Taking a Nosedive: Exploring the Complexity of Communication in Christine Wilks’ “Tailspin”

When stories want to describe a place as “abandoned” or “eerie”, “desolate” or “lonely”, words such as “quiet” or “still” are usually used, a phrase like, “no sounds of life” thrown around. Rarely, have I thought hard on those descriptions and, more, what they implicate–that life is noisy. The click of my computer mouse, the creak of my desk chair, and, yes, the sharp clang of cutlery against my plate are all distinct communicators of actions–affirmations of those actions, even–but, so easily taken for granted. These everyday sounds are background noise.

But, what if they weren’t? What if they were loud? The volume in your own head already at 100 but it’s like someone is lead-footing the control on the remote. Those clicks and creaks and clangs now ring in your ears. Everything hurts.

In Christine Wilks’ Tailspin, this scenario is not some hypothetical what if–it is an experience. Felt and internalized. Upon entrance into this experience, the clangs and scrapes of cutlery are almost completely devoured by a persistent, high- pitch ringing sound–that doesn’t abate. A cluster of spiraling animations appear on the screen, accompanying these sounds and overlaying a diagram of the inner ear. They mimic the shape of the cochlea, the tiny organ in the ear responsible for, simply, translating sounds into messages. A quick Google search reveals that Tinnitus is commonly caused by damage to the cochlea.

Moving your cursor over these cochlear, downward spiraling animations, makes text appear on the screen. It fades slowly into focus, almost hazily. Lilian Wang (Electronic Literature Directory) describes the text as appearing, “almost reluctantly.” It’s as though the reader is dredging up these memories. And, these bits of text read as scenes from memory, each pulsating spiral revealing some nostalgic or repressed moment. Audio clips seem key in distinguishing which feeling each memory fragment is trying to provoke.

The twitters and tweets of birdsong tend to sound when a nostalgic memory appears on screen–usually when the grandfather, George, is recalling his dreams of being a fighter pilot. Though, they sound as well when Karen is remembering a time she tried to help some baby birds without disturbing her father only for that to blowup in her face. So, these sounds communicate messages specific to the characters themselves as well.

Explosive or crackling sounds, alarms screaming, tend to arise when George is remembering his time as an airplane fitter but alarm sounds also go off when more “present” memories appear, such as when George is telling his family that anything can set off his tinnitus. So, stress seems to be a connecting element. When paired with the nonstop ringing in the background, these alarming and explosive sounds certainly provoke feelings of frustration. Why can’t everything just be quiet? What will make it all stop? The sounds of everyday life that flow into this narrative become added irritants when paired with that continuous ringing, as communicated by the text and associated audio–shouts.

It’s interesting to not that George’s frustration seems primarily communicated through the use of audio and accompanying images–animations of birds and planes flying when he waxes wistful about wanting to be a pilot–while Karen’s frustration seem most intimated through text. “She has an urge to smash the plates….” One of the cochlear spirals reveals, no sound but the persistent ringing to accompany it. “but doesn’t.” In another slide, Karen wonders, “Why does he [George] never listen to her?” And, in another she admits, “It hurts.” That sound is more emphasized by audio when the scenes are in George’s perspective versus how sounds–or their lack thereof–are more often referenced in text in Karen’s POV seems to highlight the fundamental problems of communication in George and Karen’s relationship. Too much sound has made George demand silence while too much silence has made Karen resent it. More, all the sound seems to represent shame and failure to George–images of flames and planes flying every which way accompanying the barrage. “He fears the shame,” one of the spirals reveals, a pounding alarm and an image of smoke and fire assaulting the reader. But this deeper level of meaning never goes addressed, instead fading into the ringing and the screen, symbolically and metaphorically never reaching Karen or the rest of George’s family.

As a reader, you move through these slides of spirals as if sinking deeper into the psyches of the characters. Text–memories, dreams–incite sounds and images that give way to other sounds and images. This story could have been presented in a traditional, linear way–past to present–but by presenting it in spiraling, free-form, organic manner a kind of consciousness is created, assumed. The audio brings the reader into that consciousness. It’s not George’s ears that are ringing but ours. Sound immerses us in this narrative, the communication disconnect between George and Karen something we can not only read but hear, feel, and see.

At the end of Tailspin, a red spiral takes you to a slide with a tuning fork on it, black-and-white lines reverberating outward from it. The words hang onto deafness for dear life rest in between 2 reverberating lines. These words along with that continuous ringing seem to echo the lack of closure received from the story. Karen continues to speak from her father’s deaf side, tells her children to leave their grandfather alone, doesn’t reach for him and George doesn’t extend his hand either, instead remains like that boy trapped in the downed fighter jet, surrounded by so much noise, his screams unable to be answered. They exist in endless staccato. They exist in deafening silence.

“She was extending a hand I didn’t know how to take so I broke its fingers with my silence.” ~ Jonathan Saffran Foer

This whole piece made me think of this quote I had to hunt down on Google.

Image courtesy of WebMD

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