Update: The muteness turned out to be somewhat of a red herring in The Queen of the Night; apparently it was just setting up the threat of her losing her singing voice, and thence her career? I guess? I ended up liking the book, though I can’t quite put my finger on why. I think it has to do with the repeated reversals–the main character discovering that she does not, in fact, control her own life. This interview makes me want to read Chee’s Edinburgh–he’s clearly got something going on as a writer.

Original post: I’m about a third of the way through Alexander Chee’s The Queen of the Night, and I’m confused. In a novel that spends so much time talking about muteness–the main character is forced to be mute, then pretends to be mute, then actually is, but then she isn’t, then she pretends to be again, in various circumstances and for various reasons; at times she speaks but doesn’t sing, at others she sings but doesn’t speak–the absence of blocked or failed communication attempts is striking. So far, I don’t think I’ve encountered a single specific occasion where someone has something they want to say that doesn’t get through; there are only a couple of cases where it even takes extra effort.* If the muteness doesn’t have consequences for the character’s arc–if her gaining and losing her voice is uncorrelated with her ability to express or assert herself–then it’s window dressing, and, moreover, window dressing that involves violence to a female character’s bodily integrity, my least favorite kind of window dressing.

Chee shows some awareness of the metaphorical power of muteness when he says that the main character has gotten a job based on a benefit of the disability: that she will not talk back. Given that she’s been placed in the position as a spy, and that her employers are aware of the risk of spies, it seems that another benefit of muteness might have occurred to them: that she will not share information she gains at the job. But she does, effortlessly. Her surreptitious employer, on the other hand, appreciates her muteness not, apparently, because it places her above suspicion, but rather because it makes her a good listener for the surreptitious employer’s nostalgic ramblings.

Which brings us to another conspicuous absence of failed communication. After several chapters of extended conversations that are assumed to have taken place in French, with a large amount of detailed information exchanged, the narrator suddenly explains that her French is very poor, consisting largely of curses and sexual positions. Then, we quickly move on to her receiving and acting on exacting instructions, given in French. Are we to understand that the problem is entirely with productive language, not receptive?

This isn’t an exhaustive analysis of the treatment of muteness and communication in Chee’s novel, and quite possibly my own receptive limitations are preventing me from doing it justice. But I do feel like I’m starting to see a common thread in the uses of muteness in literature. There’s the violence-against-women aspect of it, of course, which I’m setting aside as intractably Sisyphean. But there’s something else, too. It reflects a deeply flawed conceptualization of communication in general. Let’s call it the “firehose” metaphor:

The success of a communication attempt is based on the force with which it is made; the receptivity of the receiver is irrelevant.

Muteness is rarer in the world than it is in literature; deafness is rarer in literature than it is in the world. I’ve come to believe that this reversal reflects the pervasiveness of the firehose metaphor. We have difficulty conceiving that a properly made communication attempt could fail. We assume that our message has been received, loud and clear. Therefore, if we do not receive a reply, we assume that this is due to a deficiency in our interlocutor’s expressive powers. That is, we assume failure of our interlocutor’s communication attempt, never of our own.

In the real world, this is a blatant and corrosive fallacy. For the writer, however, the practitioner of the art of the one-sided conversation, it is a poignant necessity.


*One case of impeded communication occurs when she’s in New York, first meeting the circus performers: she can only whisper. Another is suggested when the main character realizes that an old acquaintance may not recognize the name on her calling card, her stage name. A third is more interesting, a counterexample to my thesis with an intriguing error. When a prison guard finds that a woman doesn’t appear to understand his words, another guard explains: “She’s mute.” They switch to gestures, and she is able to follow their instructions. Is it the guards who mistake muteness for deafness, or is it the author?