Astute and starkly visceral, Chattering marks American visual artist Louise Stern’s debut into the literary scene with a collection of vivid tales depicting the various escapades, trials and tribulations of assorted young adults across the globe. Her motley characters roam from lonely riverside haunts in London to sun-kissed Brazilian beaches and gritty back-alley clubs in LA, eager to discover and drink in the marvels and miseries of their respective surroundings. Like Stern herself, most are deaf, and so their hunger to perceive and absorb is all the more palpable, thrown into relief against a complacent society that assumes a hearing experience as the default.
Chattering’s focus on the visual is immediately perceptible and hints at the Bergerian notion that we honour sight above all other senses, perhaps in an effort to unite deaf and hearing readers through more than just the common delights of vibrant pockets of imagery and artfully crafted words on a page. Consider Granta’s cover: a Damien Hirst-like assembly of neon dots with one tellingly relegated to the blank lower third of the page. It offers a clear nod to the theme of otherness, an allusion to the loneliness and occasional exhilaration of finding oneself on the fringe of normality that pervades the book. The stories themselves are similarly visual, each but a brief (albeit powerful) glimpse into an individual’s story: ephemeral, high-octane snapshots of the deaf experience that don’t presume to speak for the community as a whole but nonetheless provide compelling insight into a life without sound.
In “The Velvet Rope” a gaggle of friends enjoy a night out in glittery Los Angeles that rapidly devolves into something darker. A noticeable portion of the story is devoted to detailing the flashy sights of LA, with a perceptible emphasis placed on physical appearance: without the auditory clues of someone’s accent or tone, it seems visual impressions take precedent when it comes to character assessment. The girls take delight in conjuring up stories about strangers based on their clothes and possessions – “The puffy woman in the beat-up Honda with the gray patches on the outside of the car and the McDonald’s wrappers in the back seat […] would be called Yolanda, and she would live with her boyfriend in a small apartment in the Valley with the TV on all the time and a dirty refrigerator” – and fantasise about “what they would wear if [the stranger] took them out to dinner. Jade said she would wear a short bright pink dress with puffed sleeves and matching peep-toe heels, but Dana said that was much too obvious [and] thought that any girl who went out with a man like that should wear something black, calf-length, but with a V-neck and just a bit of cleavage peeping out.”
The focus on language and its complications from a deaf perspective is similarly tangible from the outset. The sharp contrast between Stern’s smooth prose and the jarring syntax of transcribed sign language cannily illustrates the figurative gap between those who speak and those who sign: “The Cat had no idea where she found herself in that moment, not being able to communicate with anyone there. Tears spurted violently into her eyes. ‘Fuck you,’ she signed. ‘Why you think me should be the one to understand you?’” Likewise, the notion of communication as an expressly physical endeavour serves to highlight the disparities among corporal aspects of speech and sign language: “Deaf people communicated with their bodies. Their language was physical…they looked at people more directly, not like hearing people with their shifting eyes that seemed uncomfortable when they met yours… They stood differently, more heavily – or maybe it was more firmly. Most hearing people felt flighty and nervous to her.” This grave concept of otherness, present though it is in each story, is nonetheless startling each time it’s encountered.
Despite its rather affectionate take on free-spirited adventures and sordid exploits, Chattering takes pains to expose the vulnerability of the deaf community, which Stern has expressed concern about in past interviews. Among adventurous tales of hitchhiking and squatting and clubbing are girls who fall prey to lecherous men, relationships that stall because of miscommunications and close-knit communities that prove dysfunctional due to their insularity. Still, we’re left with a balanced view of the precious aspects and drawbacks to deafness, a double-take on the incessant chattering that saturates and finds its way into the very title of the book; for every character who “[longs] to be able to overhear” the conversations around her is another perceptive to the “beautiful” nature of signing, “intoxicated by the certainty of [the] movements” and “overwhelmed by the rapid motion and the maelstrom of words being spoken, swirling and tossing, spinning round.”