Wolves at the Door: On Lee Mandelo’s “Feed Them Silence”
By Sloane HolzerJune 21, 2023
Feed Them Silence
The drive to anthropomorphize that interaction as something akin to understanding, some primordial moment of connection, eventually dissipated for me. But for Sean, the headstrong protagonist in Lee Mandelo’s new novella Feed Them Silence, the pull of affinity for animals seems to be one of the few forces she lets guide her decisions. The opening chapter follows Sean immediately after a technological breakthrough in which the research team she leads has successfully implanted a “neural mesh” into a wolf nicknamed Kate. Sean has already undergone this same procedure, and when the connection between the two is activated, she’ll have a one-way view into Kate’s densely sensorial perception of near-future Minnesota’s dwindling wilderness.
Kate’s pack only produced one cub that survived the last winter, and this theme of a faltering ecosystem plays out against the larger backdrop of climate entropy. The ecological chaos of 2031 that Silence imagines serves as an unceasing smoke alarm’s low-battery warning—an alert the book’s characters have all grown wearily accustomed to.
Throughout the narrative, Sean’s position as both lead researcher and primary test subject erodes the carefully constructed borders of personal attachment that scientists generally draw. She is tasked with impartially leading her team’s efforts to collect data on Kate’s struggling pack, but being the sole witness to Kate’s circumstances increasingly wears on her. Each new moment of connectedness breaks down Sean’s scientific detachment. While the wolves may be hungry, Sean finds their companionship truly enviable. During a trip to Kate’s den, tethered to the wolf’s consciousness, Sean remarks: “I’ve never had so many people in my life at once.” Each time she dives back in, she realizes anew how truly alone she is.
All this is underlined by the increasingly unstable connection between Sean and her wife Riya. No longer the tireless supporter Sean expects her to be, Riya seems to have all but given up on her animal-entranced spouse. At first through flashbacks and then in real time, the strain on their relationship becomes explicit, the arduous research process bleeding into and consuming every facet of their domestic life.
Mandelo makes it clear from the start why Sean’s marriage is failing. In so many other books with a queer protagonist, the simple answer of finding “alien, beautiful ease” would be deployed to signify some broader theme of acceptance. But in Silence, that group comfort is located only within wild animals unaware of Sean’s existence. With each selfish choice she makes, we see the protagonist thwart any hope of reconciliation with Riya. Every moment outside of her relationship with Kate, where Sean exists as a “perfect union of selves,” becomes a bit more unbearable. Her comfortable home becomes an entrapping “suburban solitude.” Time spent away from Kate’s perception, even while in the same room as Riya, evokes in Sean the horrible claustrophobia of being “stuck inside her own skin.”
Riya’s anthropology work is never explored in detail, but her sociologically focused research background gives her a skeptical disposition towards the wolf project. She’s critical of the grant’s source, as well as the scope of a project she disdainfully describes as “spying on the brains of some starving animals.” Her most pressing concern, however, lies with Sean’s ambition. Riya judges Sean’s acceptance of the funding as a superficial belief that more practical projects like wolf habitat restoration aren’t “sexy” or publicly marketable. “It’s all appearances with you,” she declares, following another fight over how deeply the grant proposal is impacting their domestic life. Each time an exhausted Riya presents her political objections to the project or is less than enthusiastic to discuss it, Sean feels it as a personal betrayal.
The scenes of brittle domestic rupture make for a particularly ominous portent next to Sean’s experiences embodying Kate’s consciousness. In those experiences, awash in overwhelming sensory input that Mandelo renders as linked hyphenates (“loam-dirt-piss-trees-family-home”), Sean is overcome. The sense of warmth and comfort she feels when Kate returns to her pack seems to emotionally undo Sean, even in her removed state of cerebral voyeurism. The author teases out this tension adeptly, where the slight difference between repair and rupture in a relationship is indicated only through the tiniest twinges of text (and mirrored in the microexpressions of body language through which the wolves communicate), creating one of the novella’s most reliably remarkable qualities.
While reading Silence, I helped my partner recover from a hysterectomy. Their love of film and a desire to process the real-life body horror they had just experienced meant a marathon of David Cronenberg films. The specter of the director’s 1986 reimagining of The Fly haunted me while I finished a rereading of Silence. Jeff Goldblum’s Seth Brundle is a singular researcher so wrapped up in the revolutionary possibility of his work that he seems incapable of pausing to consider its effect. By the film’s end, the only way he can imagine building intimacy with someone is to force them to become a research subject in the way that he has, no matter the possible consequences it may have.
Sean’s work as a biologist is supposedly impartial—something she takes pains to make apparent in her documentation of the project. Mandelo explicitly emphasizes this translation process with surface-level shifts in font: flowing italics for Sean’s emotive diaries and imposing sans serif for her scientific observations. The personal notes about Kate begin with “She’s worried all the time” but solidify into “the subject maintains a complex awareness of temporality and risk” in the official report. By highlighting a reappraisal that seems almost callous coming from such a tenderhearted researcher, Mandelo gestures toward the stultifying effects that Sean’s professional practice of “weeding emotion out of her affective observations” has had on every non-lupine relationship in her life.
After their first few observation tests prove unexciting, the research team comes to believe that the approaching cold snap will be severe enough to force the wolf pack to exhibit new behaviors and survival tactics. Ostensibly, this change is well within the scope of the project, and should provide the experiential data the scientists set out to record. Cold calculation can mean more grant funding—even if it involves looking at the wholesale destruction of a family unit with impartiality, in the search for a new behavioral discovery. But Sean begins to balk after feeling Kate’s dread at another winter’s approach. A few pages later, one of Riya’s graduate researchers working on-site in the Philippines is killed in a climate-change-fueled superstorm. In contrast with her concern for Kate, Sean is nearly incapable of supporting her grieving wife, now completely out of step within a relationship that should feel deeply familiar.
Weather serves as one of Silence’s strongest characters, emerging in pressure-filled bedrooms and laboratories with little discrimination. Not just cycles of water and sunlight, environmental forces are stress tests. The beings who cannot change quickly enough stare down the barrel of likely destruction. Sean and Riya’s domestic environment is stabilized by tenure. They are able to adapt. For Riya, that comfort is an obligation to provide care however she can. When weather finally exposes the vulnerabilities Sean was previously able to ignore, she is faced with a choice. Deftly used by Mandelo throughout, its taut force pushes people, capital, and animals into increasingly uncomfortable configurations.
There are moments when a reader might mistake Sean’s jealousy surrounding Kate and the support she feels in her pack as a willingness to heed the warning signs in her own faltering relationships. But Mandelo never lets fractured relationships find easy resolution. The day that she pushes past the normal parameters of exposure and stays inside of Kate’s consciousness longer than allowed for, Sean seems able to almost psychically intuit Riya’s needs through her body language: “The outfit telegraphed soft, hungry for physical comfort, but her flattened mouth and cried-out eyes countered, not from you.” Even with this newly gleaned perception, the self-styled rock-star scientist cannot seem to convert this data into action, nor reinsert affect into her analysis. Stranded in a parasocial prison of her own making, Sean’s “terrible, wounded desire to slip into Riya’s skull and observe her emotions” continues degrading into a total failure to communicate.
The work truly excels when Mandelo lets the reader wade through this interpretive murk. Both Silence and his 2021 debut novel Summer Sons are concerned with the dangerous imprecision of relating to someone else. Miscommunication can doom relationships. Fear of saying the wrong thing leaves unspoken resolution in its wake. A character opening themselves up to the possibility of receiving genuine care is just as likely to be left particularly vulnerable to harm in the unsettlingly familiar worlds Mandelo creates.
When a tense standoff between a hungry black bear and the wolf pack looms, Sean seems to reassure herself, saying “In times of crisis, it’s better to work together than to compete.” Mandelo has so sufficiently scrambled our protagonist’s ability to communicate, and the reader’s ability to decipher her speech, that I was unsure if the italicized text was simply more research-grant language, an internal monologue, or an actual conviction.
Sentences throughout Feed Them Silence regularly nest these multiple sites of meaning within them. The tense dependency between every creature in the book simmers just beneath the text. And when the fractures begin finally to be perceived, it already feels too late. Paragraphs function like discrete and failing ecologies. Within a few taut sentences, Lee Mandelo shows how quickly catastrophe can breed distrust in both people and starving wolves. When a single element falters, the entire environment begins to crumble.
Sloane Holzer is a freelance writer as well as an MFA and MA candidate at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Dan Sinykin breaks down the Post45 Data Collective set on literary awards compiled by Stephanie Young and Juliana Spahr....
Grace Byron reviews “It Came from the Closet: Queer Reflections on Horror” from Feminist Press and editor Joe Vallese....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.