I once translated a highly symbolic story by one of the finest modern Urdu writers Intizar Husain, “A Senseless Upheaval,” where the central character is a bygone era, excavated recently. Proof after proof, we come to understand how social and religious intolerance ushered that era’s gradual declensions and final eclipse. Silverfish’s last chapter, the epilogue, conjures something similar as the guest speaker for the 65th Clayton Lecture celebrates the discovery of Silica Vali and deciphering its California Data Cloud in order to reconstruct “an accurate picture of life prior to the Second Dark Age.” Since the speaker and his team have in their possession now Angel R and Angel N, they believe they will be able to deconstruct the Profit Wars and causes behind the Great Grid Collapse.
Employing various narrative devices, Silverfish subverts sci-fi fiction with Black anti-war consciousness. While it evokes two major texts, Catch 22 and Invisible Man, the missing link, I suggest, is a short story by Henry Dumas, killed at the age of 34 by a police officer at a NY subway station. The story “Strike and Fade” is about an African American Vietnam vet, who teaches rioting young African Americans how to resist and fight the white cops in an American city and survive. It might also be evoking Muhammad Ali’s refusal, at a high personal cost, to fight the US’s imperial war in Vietnam. That’s what the novella’s protagonist, the machinist, Clayton (Cassius Clay? Sonny Liston?) does, willing to lose everything he’s earned so far by serving the high-tech capitalist master, who borrows a technique from the anti-war bible Catch 22 of forever increasing flying/predatory missions to decimate or subdue primitives yet with high risk of self-annihilation, though the medieval word soldier is out of use. The lure is hefty monetary incentives which, in all likelihood, they’d never live to receive; and that’s part of the strategy because that allows the company to hire new entrants at lower costs. But I am getting ahead of the story, an expression or its variant that Rone Shavers uses a bit excessively in a very slim book. My count was nine.
Silverfish is not a straight-forward narrative and we have to read carefully to ascertain who is talking to whom, but it seems that Clayton is sent on two separate missions. In the first, he’s accompanied by an Angel, who used to be Rebecca, thus a female angel, and a few more members. The stated goal is to retrieve/extract something valuable but also to create a fake war because the Dow is falling. War and corporate greed are deeply intertwined. This is sort of like a pre-invasion bombardment. Killing of primitives is part of the drill. But something goes wrong. Their combat unit, which relies on the superiority of Angel accompanying them, loses her. Clayton and company’s invasion goes awry due to a surprise attack by silverfish unleashed, it seems, by the primitives. Or someone living among them? (A metaphor for a whistle-blower?) The second mission involves Clayton the machinist and his teammates retrieving Angel because of her high value to the company. That’s where almost a mystical transformation takes place for Clayton as he boots up Angel, who begins to spool—spooling seems to be a code for acquiring consciousness—and Clayton has a philosophical conversation, rather communication, with Angel via the invisible Huey S. Beagel, who is everywhere, who is silverfish, who is in all of them, who releases silverfish, it seems, to neutralize Angel, whom he had created in the first place, probably when he was with the system, and in his own words in the prologue:
Let’s play language. Call me Elegba the trickster.
No, call me Beagel the maker. No, wait, better
yet, call me Eshu, or Abe, or Hermes Trismegis‐
tus, or any of the dozen other names I have, for I
am known in nearly all cultures as the clever
master, the translator and transmitter of mind.
Language is central to the text and Shavers tests our patience and attention to the complexity of register in an exciting and challenging way. This is how superior fiction is supposed to work, as Roland Barthes has pointed out somewhere, that good fiction is difficult fiction where we are forced to bring in our own meaning/interpretation to the text while claiming part authorship. I too with my Islamic background found myself imposing metaphors I grew up with. Is Beagel the Fallen Angel? Or is he Israfil who blows the trumpet/bugle on the Judgement Day, which could be everyday, as Shavers offers a very poetic meditation on Apocalypse in the form of an exchange between Angel R and Beagel: “What if the Apocalypse happened and no one noticed?”
The line between Angel and Man/Woman is porous. There’s a human within every angel, as Shavers informs us. Or is it Beagel? Both have the ability to disobey, subvert, rebel. Both can go rogue.
It is during a similar exchange that Clayton realizes the trap he is in, for being a cog in the machine. The only way out is to let go of his attachment to the benefits he has accumulated in exchange for language acquisition, which the corporate world hates, and by virtue of that losing the shackles of civilization that restrict his growth as a true human being. In the process, the question of how humans are turned into Angels who serve corporate interest comes up. There is an intriguing exploration of codes, binary thinking, binary between God and humans, consciousness, language, communication.
What the name Huey Beagel stands for is hard to decipher, but it could also be a dog, its faithfulness, yet the one that rebelled, who helped Angel acquire the ability to think, who is now encouraging Clayton to rebel or opt out as well. To rebel by acquiring language(s), the only asset which will allow Clayton to survive among primitives during hard times. Shavers has written an allegory of our times alerting us to the direction in which our obsession with modernization and civilization is taking us. Civilization is a construct that benefits few and hurts many, and we are reminded of Gandhi’s reply, even in jest, when a western journalist asked what Gandhi thought about western civilization: “That would be a good idea!” Shavers shows us that there is a choice we can make. Either we allow corporate structure to take over our conscience, turning us into robots, and replace our language with non-thinking minimalist expressions or we can reclaim language in all its complexity to win back control over our lives. It seems that Clayton did go on to acquire language and thus become an angel in his own right. He is Angel N. Unlike the other discovered Angel R, who could be revived because it was well-preserved, Angel N was destroyed because the scientists subjected it to over analysis. This could be a comment about over objectification of African Americans. The novella ends on a pessimistic note, but it also rings a cautionary note. The novella brims with contradictory melodies and makes for an engaging read. In a funny moment, Shavers aligns himself with the female angel as he lists the names of famous authors and singers as having influenced the thoughts of Angel R and there I found at least a few names with which I found a personal connection, one of them being the lyrics of an Indian song picturized on my favorite actor Dilip Kumar, from a 1950 movie. But even if he hadn’t listed those names, as a joke within a joke, it is difficult to not find a personal connection with Silverfish for it engages serious, moral issues of our times. I wish Rone Shavers a wider audience. Finally, I commend the publisher for making sure voices such as Shavers’ get heard.
Silverfish, by Rone Shavers. Clash Books, September 2020. 114 pages. $14.95, paper.
Moazzam Sheikh is the author of Idol Lover and Other Stories and Cafe Le Whore and Other Stories. He guest-edited Chicago Quarterly Review‘s special issue on South Asian American writers (2017) to critical acclaim. He’s a librarian and lives in San Francisco with his wife and two sons.