The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness has much to say about the constant noise we hear all around us. In this first book of a series, ‘the Noise’ is thoughts, and in many ways feelings, of characters. Men have Noise, as do animals, but the germ that caused Noise killed the women in the protagonist’s, Todd’s, town. One might assume that thoughts broadcast to all allow for more honesty, but Noise is what men and boys want or hope or perceive – it isn’t entirely the truth. Men, too, learn to hide their secrets from each other. They are always aware that others are listening, and they bury their truths in chaos.
By the first few pages, readers may find the Noise familiar, as it’s constant and often fragmented: “Oh my Lilly YOU EVEN UP THERE? CUTS AND BRUISES AND CUTS AND BRUISES. You, boy, over there. Apples.” The difference between Noise and Facebook or Twitter posts is that we can choose to type what we think or feel, as well as choose to opt out. Todd and the men he lives with can’t stop broadcasting. And yet, this story of a people always surrounded by endless chatter will resonate with readers who’ve spent any time reading Facebook or Twitter news feeds. Ness renders the Noise on the page in various fonts, spilling outside the conventional lines of printed prose. It’s repetitive. It’s less eloquent than his protagonist’s internal monologues. It’s also fascinating; it appeals to the voyeur most of us secretly are. Like much of the noise we view or hear online.
Ness’s choice to make the Noise less than truthful, perceptions rather than objective truths, strengthens its relationship to online chatter. Noise is what people want others to see: mundane thoughts; assertions meant to frighten; convenient lies that soothe unsettled feelings. However, his characters can’t stop themselves from revealing their preoccupations, their griefs and proclivities. They slip up and offer thoughts they’d actually rather keep to themselves, like those FaceBook posts we read and immediately think: he shouldn’t have written that. Most of us can’t keep our most passionate feelings from etching themselves onto communal white space.
There’s another fascinating aspect of Noise: when Todd meets a foreign girl, we learn that women don’t have Noise. In this way, Ness creates a contrast that allows his characters to discover more about both Noise and silence. How can one know a person who chooses to keep her thoughts private? How can one trust a person who is intentionally able to lie, because her every thought isn’t broadcast to those around her. How can someone who does broadcast all his thoughts stop from hurting those around him? “Quit reading me,” Todd says more than once. Which begs the question, whose responsibility is the creation of boundaries between people – that of the reader or of the one putting out the words/images/sounds? Or are boundaries a co-creation of both speaker and listener?
Why should we care about Noise, Todd’s or our own? Because it’s inescapable, because it both hides and reveals who we are, because it sometimes overshadows this other essential, remarkable piece of us – quiet. We might come to understand our quiet better, if we don’t forget it while we relentlessly and obsessively study our Noise.
For writers: Try taking an abstract concept, like people’s anxieties about social media, and create a symbol for it, as Ness has done with Noise. How might you make the symbol concrete, with texture, sound, smell, behavior, etc.? What role might it play in a story?
For readers: Try pairing The Knife of Never Letting Go with M.T. Anderson’s Feed to provoke a discussion on anxieties about the Internet. For an alternative pairing, read it with Lord of the Flies to inspire a discussion on new societies created in the wilderness.