Jordan Silversmith’s poignant debut novel, Redshift, Blueshift is told through journal entries by a prisoner in a labor camp. He is desperately trying to remember his past to provide context for his present and hope for his future, and while he struggles, the narrative reaches for elusive truths about art and despair. Silversmith’s nameless main character suffers dually: both from the abuse at the hands of his jailers and from the ache of not knowing himself. What is survival when you don’t know what and who you’re trying to save? How can he find the strength for tomorrow? This novel is difficult in moments, and the isolation of the main character will resonate deeply with readers after years of social distancing and the solitude of living through a global pandemic.
Jordan lives in New York City where he is a lawyer and a poet, and I had the opportunity to read working drafts of the manuscript. The novel, which was published this October by Gival Press after winning the Gival Novel Award, is a wonderfully profound exploration of the raw human spirit with memorable prose and staggering discoveries throughout.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jen St. Jude
It was a strange (and meaningful) experience reading this book both before and during the COVID pandemic. Of course, I don’t mean to compare quarantine with involuntary imprisonment, but I think we all better understand isolation on a deeper level after these past few years. What was the experience like for you working on this novel and spending so much time with this character?
Positively oppressive, but in a strangely beneficial way. To be clear: this book was written well before rumblings were coming over of a potential epidemic that later became the pandemic we are still trying to survive. It is a coincidence that Redshift, Blueshift is coming into the world at this point. All the same, it was a strange feeling to have finished writing a fanciful book about a person stuck in a room and then to be compelled to mimic some of the aspects of that condition in everyday life. The questions that seem to drive the prisoner — Where am I? What am I doing here? Why am I here, and for how long? — are questions I know I wanted answers for that were not coming when lockdown began. When the pandemic started, then, I was already familiar with some of the questions I was bound to ask.
Jen St. Jude
This narrator is fighting for his survival, but still he makes time for writing, for art. He says, “That is art enough, to live again.” Can you tell me more about how writing intersects with making it through impossible hardship, and where you think the lines between life and art blur together?
Writing can be concentrated thought, and our human minds are consigned to the privilege of chewing over these large and small thoughts much of our time alive. These thoughts don’t have a shape, don’t have mass, don’t have anything, really, besides our enduring attention and rapt fascination. And that gives them their power, it seems, and enough of it to shape earthly consequences.
What we have seen is that the human spirit endures and can create beautiful things, even under extreme duress. The creative impulse is one of the most remarkable things about being human. Crows, too, have shown a creative tendency, sometimes by having fun and rolling down a snowy hill. What good does that do the crow? And what real good could come from writing down your memories whilst imprisoned in a cell? Nothing much tangible, at least nothing immediately apparent. But it can provide hope and diversion, and sometimes that is enough to hang on until the next day.
Jen St. Jude
The novel also expresses a lot about memory, and the significance (or insignificance) of it. What does the main character stand to gain by recovering all of his memory? What does he stand to lose?
Decisive on my fascination with memory in art is the influence of Proust. He showed me something about memory I still can’t quite articulate, but I know I was working through some Proustian themes in extremis with this book. Call it Swann in Jail.
The mind is a fascinating thing, isn’t it? With Redshift, Blueshift, I set out to see what happened if someone was emptied of their memories: who would they be? Memory, individual and collective, is a clue to who we are and who we’ve become. What happens when it goes away? It would seem some of the basic elements of what we consider who we are go away when memories depart wholesale. I wanted to examine that. And then I took another step: what if the other good stuff in life was gone, too? Empty a novel of its novelty: no plot, no movement, no conflict, no light, nothing, only the image of movement across the mind’s eye. Can you make a book that someone wants to read if there is not anything happening in it? I’ve read some books like that, and I’ve enjoyed them. But it’s a challenge.
Memory, too, is where the title of the book derives. There’s a concept in astrophysics called “redshifting,” or a cluster of concepts like that. You know the Doppler effect – the sound of an ambulance carries through the air, and it changes tone as it gets closer and then speeds past. Well – to simplify it in a way that will seem outrageous to anyone who knows what it is – this is the same, except for light: the further and faster something goes from you, the more its appearance to you from your position in time and space seems to shift towards the red end of the visible light spectrum. I thought that an apt metaphor for those memories that, as I grow older, go away from me and change color in my remembrance: memories of family, of happiness, and such.
Jen St. Jude
What novels or other works of art inspired you while writing this book?
Early Puritan spiritual autobiographies, like Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners by John Bunyan. (This was written while Bunyan was imprisoned for twelve years in Bedford gaol for preaching without a license, I believe.) More literal prison narratives and memoirs, like Wrestling with the Devil by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. The great tradition of samizdat literature smuggled out of Soviet camps – art created as a means of survival. Varlan Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories. The joy of digression of Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne; the dark luminosity of Malone Dies by Samuel Beckett; the voices upon voices of Outline by Rachel Cusk; the elliptical impulse of Speedboat by Renata Adler; and frankly ,reports of various concentration, labor and detention camps existing in the world this very moment. English comedy and humor, too, for some reason. And lots and lots of music.
Jen St. Jude
Who would you say is your main audience for Redshift, Blueshift? Who do you hope picks up the book and connects with it most?
Apart from everyone, then anyone who has felt trapped, whether in the wrong body in the wrong place in the wrong time, in this world, this society, and wondered: how did I end up here? And how do I get out and get to a better place, assuming there is one? There must be a better one, you think. You must believe, even when the evidence is missing. It’s much better than the alternative. The world and its societies can be quite alienating and difficult to get through.
There is so much suffering going on in the world unknown every day. Auden’s enduring poem “Musee des Beaux Arts” begins “About suffering they were never wrong,/The old Masters: how well they understood its human position[.]” Read the whole poem. I always read it as an impetus to be involved in the world we live in, and to remedy the suffering that is always going on while the dog goes on with its doggy life and we sail calmly on. I know there are other people like that out there, and perhaps they will find the book sometime.
Jen St. Jude
Let’s talk about Dyfrdwy, or Dee. What does he represent to the narrator, and how does it evolve over the course of the book? Would you say he’s an antagonist, or something else?
Yes, let’s. A great question. I must apologize for the difficulty of the name, which is Welsh, and which is also the reason why it’s much easier for the prisoner to refer to him as Dee. I do wonder what role Dee has. He’s something of a vengeful creation. There’s a fair bit of Lurianic kabbalah in his story, but I don’t think any of that is necessary to enjoy it and see him for what he is: a creation who, if not an antagonist, at least resents his creator for putting him half-formed into a world where he does not feel at ease. This is also not an unusual feeling for me, so it was not hard to grasp. Sort of a sense of a gnostic fairytale.
Dee evolved from a story about my great-uncle that I wanted to be memorialized. As family legend goes, Michel escaped from the camps two or three times and returned to fight in the Resistance every time he got out until the war ended. I thought that was remarkable, and a bit absurd. Who risks hard-won freedom again and again? His story was something I wanted remembered by others, especially at this fraught and late point in history. But then Dee came along and rather transformed the book into what it is.
Jen St. Jude
How did this book come to be? And what’s next for you?
To go back to the beginning: there was an image on a book’s cover of a crumpled umbrella on the ground in the rain. I still remember it; I believe it was the American paperback release of Dag Solstad’s Shyness and Dignity. This was several years ago now that it was stuck in my mind. What did this image represent to me? Why was it there? I don’t know. Anyway: one night I was thinking about this umbrella, and an idea for a story about an amnesiac man waiting at a bar for his daughter, unable to recognize her throughout a conversation they have, came. I don’t know why that came, but it did.
The next morning – this was February 2018 – I woke up before dawn and began to write the story. I went at it for around an hour or two. I went back to bed satisfied, at first. I began to think about the story as I lay there, though, and concluded it was a failure. I was miffed. With myself. Then I imagined writing a cover letter for the story to an editor explaining away the inadequacies of the story, and I began wondering what if the story on the page was not so crucial as the unwritten story of the writer’s life. I thought it was a fun experiment: an editor receives a big bulky package in the mail sent from places unknown and opens it to find a long scrawl of an inordinately digressive letter introducing a brief, bad story. I dropped the story and the cover letter format and turned it into a sort of commonplace book or diary, and that’s how the book came into its current form. It was an accidental novel, and not what I intended. But it had a certain light about it that seemed worth sharing with readers, on the chance anyone picked it up.
Regarding what’s next, I am trying to lighten up a bit and write something pleasant, but that has been hard. I tried to write a “Summer Fun” novel earlier this year but it ended up being about genocide. Quarantine has made me reclusive, which can help a writer to write, but I want to get back involved with the world. I’m an attorney by day (and usually at night, as well), and I want to continue to see what I can do by way of making some positive change in some part of this world. Lawyers are often writers as much as novelists or grant-writers.
I am looking for a new language for writing. Not literally a new tongue, because English is a flexible and strange thing that I’m still figuring out, but a new manner of expression. I tend to write in the moment with whatever style the subject calls for. I’d like to find a new way.
By Jordan Silversmith
Published October 1, 2021
Jen St. Jude is the managing director at Chicago Review of Books and has work in Catapult, Gigantic Sequins, and The Rumpus. Her debut YA novel, IF TOMORROW DOESN'T COME, will be published by Bloomsbury Children's in 2023. Find them on Twitter: @jenstjude.