I cannot do justice to a book like Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing (2016) in a single blog post, so I do not mean to try. But I will say this: the novel richly deserves its Booker nomination. You should read it. If you are wondering what art means in times of terror, and what forms beauty takes to survive, you should read it right now.
Thien’s prose is an answer to a maxim I have heard persists in Creative Writing degrees, though I cannot verify this since I have not done one myself. The maxim is this: show, not tell. It is meant, I think, to teach concision, and to cultivate a digging eye, as if prose were a core sample rooting away from a tiny ring of surface detail. Do Not Say We Have Nothing is not a concise book. But it is deep, and its depth is a product of the breadth and clarity of its surface.
Thien tells, profusely. We follow her characters’ thoughts as they consider their lives, the progress of their musings rendered with more precision than is naturalistic, though they are all very intelligent. But by leaving so little unsaid at this narrative level, Thien is able to say much more. If reading is a sort of geology, Thien maps the surface contours with such care that we can see below not only the latest accretions of loam—what a character really feels—but the tectonic shifts that created the land, its history. Her prose begs us to dig:
The decrepit train hobbled on, into the humid South. Some little turd had drawn a lopsided egg on the dusty window, or maybe the egg was a zero left behind by someone with bad handwriting. What was a zero anyway? A zero signified nothing, all it did was tell you about nothing. Still, wasn’t a zero also something meaningful, a number in and of itself? In jianpu notation, zero indicated a caesura, a pause or rest of indeterminate length. Did time that went uncounted, unrecorded, still qualify as time? If zero was both everything and nothing, did an empty life have exactly the same weight as a full life? Was zero like the desert, both finite and infinite? Thanks to the painful slowness of the train, she had another fifty hours to think this over.
Blocks of rhetorical questions are characteristic of Thien’s style. They might seem unrealistic—the narrator here is uneducated—but only if you believe that mimesis works best by photocopying (a claim the novel, in which everything, including people, changes as it is repeated, rejects). They might also seem excessive, if you are not paying attention (the idea of zero, or silence, runs as a counterpoint to the book’s obsession with music). But these passages are the novel’s most essential formal trait. They are contour maps inviting you to sound characters’ depths by surveying the breadth of where they are situated—historically and politically, but also, and maybe more importantly, artistically and philosophically. They are the living skin of the novel, what allows it to flex and move and feel the world beyond itself, its readers included.
Near the beginning of Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, one of my favorite books, a character says, “One novel in five hundred or a thousand has the quality a novel should have to make it a novel — the quality of philosophy.” Do Not Say We Have Nothing, like Lessing’s novel, has this quality. And it does because Thien understands that sometimes, you show more by telling.