field reports.

These are shorter, self-contained narratives that take advantage of the features of a physical location and can only be activated if your device is within 10 meters of the location. But you want to get even closer because the experience of what you read on your screen is intimately tied to something at the scene. See an odd ding on a sidewalk and have it explained by one person’s “silent” story; stand across the street from a row of leafless trees that reminds the writer of silent children who died in a fire, the branches “like skinny little arms with charred black stumps.”

The app has a world map with spots indicated where field reports can be accessed: for now there are thirty around Manhattan and forty in Los Angeles, but there are eight around Austin – they’re in Iowa and Montreal and all over London, in Australia, China, even Antarctica. And more are added continually with readers invited to submit their own, especially in places where none currently exist. It becomes, as the app informs the reader at the end of volume one, a communal activity, an “odd global book club.”

The app includes information on submitting a field report, which has generated a lot of interest. Moffett isn’t surprised – he believes people get invested in the storyline and have a spot they know especially well. “It’s always a place that they pass by every day that has some kind of mystery to it,” he says. Moffett sees endless narrative and geographic possibilities and has a student engaged in an honors project to add field reports in Burlington.

Readers can add to the growing phenomenon or make it a mission to check off spots on their travels, but the reports are tangential to the testimonials, which, altogether, are the equivalent of a 500-page book. A novel to contemplate at a leisurely pace.