(Leo and Diane Dillon’s cover for the 1969 edition)
4.25/5 (Very Good)
“He was out now looking for signs. He knew how to stay alive. He was a strangely violent man, to him the fall of the city was some sort of unholy celebration (89).”
The decaying/empty city as allegory: its few post-evacuation occupants (a tramp and his cat, the cathedral’s dean, a young suburban woman, a troubled architect’s son — all well-drawn characters) wander the deserted streets of Gloucester consumed with their own obsessions. The cement consuming fungus — a vague agent of destruction that severs us from our loci of civilization, our functionalist cityscapes, our material concerns — looms spectral while (literally) insinuating itself within, before crashing our brittle facades.
Simeon: an architect’s son whose father re-designed portions of Gloucester. Wanders from crumbling to crumbling city. Impulsive, violent (“Christ, I hate policeman” (132)), revels in the destruction — claims that we’re all addicted to modern civilization, the fungus is needed to sever us from our addiction. He holds Sally “hostage” after stealing her camera (and later, attempts to rape her).
Sally: a self-proclaimed “jolly suburban woman”, a dispenser of wisdom, intrepid reporter (of course, it’s the 60s) looking for a story for her father, the newspaper owner. Stays with Simeon, despite his less than savory motives, in an effort to rescue Paper Smith, who’s oblivious to the creeping destruction, and in order to finish her story.
Paper Smith: homeless man possessed with the fragments he remembers (in the forms of memorized letters, reminisces, but never images) of devastating matrimonial strife. He’s settled into a routine: feeding his cat Tug, collecting newspapers, a morning tea dispensed from a machine… Realizes that something is afoot when the aforementioned machine fails to dispense. A strike? His wanderings in search of food bring him into contact with Sally, who declares that she wants to hear his story (he opens up slightly). Little does he know, that she’s transmitting pictures of him for her newspaper.
The Dean: a man whose faith seems inseparable from the bulk of the 800 year old cathedral he oversees. Stays with the cathedral after the evacuation. Performs Christmas mass for no one, drinks tea in the Deanery, waiting for the collapse.
My adoration of D. G. Compton continues. I salivate over characters wandering through allegorical cityscapes. A fellow review slammed the work for being a poor imitation of J. G. Ballard’s similar works (The Drowned World, The Wind from Nowhere, etc). I disagree. Compton’s distinctive style shines through despite surface similarities. Also, Compton’s characters are still tied to the city, indistinguishable parts of the city, the city itself. Ballard’s main characters, at least in The Drowned World, are in various stages of separating themselves from the slowly submerging structures of civilization — returning to some pre-civilization uterine state, and due to the nature of the coming apocalypse, confronted with inescapable death. Compton’s fungus destroys buildings but does not spell the end of humanity. As a result, the nature of his philosophical ruminations, character interactions, etc are distinctly different.
The Silent Multitude is not for all science fiction fans. The tone throughout is dark and gloomy. There’s little plot. Large portions of the beginning are seen through the eyes of Paper Smith’s cat. The experimental structure of the work is abandoned two thirds of the way through as the other characters (Sally, Simeon, the Dean) become a larger portion of the narrative. I found that the novel loses some of its resonance at this point — but this is a minor quibble.
Although D. G. Compton’s prose is not as gorgeous as J. G. Ballard’s, he’s darn close. He conjures a plethora of beautiful scenes and lines. Paper Smith trying to get the tea machine to dispense, Tug on his cat wanderings, the Dean gazing at his cathedral, Simeon’s anti-society rants….
Unfortunately the nihilistic streak, encapsulated so succinctly in Smith’s statement “Eating and going to the toilet – what else is there when you come down to it?” is muted by the positive ending. On the other hand, Compton has faith that we can survive the collapse of our cherished cities which are so ingrained in our conception of so-called civilized existence.
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