Jake Casella Brookins Reviews Feed Them Silence by Lee Mandelo

Feed Them Silence, Lee Mandelo (Tordotcom 978-1-2508-2450-9, $19.99, 112pp, hc) March 2023.

I am a sucker for contact stories – aliens, ani­mals, strange fantasy creatures; that feeling of an encounter with otherness is one of the recurring delights of speculative literature. Tolkien noted it as “one of the primal desires that lie near the heart of Faërie.” But there’s more than enchantment pos­sible with these stories – once we move beyond the initial fascination and try to really comprehend whoever or whatever we’re meeting, there’s space for complexity, for frustration, even horror.

Lee Mandelo’s Feed Them Silence follows an animal researcher achieving her dream of get­ting inside a wolf’s head – a dream that, surely as any fairy story, winds up having a cost. Set in the very near future, in a grim Minnesota winter, the novella is a tight and strikingly bleak story about personal and environmental tragedy. It’s anchored by a remarkably compelling and flawed protago­nist, Dr. Sean Kell-Ludon, who’s partnered with private investors to take a giant leap forward: an experimental mind link that allows her to live “in-kind” with a wolf. It seems like a wild success for a rock-star researcher, but the novella is braided around three looming failures: Sean’s troubled marriage, the less-than-pure motivations of her capitalist financers, and the wolves’ struggle to survive in an altered landscape.

Mandelo’s first novel, Summer Sons, was also an academic horror story drenched in atmo­sphere; the horror is subdued, here, but the control of atmosphere is masterful – where Summer Sons is swampy and steamy, Feed Them Silence is a penetrating chill that can’t be dispelled. Sean and her team have figured out how to connect with wolves in order to study them from the inside, as winter moves in, but she is unprepared for how clearly the wolves perceive their situa­tion, hemmed in by humans and struggling with deadly environmental change: “The waters tasted of metal, and the woods were desolate even before the cold came. No future, none that she or the pack-mother could imagine; nonetheless, they strove toward it.”

Sean is a wonderful, if frustrating protagonist, almost an antihero: semiconscious of her own flaws, trapped in her own skin and tragic. She forces us to realize that the love for non-human animals, when that love is built around voyeur­ism and selfish pleasure, is no redeeming quality. Nonetheless, I found myself comparing her to other characters who struggle to comprehend personal and global calamity in the encounter with the wild other – Helen McDonald in H is for Hawk, Jeff VanderMeer’s biologist in An­nihilation, and the animal-linked, post-disaster characters in Sam J.Miller’s Blackfish City. Sean was drawn to science for the vision of “adoring the bones of life, while dissecting it from a place of quiet solitude”; the events of the novella throw, in stark relief, how that solitude, that sense of separa­tion from the thing being studied, is simultane­ously a unbreakable curse and an impolite fiction. Sticking a chip in a wolf’s brain isn’t a magical bond, and the idea that Sean can study the wolves without harming them is thoroughly exploded.

Sean’s wife, Riya, is (fairly explicitly) the novel’s conscience, pointing out the flaws in Sean’s per­sonal and professional projects, which makes the threat of her departure all the more dire. The novella is upsettingly good at portraying a relationship complexly and perhaps inexorably falling apart, almost against Sean and Riya’s con­trol. Serious Mountain Goats vibes. How do you deal with issues that can’t or won’t be fixed – with a relationship, with the earth? Sean and Riya on the rocks for issues Sean can see but can’t seem to change, Kate and her pack struggling to survive, with callous corporate actors and climate disaster looming – the novella has a feeling of downhill acceleration that is exhilarating, despite its subject matter.

Feed Them Silence is a bleak gem of a story that ends on a seemingly happy note, one that gets darker the more you think about it. (I’d be shocked if Twitter makes it to 2031, when the novella is set, but I can so clearly visualize the threads roasting Sean’s memoir.) The wolf, Kate, is at one point described as wearing “the cost of her survival, an armor of gore,” and Sean is armored in the same way, forging on despite her wounds and failures. There’s a lot that’s depressing in this story, but, for all that, it’s about survival, and that dream of being in-kind with a magic creature.

Jake Casella Brookins is from the Pennsylvania Appalachians, and spent a fantastic amount of time in the woods. He studied biology, before switching over to philosophy & literature, at Mansfield University. He’s been a specialty coffee professional since 2006. He’s worn a lot of coffee hats. He worked in Upstate New York and Ontario for about 8 years. He’s been in Chicago since 2013; prior to the pandemic, he worked for Intelligentsia Coffee in the Loop. Starting in 2021, he’s been selling books at a local indie bookstore. He lives with his wife, Alison, and their dogs Tiptree & Jo, in Logan Square.

This review and more like it in the April 2023 issue of Locus.

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