A Review of The Logos by Mark de Silva

We know of nothing before logos: the bitten apple, the magic castle, the golden arches. They give our world its form, its logic. This double-meaning of the title–The Logos–can be discerned before anything about the work is known, the polysemy leaps out at you. The title’s meaning is confirmed very quickly, through numerous references to the ancient Greek word logos, and to the novel’s plot, centering around an artist involved in an ambitious marketing campaign–literally logos, brands. Confirming the intentional duality of the title reveals even more about it: the word “ecology” is derived from logos and oîkos (“eco”), and from ecology the Greeks derived “economy,” for which oîkos makes up one half, oikonomia. There seems to be a kind of metaphysical conversation happening within the title alone. de Silva is promising a book of some depth, of further novel connections. In fact, The Logos makes many promises before a single line has been read, just through the act of pulling it down off the shelf. Along with the intriguing title, one will take stock of its heft, the thickness of the spine; one may quickly fan the pages and catch a glimpse of the 4-digit page count (an element the US publication of the book does not carry – it runs a mere 725 pages to the UK version’s 1,036, but it has traded that bragging right for a flashier, better cover design). Yes, for a reader of The Collidescope, it should be clear that The Logos is announcing itself as a “Book of Ideas.” Its literal surface draws forth surface-level similarities to famous Modernist Tomes™, works by the likes of Mann, Broch (who the protagonist even mentions reading), Musil, and the ravings by early readers on social media have wasted no time name-dropping these giants to legitimize their hyperbolic praise. Now, I’d imagine de Silva wants to associate his book with these books in spirit, because make no mistake, he has written a Book of Ideas. But in terms of execution, of form, it is decidedly nothing like, say, The Man Without Qualities. The Musil comparison is strange and forced, and begs the cliché question, “Did they even read it?” Musil’s masterpiece weaves a complex plot amongst countless characters, with each chapter doubling as an intellectual essay while managing to perfectly weave in and move along the narrative, all with a beautiful, distinct prose style. The Logos, in a move I will comment more on later, sports very different prose largely due to a massive structural difference due to it being written entirely in first person. Formally, it’s very different, the ideas coming up spontaneously, casually, often interrupting the plot without regard for pacing–nothing is narratively sacred, and thought-borne tangents of unpredictable length often find their way into the middle of dramatic scenes and dialogue. Not to mention an utter lack of irony, something I will delve into significantly, and something that separates it not just from Musil, but many other books (thankfully, this is not another blunt work of 21st-century satire). None of this is to unfairly pit de Silva against some of the greatest writers of the 20th century in order to take him down a notch, nor is to elevate him to their level and unfairly hype the book. I have yet to make a value judgement on the work. This is to outline that while the roots of de Silva’s book is in this European Modernist “Book of Ideas” tradition, his ambitions ultimately lie outside of those labels because he’s trying to write something else. I’m not suggesting The Logos is inherently lesser for these differences, just that these differences exist, and they’re pretty large and distinct. Along with the formal divergences, The Logos is born of a world that is unrecognizable from the one Musil and Mann were writing in and of. One of de Silva’s ostensible aims is to craft a truly contemporary work, and to be true to that is to write a book that resembles Doktor Faustus or The Sleepwalkers in appearance only. de Silva must know this. The Logos demands to be taken on its own terms…almost.

There is a work whose surface similarities to The Logos are far too numerous to dismiss, despite the differences already outlined still applying; one de Silva will have to live with his work being compared to for as long as people read it, one that he seems to be trying to contemporize, and one we can far more constructively bring into the picture than something like Musil’s brick: The Recognitions by William Gaddis.

Turning the Splice edition of The Logos around to read the back, readers of Gaddis will be hit with some déjà vu: we’re told it’s the story of an obscure artist who is “courted by a wealthy patron” and “yields his talents to corporate interests,”, where he is to “sell his soul to mastermind a publicity campaign” in which he is given complete freedom to “treat the campaign as an artistic endeavour.” So, an artist makes a Faustian bargain with a rich guy to be free to produce the art he wants; this too summarizes The Recognitions. And notably, in both books, the cost each artist pays for unlimited time and resources is anonymity. In The Recognitions, the protagonist Wyatt Gwyon is forging paintings, “lost” Flemish masterpieces by old masters like (the) van Eyck(s), which his patron Recktall Brown then sells as newly-discovered originals after Brown’s partner Basil Valentine validates them as the real thing–so naturally, no one knows Wyatt is the true originator of these works. Similarly, due to the nature of the campaign and his patron James Garrett’s mysterious motives and intuitive working methods, no credit is given to the protagonist in The Logos, there’s not even a link to the products the work is supposed to be advertising. To be clear on how specific of a parallel this is: they are both making the work they desire to, mostly anonymously, for ends that could be considered at odds with why one would paint in the first place. Some other similarities we can get out of the way: both books are set in New York and are very much New York novels (The Logos being about the city as much as anything else), both contain critiques of the art world and the people who inhabit it, the protagonist in The Logos is unnamed, Wyatt loses his for almost the entire book, and there are noteworthy parallels between the two characters’ personalities that will surface as I get deeper into The Logos itself. There is even a character who, as a work of art, produces “replica money.” Again, I must stress: I believe much of this to be purely cosmetic. de Silva is not plagiarizing Gaddis’ doorstop–he’s trying to be in conversation with it. The Recognitions, a book about copies, frauds, and rip-offs, is itself reminiscent of certain masterworks before it, purposefully so. It’s attempting to be an example of how to do this right, to engage with the best works of the past, to build upon them, rather than simply steal. de Silva has taken this lesson to heart. In applying the ideas and lessons of The Recognitions in writing a new version of The Recognitions nearly 70 years later, he has no more done so than Gaddis did in writing a new version of Faust; what he has written is The Logos. So, what is it?

I am extremely partial to works about artists; I’ll never tire of a Moon and Sixpence plot, or Cézanne’s letters. Narratives of artist accounts can benefit from a first-person approach, to share in their subjective perspective and get an otherwise taboo reveal and explanation of an artist’s process, intent, and sensibility. Traditionally, so far as I know, a “Book of Ideas” opts for omniscience, to accommodate that kind of novel’s expansiveness, ambition, scope, and formal experimentation. I was highly anticipating the potential of a deep philosophical investigation into the artistic process (with the promise of countless other things), but was wary of a book locking itself into what can prove to be a restrictive mode for so long, when it was clearly aiming big. In any case, I was pleased to discover The Logos starts out with a detailed elucidation of sketching–materials used, the process, etc.– and insight into an artist-muse relationship. This muse is his ex, Claire, and both the work he has made of her and their failed relationship is a catalyst for the novel’s narrative. In these early pages, we first encounter the protagonist’s philosophizing, moving from sketching his muse to reflecting on the state of painting–something he claims “hadn’t been at the vanguard since the 1970s, maybe even the 1950s,” and asks the question: “Had digital culture actually sundered painting?”–and art in general, a query that’s among the best and most persuasive in the book. A landscape of the current state of painting and drawing is then outlined: painting was a “recently resurgent major,” but that it was “in need of a resurgence said more than a little about its long-troubled state…. It was coming along with the return not merely of figuration but of outright narrative to art: graphic-novel, comic-book-panel narrative almost, where it was claimed to outclass many other forms in its concentration, economy, and lucidity.” And a few paragraphs later: “I was a painter, and at just the right moment, apparently, ready to help bolster a true renaissance of the form… What’s more, I was a painter of the figure, which no longer signalled something fusty and remote…but now read as personal, vulnerable, authentic. The age made people hunger for these, the very qualities that would have been ridiculed in art circles as maudlin or naive only a couple of decades ago.” de Silva is crafting an artist whose sensibilities are acutely attuned to the times, an art whose marriage with commerce is not forced, but inevitable. This is also a portrait of a confident artist who has dedicated himself properly to the craft, knows it inside-out (in a Gaddis nod, the artist says, “It began to be understood that my real models lay much further back, in van Eyck…”). I don’t see irony here; de Silva has given himself the challenge of conjuring an artist capable of greatness. I applaud this. In the first 14 pages we are given a full artistic development; from work derived from the above quotes, which mixed words, photography, and included narratives, to abandoning this for “silence”: “…people were taking these images and narratives a little too well. Context was betraying me… I haven’t even titled a picture since college… People actually have to look now.” Unbeknownst to the artist at the time, this philosophy is why his recent work resonates so deeply with Garrett, why he is the one for the job. The rest of the chapter does not relent, going in-depth into various opinions of the artist, such as why drawing is better than painting, the appeal of painting over photography, and frankly the kind of thing I’ve long been looking for: an artist explaining every inch of their process, and the meaning of their work. Very often what great art does to a person isn’t explainable, even the artist themselves can’t articulate what exactly they’ve achieved or how–but this ambiguity can serve as a crutch, something lesser artists (or lesser writers exploring similar territory) hide behind. Credit to de Silva for running in the opposite direction. I can’t help but flirt with the idea that a book like this provides a challenge to the most famous quote from The Recognitions: “What’s any artist, but the dregs of his work? the human shambles that follows it around.” But then again, it simultaneously doesn’t due to it being a fictional novel, a work–the human here is de Silva, not the main character of The Logos. Gaddis at his most incisive. Even a work like the documentary Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, which to me presents Straub-Huillet as far more interesting than their films, the movie becomes an independent philosophical work, and no doubt who Straub-Huillet are when the camera’s off differ in many respects from who we see on-screen, as anyone would. At the end of the day, the work is the work, we need silence except for that. Is what I am doing here necessary? Gaddis is asking, what more could be gleaned from criticism or the person behind the work that one cannot get from the work itself? Without disagreeing, or even touching that, in one rudimentary sense it can at least be said that my purpose is to provide clarity to a potential reader on whether The Logos is worth the 1,000-page investment. Everything The Logos offers is arguably contained within the book itself–logical enough (though perhaps to disagree slightly, artistic intent is obviously relevant, and I greatly value insight into intent when appropriate, though I do respect Gaddis’ decision to remain separate from his work; like Brad Pitt said of Terrence Malick, “He builds houses, he doesn’t sell real estate”)–but is it worth the effort, reader? One must choose their big books wisely.

More quality thoughts follow, including musing on things like “shallow readings” of art born from a painting’s “mere circulation through the culture,” and the end of the section I interpreted as a kind of cultural decay due to the primacy of subjectivity, a contemporary issue, no doubt. de Silva’s attention to detail begins to become apparent, spending paragraphs describing the material and tactility of the fictionalized magazine Cosquer, for which the protagonist and those closest to him work. It’s run by Karen, arguably the next most central character in the novel. She’s the best friend of his ex Claire, and his soon-to-be partner for Garrett’s campaign. It’s partly through her and her magazine that the protagonist is who he is when we find him, as Cosquer is on the cutting edge of graphic design and squaring itself at the intersection between commerce and art. As the protagonist explains, he began to support himself with commercial commissions while working on personal art, but “my pure projects…work not made-to-order…had slowed to a trickle, commerce was precisely where my interest lay. I was trying to take the assignments more seriously.” We continue to follow this diligent foundation-building, important for expaling why an artist may embrace Garrett’s project (beyond the money–de Silva is unsatisfied to leave things at “selling out”), while snaking our way through the mind of an artist; so much so that the first line of dialogue isn’t until page 65. Though this first line is barely dialogue, but rather all but two words the protagonist mutters to himself. The first real dialogue, an exchange between two characters, doesn’t come until page 112.

It is within this dialogue-less stretch that some of the highest highs of The Logos are found. We get a portrait of the artist as a young or middle-aged realist; observations on art and culture in which idealism and romanticism will not be found, the world around him as-is being the core focus, and uniquely indirect critiques of the art world abound. And it’s also in these pages that perhaps the most direct kinship to The Recognitions is found. Take, for example, this passage on beauty–spurred by the protagonist recognizing a young teenage boy he recently had a strange, nearly violent encounter with–one of my favourites in the book:

It’s not that I thought aesthetics per se were lost on anyone here…. It’s just that in most of the Bronx, people tended to observe design or form directly in things, rather than abstracting it away from its place in life. Which meant that vision–the faculty of beauty, if you wanted to summon the link to Hutcheson and the eighteenth century–never lost its worldly grounding. The people I knew, however, the artists of New York, often seemed slightly elsewhere as they moved about the city; or, to the extent that they were actually here, it was as if the place registered only as a kind of playground, a movie set, and each thing in it became a prop, a servant to some ideal or form that gratified this sense of taste. Matters of life and death, thriving and perishing–the grubby practical significance of everything that was–receded at the same time that arresting, even ingenious notions of the beautiful in our time, idealism of so many shades, came to the fore. Beauty, whether as form, idea, or virtue itself, remained the master. This is why artists and “creatives” were wonderful marks for locals. They were perpetually in one kind of fantasy or another, while the man-boy I passed, who’d hardly looked at me, never let the world out of his grip.

There are echoes of Benny at Esther’s party in The Recognitions, and something Gaddis’ satirical approach makes apparent, in general: artists (especially New York ones, it would appear) live in a fantasy world, constructed by their completely abstracted beliefs and ideals. This passage hits home for me, being an artist; it’s not so much that I relate to living in a fantasy land like the one Gaddis satirizes, but rather that I physically, literally, can fall into this kind of state of mind described. I am certainly guilty of often being anywhere but where I am, struggling to remain present, my own version of what is swirling around the protagonist’s head swimming in mine like a curse, a reality built on thought-poisons that cannot evolve to action, my brain moving faster than my hands could ever hope to. This train of thought culminates in the protagonist considering a fancy community centre, which appeared “almost totally contrary to the ramshackle neighbourhood in which it stood” and was always empty, outlining a physical example of this disconnect between an artist’s aim and the real world: 

…artists and intellectuals, the sorts of people who would have built, or anyway designed, this community center…. On the face of it, they championed the vitality of community bonds; they were keen to uncover injustice and falsehood, the very things apparently separating us from one another. Yet, before all of this, one was perpetually reminded of the sanctity of their private, autonomous aims–this building serving as a neat emblem, good only for the creators and the employees and their vanities–and then, barely beneath it all, all atomistic pessimism of the gravest sort unknown even to themselves, but there are all the same, pulsating in the shadow of their good intentions.

He seems to have a certain artist in mind with these thoughts; it may even more accurately apply to a patron or producer, not unlike the relationship our hero will soon have with Garrett. These thoughts are part of what makes the protagonist believably capable of undertaking the campaign–which has these lofty ideas about “shaping the culture,” but the protagonist has no real interest in doing so, nor any illusions it definitively will. He doesn’t, as we’ll come to see, paint with any (let alone social) aim in mind outside of the work itself, despite the work very much being a part of something huge. And then we get: “Why is it no-one could find their way to crediting that, at least sometimes, reality, first in the order of being, ran second to illusion in the order of value?”

All this takes place over just a few pages. Right after, we move to ruminations on how advertising’s visual language is as binding as “Chistiantity’s iconography woven through the plazas and pews of days past.” Ideas like these come one after another throughout the first few hundred pages, forming exactly the kind of (good) book you’d hope a philosophy-PhD-student-turned-novelist would write. This exhilarating first third contains, among other things:

  • Perceptive commentary on contemporary consumerism (“consuming with a touch of knowing regret”)
  • Designs of “secular theodicy”
  • An anti-museum rant
  • Speculation into what we project onto art, what we use it for (“selves were vanishing points, not for touching”)
  • Dialogue on how our deepest response to art is “beyond all knowledge”
  • The meaning of modern art (poesis and aesthesis)
  • The conclusion that you cannot commandeer consumer images or tropes after they’d made their way into the world (“you were essentially working for Coke when you defaced their ads”)
  • “As a society we’d already abandoned the euphemisms and were positively revelling in subjectivity these days”
  • A growing suspicion of knowledge and “gorging on books”: “I’d found knowledge to be… not a bridge between people but a wall hiving off the benighted from the lettered. Which camp lost more through this estrangement…?”
  • An overview of his cinematic education, the foundation of which was Brakhage and buddy cop movies
  • The death of the (genuine) avant-garde (note The Logos’ formal conventionality)
  • An extended invocation of a fictional history behind fictional Degas paintings (his “Theresas” – though he has painted his sister, Therese)
  • How a brand could be “logo-less” (“what if someone began from the colours?”)
  • The history of art in a sentence

So, what starts as ruminations on art and its practice moves into the protagonist’s observations and opinions about a wide array of subjects and objects, a shift first prompted as he takes the train to his then only serious remaining patron (a man named Whent who almost single-handedly sustains him), thinking about all he sees and more. By “exhilarating” I don’t mean to suggest I am taken in by every idea here, but rather that it’s exciting to be confronted by new ideas like this page after page, despite the varying depth to them. I do think that some of the ideas here lack a universality, a timelessness. Musil isn’t deemed prophetic for nothing. And the prose, the elegance of how the ideas are conveyed, doesn’t compare either. But uniquely, the first-person narration makes it read like an all-encompassing work of criticism, like a polemic of everything. It’s also, narratively, the time when Whent introduces the protagonist to James Garrett. We learn that Garrett is a man in the “storage” industry–a chemist who safely stores dangerous materials like nuclear waste. The products he wants our protagonist to help sell are part of new ventures: a then-unnamed wheat whiskey, a mysterious blue nootropic drink called Theria, and special sports lenses. Garrett’s early cryptic direction for his project introduces two new characters, two people he believes the campaign should revolve around inspirationally: the Hellenically-named Daphne, a young and promising actress, and Duke, an extremely talented but unpredictable and inconsistent pro football player. Their appearances form the most entertaining section of the novel. Two video files are sent to the protagonist by Garrett, with instructions to specifically watch a certain person in each one. These people, we come to learn, are Daphne and Duke. Daphne’s introduction is through the protagonist’s extremely detailed commentary of a completely fictionalized Bruno Dumont film in which Daphne has a supporting role. And it’s the protagonist’s commentary on Duke’s football game which reveals that, surprisingly, the most engaging, insightful, and quality insights are not about art or life, but sports (another level of distance from Musil: compare this to his MWQ’s chapter “The Racehorse of Genius”). This is a very welcome addition to the book, and the element I’ll remember most fondly. To find a careful consideration of sports in a book like this is probably worth the price of admission alone, and it graciously remains a consistent element of the book until the end. And sports (“calculation and chaos”) is used as a vehicle to explore larger ideas, from live TV to reality itself. While American football is not my sport of choice, as an athlete-turned-artist, this scratched an itch I never expected.

As I hope by now I’ve made clear, The Logos, not unlike another recent Splice release, Waypoints by Adam Ouston, while not without style, has its real virtues rooted in the ideas it flirts with, the content and concepts; but therein lie the vices too. Good writers can make their thoughts feel like your own, articulating things you never have, probably never could, but always felt and believed. It’s hard not to shake your head along with some of the things Wyatt in The Recognitions says, whereas the protagonist of The Logos has certain opinions only for the sake of novelty. It does help define the kind of person he is, but I didn’t always believe them. Simply put, the novelty of these opinions feels forced, like the aforementioned dismissal of museums–it’s really hard to believe an artist as perceptive as he gets more from prints than the real thing.

When he first tries Theria and the whisky, it’s kind of silly, almost parodic, how deeply he considers them. As if he’s talking about art again–one’s taste of taste. But then I thought, why not? Why not the same deliberateness and thoughtfulness for something we do every day to stay alive? Theria is given the same import and attention as that impressively conjured fake Dumont film. The book pontificates on anything and everything, wringing out an opinion or meaning of and from every detail. This is often refreshing to behold. But the ability to see depth in everything, every observation, every gesture, is also exhausting. Not everything is deep. Or is it? No, it’s not–but this is a question the book is unafraid to present, it’s unafraid to challenge the reader with its earnest seriousness as it treats trivialities with the weight of something far greater without a hint of irony. It isn’t gushy and open-hearted about this stuff, not at all. But it displays no self-awareness of its pretensions. You are not supposed to be laughing at this guy; de Silva is not writing him with a little twinkle in his eye. There are some moments where I question this, like when the protagonist spends a page ranking his friends. It’s completely deadpan–if there is irony to detect, it’s extremely subtle. If it is a satire, it’s missing the humour. And if it is, to what end? A subtle satire of what, thinking about things? That would be nonsensical. The art scene? Too obvious, too easy. No, this is something else. And with this in mind, I will attempt to guide you through the other, very strange side of this book, found mostly in its second half.

First, I have no choice but to address something. There is a too common trend in the reception of narrative art where the actions and thoughts of characters in a novel or movie are considered synonymous with that of the creator. In short, in the eyes of some, a racist character means a racist author. I don’t agree. You won’t see me petitioning to cancel Gass for The Tunnel anytime soon. To be inadequately reductive for the purposes of my point, I am decidedly “not PC” when it comes to art, and blasting artists for exploring dark territory, effectively trying to censor them, I believe to be a supremely stupid idea. I needed to clarify this to avoid my following criticism being written off as such.

There are a number of passages and moments in the latter half of The Logos one could consider…unsavoury. And, given we have established this is an earnest work, uninterested in irony, and committedly realist, it muddies things enough for me to admit I am unsure how to take them, or what purpose they may serve. Consider this:

The uniform of the schoolgirl naturally played into all sorts of sexual fantasies, and seeing it here, I wondered why exactly these dreams were tolerated, as they were across all of society. You could see references to them, the tartan skirt, the stiff white blouse, in even the most benign situation comedy. Yet were these not, at the end of it, the fantasies of a pedophile? I surveyed the growing alarm on Karen and Garrett’s countenances as they came to a similar realization. Meanwhile, Paul exuded a sense of triumph over what he’d been able to make us see: the drawing’s iniquity. Perhaps, though, I’d only concretized the lurid side of quotidian fantasy. The volumetric richness I’d given young Daphne had played its role not in generating verisimilitude but in showing something about sexual essences, how they lived right in the child and could manifest long before it was appropriate to acknowledge them, or even welcome them. Didn’t our fantasies count for something?

Again, there’s no irony. This is completely serious. It’s given the same weight as any other idea in the book. It isn’t funny, and it’s far too tame to be played for shock value. Apparently taking stock of the world as-is must include pedophilic fantasies. Even with this being an extensive excerpt, one could always argue things are taken out of context. But the context is all there: the protagonist has presented a portrait of Daphne based on her school photo from when she was quite young, and unwittingly sexualized it. Karen, Garrett, and Paul (Garrett’s right-hand man) are troubled by it, and express doubts about using it in the campaign. The quote is of the protagonist’s thoughts while the drawing is considered. Is this just a symptom of the book’s realism? Of trying to be honest about how everyone has thoughts they wouldn’t want others to know? To paint as complete and complex a portrait of a character’s mind as possible? Except this has none of the makings of a confession. It’s presented as an insight, as an observation, the same way all the others are. As if we are to nod our heads and go, “hm, good point.” I’m not saying with certainty this specifically is de Silva’s intent–I don’t know what his intent is here, truthfully–but this is unmistakably how for me, it reads, thus the source of my discomfort. And there are tons of passages that evoked this discomfort in me, making it impossible to ignore. This isn’t even the most egregious passage about pedophilia. Some examples–keep in mind my issue is not necessarily with the content itself but with the protagonist’s response and/or resulting thoughts, which, to say the least, feel uncharacteristic of who he was for hundreds of pages previously:

  • On Black people: “It was easy to enjoy this about blacks, of course, their waywardness. The entire entertainment and sports industries were built around this possibility. You could enjoy them, their doings, their productions, in just the way you enjoyed the strife and suffering of fictional characters. So when you saw blacks in person, if you could overcome your initial fear of meeting such things, these creatures of low tragedy–and there was no guarantee that you could–you might even enjoy it in person” (this passage ends by saying the “enjoyment” wouldn’t last, and you’d like “them” “no more than you would like the serial killer who steps out of the crime procedural right into your living room”)–and: “The sunglasses performed a kind of voodoo on him (Duke), as his forefathers in the Congo might have” and: “but this skinny black boy, I could imagine him in Lagos with an assault rifle over his shoulder”
  • Two artists approach the protagonist, telling him they are going to show their work with another artist he knows, Terry, and they are hoping he will make the poster. The protagonist reveals to us that Terry didn’t actually show these days, and that these were his “latest toys.” “…they were very young…I wouldn’t have been shocked if they’d turned out to be sixteen, frankly, and Terry was up to his statutory games again, which were, everyone knew, his preferred form of art-making…I almost laughed in front of them at Terry’s deviousness… He was involved in art more for the sex than anything else. It could win you time with lambs as few things could. I was suddenly giddy with Terry’s ploy… I knew, of course, there’d be no show. But Terry’s act itself was its own benevolence, a gift and a warning of sorts to these neophytes… Perhaps he’d incorporate this ruse into his latest project, the series of lascivious diary entries he’d been publishing on a semi-regular basis, a few of them, naturally, showing up in the pages of Cosquer itself.”
  • The protagonist and Daphne lay in bed together, listening to the sounds of domestic abuse from the apartment above. Daphne proceeds to give him a handjob: “We heard Tanya being punched in the throat…I’d heard this sound at various times over the months, seen her wearing turtlenecks in the blazing heat of summer, and I’d thought, naturally, to call the police…. Suppose Tanya, and even the boys, too, were being thrashed overhead. Was the street liable to be any kinder? As long as she remained well-stocked with turtlenecks, I guess things were working. So, in that spirit, I let her serenade Daphne and me with hoarse yelps and carrish squeals. You really could ruin everything, saving people, and Daphne seemed to understand this…the kids kept pleading hopelessly for peace, she reached down under the covers and worked my cock until I came.”

No novel opinions about poverty, only observations about how decrepit it is

Judging the flaws in the appearance of an actor and deciding what should be fixed (“there were surgeries that could accomplish this”)

And okay, discomfort, I get it. The discomfort is clearly built into the design, it’s part of the point. I could list a dozen justifications–my point is I have no clue which one de Silva is using. And large chunks of the book give no indication why this kind of ‘darkness’ within the thoughts of the protagonist is even needed, that we should consider him to be any less or different than what he is without them. And plenty of ‘darkness’ is explored, to far greater effect, through the actions of other characters, like Duke, Garrett, and Paul. Some slight, potential insight into all of this–perhaps acting as a general comment on this kind of thinking–is from a passage on the history of ads using sex and other similar means: “there was nothing immoral in these advertisements that wasn’t already immoral in the consumer.” And: “the guise of desire was always evolving. Toward what exactly, though? Is this what Garrett wanted to know, the logos underpinning our longings?”

One thought did eventually occur: is de Silva challenging cancel culture? Is he trying to make a work filled with details one could ‘cancel’ it for, but transcend that through the quality of the writing? This is not the sort of thing I care to muse much over, but I am staying true to the thoughts the book stirred. Perhaps it is a failure of the book to not draw my attention back to the many other details and elements that entangle it. Perhaps I am calling his bluff–I see what he’s doing with these less desirable elements, but it’s just not that exciting.

Alongside this, ideas begin to repeat, become less intriguing, and the narrative stagnates. We come to a plateau that lasts hundreds of pages. It doesn’t devolve, the writing isn’t worse, but it coasts; it coasts upon what it built in the first few hundred pages. Another issue begins to crystalize. The protagonist, we discover, has every ideal status token/quality of the cool artist: he has no issue with women, he consistently receives good reviews and doesn’t care (in fact, he pulls his stuff from galleries), he is part of the underground tastemaking group in god-damn New York City, he’s collected a massive library of mostly read books, he has studied abroad three times, and finally, he happens to be hyper self-aware of his faults, to the point where you get the sense he thinks others are suckers for putting up with them and in turn, him; he gets by with those around him purely because of his talent, the brilliance of his ability. The same things could be said of Wyatt, but again the comparison would be purely cosmetic. These things are true of Wyatt for entirely different and sympathetic reasons, making his character so compelling and magnetic enough for the story to believably revolve around in the way that it does; any time de Silva’s hero takes on the form of being an actual character in the novel, beyond a surrogate for ideas, he becomes an unwelcome distraction. You quickly start to lose the foundation-building focus directed towards this believability in the beginning.

But to de Silva’s credit, he recovers temporarily, with a little over a hundred pages to go. The narrative starts to become inspired, things move, it once again becomes a philosophical page-turner. There is even, finally, a small acknowledgment of and grappling with the weird, unsettling passages, as Karen calls out the protagonist on a painting of his that depicts Duke as an ape (“there’s no sense of…satire?”), and the protagonist himself reflects on these elements of his work shortly afterwards. It doesn’t go very far, but it’s there. Barrelling towards the ending of the ending, I hotly anticipated the final dialogues, the final confrontations, the final insights. But it just…fizzles out? Loses its nerve? It doesn’t just stop in a slice-of-life style. It does wrap up and end, but in a way so realistic as to be, well, yawn-inducing. Anti-climatic. A lukewarm epilogue of sorts. For such a long book written in a conventionally linear and restrictive mode, underwhelming us narratively is a misstep. Take, for instance, the evolution of a plot thread about the nootropic drink, Theria. The drink seems to really help in ways the protagonist has difficulty pinpointing. Then he appears to get hooked (as does Duke), and when he asks to be resupplied he is told that they are tweaking the formula, and to throw any remaining bottles of the old formula out. This becomes an ominous and recurring part of his meetings with Garrett and Paul–they always ask something to the effect of, “You threw the old bottles away, right?”, suggesting something is wrong. This is coupled with the protagonist becoming convinced he’s been changed, that he has lost some part of his Self. The conclusion? Apparently nothing was wrong with the old formula after all and it’s the one the FDA approves, the one that goes to market. But the protagonist still suspects something is up. Sure, I can see the implications of this, but talk about pumping the brakes. Even more limp are the results of the campaign, of their success with the products, which basically amounts to: “the sales were okay.” The book ties up all its loose ends in this fashion. There is a last-ditch effort on the final half-page to reach towards something more, something profound and subtly fantastical, in which it is suggested the protagonist spends all his time looking for Duke and Daphne on television, so he can rest knowing they have “fully saturated into the culture.” But it’s too little too late.

At over 1,000 pages, it’s hard, even with a review this long, to give a book like this its due (naturally, I have not covered everything, and am intimately aware of what I have left out). The ups and downs are complicated. It was often the book I’d hoped it to be, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to being underwhelmed in the final calculation. Although I’m mixed, let us end on a positive note: what I liked, I really liked. The good stuff is real, and I still find myself thinking about its strongest passages. Even with all its subject matter, it reads breezily. It’s both refreshingly conventional and unclassifiably strange. It’s closer to Murnane’s beguiling and hyper-specific philosophizing in The Plains than it is to anything by Musil or Mann. It often feels more like DeLillo’s Cosmopolis (think the atmosphere of the movie, too) than anything by Gaddis, despite the striking resemblances. Early in the book, the protagonist bemoans his colleagues’ inability to take stock of the world as it is now (like he does), to work to understand it first and foremost: “they were never going to help me explore this properly, as they were convinced that everything had to change, that this, the world that was ours, that was us, just couldn’t be right. How much time had they actually spent trying to get a hold of what was, though, rather than trying to start to refashion it into something they thought had to be superior? Did they even understand that something, either? They thought they did, of course– but did they?” This sentiment is what is most honourable and valuable about The Logos, but I eagerly await de Silva’s real masterpiece.

Read an interview with Mark de Silva here.

The Collidescope is an affiliate of Bookshop.org and will earn a small commission if you click through those specific links and make a purchase.

Matthew Taylor Blais is a filmmaker currently based in Vancouver, Canada. Learn more at Sital Cinema.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s