"On the Brink of Catastrophe" — Jordan Tannahill

Jordan Tannahill on Faith, Conspiracy Theories, and his new novel, The Listeners

Credit: Caio Sanfelice

Charlie Lee:

The Listeners has such a fascinating premise — this idea that the main character just suddenly starts to hear this constant, faint humming noise all around her, and it starts to send her life off the rails. Can you tell me about where the idea came from? Is the hum a real thing?

Jordan Tannahill:

Yes, to a degree. I first became aware of the hum probably seven or eight years ago now, when I stumbled upon a mention of it online. It’s something that has been reported from all over the world. The thing I was really struck by was how the stories about the hum always seemed to contain everything that I found interesting about storytelling. There was some kind of supernatural element to this phenomenon, or something that just resisted explanation or scientific quantification. For all of the various studies that have been launched about the hum, and for all the articles that have been written about it, it always seems to evade definitive categorization, probably because it's not necessarily a uniform phenomenon. In a lot of cases, it’s probably unrelated incidents and sources that have been kind of grouped together as one phenomenon. A number of these cases are localized instances of industrial white noise, or something to that effect. But nevertheless, the idea that there exists this singular, seemingly universal hum — that felt so intriguing to me. The further you dig into the deep dark recesses of the internet, the theories you uncover get wilder and wilder. Many of them verge either on conspiracy theory or, again, on something to do with the supernatural.

CL:

That idea of conspiracy theories and how we conceive of the people who believe in them definitely plays a big role in how the novel unfolds. What drew you to that?

JT:

I mean, I think conspiratorial thinking has, in general, become very mainstream in the political landscape. So when I say that the hum contains all these elements of storytelling that I'm interested in — that it contains this aspect of the magical and the fantastic — I also mean that it contains a way of talking about society, about the ways in which we are so willing to dispense with facts or logic.

CL:

That’s one of the things I was most struck by, the extreme contemporariness of this novel. Part of that is just in some of the details — this is probably the first time I’ve ever seen a character in a novel and thought, wow, that is absolutely a member of Gen Z. But it also seems to be behind some of the thematic or political concerns.

JT:

Yeah, absolutely. I think many people often think of this as sort of a post-truth age, and of course there are questions as to what a post-truth novel might look like. And I think in some ways this book is attempting to situate itself within that discourse. I mean, how do we write stories when we don't even have an agreed upon set of facts? What is fiction, what is non-fiction? I think one of the defining aspects of this moment that the book was trying to engage with was the idea that we have this unparalleled access to information, but there's such disagreement or confusion on what is valid or invalid information. The distrust of science or of experts, the relativism of facts — these things, and the trauma that can result from them, are a big part of what I was working through.

The project actually began about four years ago as a play. At the time, of course, we were living under Donald Trump, and also seeing the rise of conspiratorial thinking in the UK, and across Europe, and particularly in America. We were starting to see the irrefutable impact these fringe areas of the internet were having on our politics. So I began working on this as a play, thinking about how the hum might offer a way of thinking about the intersection of faith, mania, and conspiracy thinking today.

CL:

I was actually going to say — many of the scenes in the book seem like they’re informed by a sort of theatrical sensibility, and I know that you’ve worked primarily as a playwright. What was it like moving from one medium to the other with this story?

JT:

So the play I wrote ended up being about four hours, with like, 20 characters. Just this sprawling epic. It was incredible to get to work with actors on it, to understand how the dialogue works, how these voices all play off of each other. In many ways, I think the DNA of that early workshopping with the actors is in the novel. A lot of the novel is these extended group scenes, with a lot of different points of view and what I hope are clearly defined voices and positions. But it soon became clear to me that this story ultimately had to be an exploration of the interior landscape of this narrator, Claire. It had to get deep under her skin. As exciting as it was for this to be an ensemble piece, it really had to be an individual psychic portrait of her, this woman whose life really goes off the rails. And once I had that realization, I realized a novel was the perfect vehicle for the story. It really allowed me to unlock Claire as a character, and to get a sense of how funny she is and how empathetic she is. I wanted to guide the reader through her thinking process every step of the way, as her life falls apart, so that as she finds herself implicated in what is essentially a sort of neighborhood conspiracy theory cult, we ourselves are kind of seduced by the mystery or power of the hum.

CL:

I’m curious about that sense of religious mystery or experience that pervades the story. The book seems to be in many ways an exploration of the psychology of belief.

JT:

I mean, I think the stories that I tend to be drawn are those in which the fantastic or the magical sort of butt up against the mundane, and the hum seemed to be something that really exemplified that dynamic. I'm compelled by characters who can't help but invite a certain wildness into their lives, at any cost, even if it means disrupting or destroying the balance of those lives. I think I sort of empathize with that, the seeking out of intense experiences that can remind us that we are alive.

I've also felt this in my own life, in a way. Coming to London, I'm aware of how I've been seeking these sorts of spaces in my own life, spaces for the ecstatic or transcendent, or where the self is shattered and you can feel this openness to the world or other people. I have that in a variety of ways, but especially here in London with my relationship with rave culture and queer culture. Going out to raves and having these kinds of ecstatic experiences of collectivity is something that was really new to me in the last two or three years, while I was working on the novel. At the climax of the novel, when Claire has this sort of breakdown moment, I think there's a sense in which her selfhood is almost annihilated. It's a moment that can be read in multiple ways. One is that it's a sort of psychological breakdown, after so much stress and exhaustion. But another is that it's a moment of ecstatic surrender or sublimation.

CL:

It seems like part of the reason for that duality is that people are very resistant to the idea of these experiences — as if there is something dangerous about them.

JT:

Absolutely. I think there's a connection to a lot of religious history in the way that people respond to the hum. I was reminded at times, reading reports of the hum, of early stories of the saints, people who heard voices of God or were called towards some kind of revelation, and they became ostracized or alienated because they weren't believed. I find that very powerful, and it definitely seeded some of my initial interest in this story.

When I was first reading reports about people who suffered from the hum, one of the things I was also most struck by was this question that was constantly being raised, about whether it was psychosomatic, or whether these people should even be believed. And I wanted to connect that to some of the very damaging narratives of female hysteria from throughout history, and the ways in which women's experiences of their own bodies were dismissed, and how symptoms they were experiencing were deemed to be imagined.

CL:

Do you come from a religious background at all?

JT:

Well, something I realized after I wrote the first draft of this play was that this group of people in the book — the people who can hear the hum, who have these gatherings — it struck me as resembling something that I was exposed to in my childhood. My mother, growing up, and still today, is a Nichiren Buddhist. Nichiren Buddhists chant as a way of aligning themselves with the universal life force. The presence of chanting and the primacy of sound is really key for them. And so as a child, I would witness these meetings at my mom's house with seven, eight people, sometimes a couple times a week, and they would chant and then they would talk about their lives, in a way that actually kind of resembles something not dissimilar from the meetings in the novel. I think that imprinted on me in some way, and it reappears here in the book. And my father, on the other hand, is very religious as well, but as a Christian, and, and so growing up I was really sort of exposed to the, you know, the practices and the dogma and the mythologies of both of these faiths. It's interesting for me, as an atheist, to have come through this really religious childhood, ending up squarely a pretty secular person. And I think for anyone who grows up with religion but chooses a secular life, there's almost this space for ritual or the ecstatic or the transcendent that needs to be replaced by other sorts of experiences. I really identify with Claire in that way, as someone who is secular but also actively seeking out these unexplainable or transcendent experiences.

CL:

Speaking of mothers, one of the central storylines in this novel is the disintegration of the relationship between Claire and her daughter, Ashley. I know your first novel, Liminal, was also about a mother and child relationship. How does an interest in these sorts of bonds inform your work?

JT:

It absolutely does. I mean, Claire and her daughter Ashley are sort of psychically knit together. And Claire's experience with the hum — and the kind of faith that grows out of it — becomes almost like a wedge point between them. Faith or belief is not a wedge between my parents and me, not at all. But I understand it. My mother is probably the most important person in my life, and yet we have very different kinds of spiritual frameworks. It hasn't driven us apart at all, but I can imagine how there could be a kind of grief in watching someone get pulled away from you, or so it might seem, by a powerful ideology, whether it's faith or it's political. I think we were all quite used to seeing this in the last couple of years, this idea of families being torn apart by ideology. QAnon, or Brexit, or Trump, or the Big Lie of the stolen election, these things have become almost like faiths, in ways that have torn apart family relationships.

CL:

On that topic, I was curious about the decision to set the novel in America, given that you're from Canada, and that you live in London now.

JT:

In some ways, I think it just felt like the most vivid place in which to tell the story, because of how extreme these discourses are in America. The ways in which faith animates everyday life and politics is so vivid there, though that’s true to an extent in Britain and Canada as well. And then there's conspiracy culture. That exists here in Britain and in Canada, but it's so vivid in America. America feels a bit further along in experiencing the fallout of the post-truth moment and of religious and conspiratorial ideologies dominating politics.

I think it also has something to do with the landscape. I think the landscape in this novel plays a really important psychological role, in the sense that this neatly organized suburban sprawl butts up against this wild scrubland or badlands. That exists in Canada, too, especially in Alberta or Calgary — actually a very famous instance of the hum happened in an area like this called the rangelands in Alberta. I like to set a lot of my work in this sort of threshold space, between the civilized and uncivilized, places where you're in an extremely residential space but wild animals might encroach on you. Also, I'm actually in the process of adapting the book for television, and in this version it'll be set in the UK. So I'll have to think through how that changes some of the particular aspects in the setting, but I think the idea of the seductiveness of conspiracy culture carries through.

CL:

Another central relationship in this story is the very intimate connection between Claire and her former student, a high schooler named Kyle. How did you approach writing about this sort of fraught relationship?

JT:

Well, I'm interested in relationships that exist outside of easy categorization, or are sort of liminal, not to self-quote the title of my last book. With Claire and Kyle, their relationship is not entirely unsexual, even though they technically don't have sex in the book. But first and foremost, it's animated by a kind of shared recognition, by the power of being a witness to another person when they feel invisible or isolated from the rest of the world. They're both so isolated, in being able to hear the hum and not being believed. There's also an intellectual kinship between them that’s unlikely, given their age difference. And then, yes, there's this burgeoning, unspoken romantic connection. It’s that element of the taboo, of inviting chaos into your life in the form of desire that risks destroying whatever is good or secure. Sometimes that feels like the only thing a person can do. And then there's also this aspect of their relationship that is very maternal. It's probably the relationship that I found the most pleasure in writing. I was always curious how close they would draw to the flame.

CL:

Part of that relationship revolves around their conversations about another novel: The Magic Mountain, by Thomas Mann. It’s a book that seems to loom over much of this story. Did it inform your work at all?

JT:

Sure, in a number of ways. Part of it has to do with this idea that in The Magic Mountain, Hans Castorp seems in some ways to have a sort of psychosomatic condition. As a reader, you experience the slow seduction of the mountain and the sanatorium along with him, as he enters this magical sort of nether world that is suspended from time. And then he emerges and almost a decade has passed, and Europe is on the brink of destruction. It's not a direct connection, but I think there's a sense in which Claire is similarly drawn towards the force of this experience she's having. It takes hold of her, like the mountain does for Hans Castorp. Throughout Mann's work, and especially in The Magic Mountain, there's this sense of trying to articulate a new kind of modern man, the dawning of a new form of psychological subject. His work appeals to me in that way, because on a much smaller scale I'm trying to somehow articulate the psychology of a post-truth condition, this American headspace that we find in Claire. And underlying that is the idea that we might also wake up and find ourselves on the brink of another type of catastrophe.

CL:

Do you know what's next for you, after this project?

JT:

Well, I'm working on this television adaptation of the book right now. But I also have a new play, which hopefully is going to have a commercial run on the West End next year. It's called “Prince Faggot”. In a nutshell, it's about Prince George 10 years from now, coming out to William and Kate. It traces ten years in his queer coming of age, culminating in the first gay royal wedding. It's a pretty raw kind of political satire, looking at the relationship between queerness and power, and the ways in which some forms of queerness have always been admitted into the halls of power — namely, white, cis, male gayness — and others have been kept at the curb. So yeah, that's a play that I wrote during lockdown.

CL:

Well, I'll look forward to it! Thanks for taking the time to speak with me, Jordan.

JT:

Thank you!


Charlie Lee

is a writer and editor from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He co-founded Soft Punk with Jacob in the summer of 2019. He is currently a PhD candidate in English at Cambridge University, working on contemporary poetry.

All contributions from Charlie Lee

Latest in Essay