At 374 pages, Mark de Silva’s debut novel is about average size, but about double the size of the average Two Dollar Radio book. And it does need to be that “long” because it’s at least three novels in three genres: a noir about sex and violence in the fictional New England city of Halsley, a science fiction meditation on the consequences of anti-democratic trends in American life, and a historical investigation of colonial power in Sri Lanka.
At the intersection of these three axes is Carl Stagg, an alcoholic philosopher-turned-historian working on projects for a think tank and an intelligence agency simultaneously. Square Wave’s historical portions are presented as his research for the former. His role in the latter is as a glorified detective chasing a shadowy predator of the city’s sex workers. Halsley, while not quite as autumnal as a place like Bellona in Delany’s Dhalgren, is clearly on its way there, and a number of connections are suggested between the city’s decay and the ideas and people of the Wintry Institute, whose founder “couldn’t stand to hear it called a think tank.”
Let me give fair warning that such connections are merely suggested and Square Wave strongly resists attempts to construct cause-and-effect relationships between the various streams of events described. Instead, it uses them as a foundation for exploring the human impulse to construct such relationships, and the expressions of that impulse in art, science, and philosophy. There are also darker threads in de Silva’s weave, brutal scenes that suggest expressions in crime, terror, and war as well as more “creative” pursuits. The unities that are absent in his plot are present and fascinating in his concept.