The Slow Regard of Silent Things: More than just a book review
Patrick Rothfuss’ novella The Slow Regard of Silent Things takes one small, mysterious, relatively minor character from his Kingslayer Chronicles series and follows her through her world for a week. The story, by the author’s own admission, “does none of the things a story is supposed to do,” yet it is mesmerizing. And, most importantly in my view, it says true things beautifully.
The setting is that nowhere-everywhere, no time-anytime type of setting that the best fantasy series all share. It is a world of magic and mysteries. But that’s not important to the novella. Because Auri lives in a world entirely of her own making, in the Underthing. The Underthing is a series of tunnels and caverns and cellars beneath the city. Here Auri lives in complete solitude and here she has made eveything what she needs it to be.
Through ever so subtle hints, the reader gathers Auri has suffered some terrible tragedy, some trauma that has caused her to flee the world of men. She is a tiny, wounded thing, but in solitude she has created a set of rules and values by which she lives and maintains her equilibrium. It is her principles, her wisdom, I want to explore.
One of Auri’s foundational laws is one must not seek to make the world what it isn’t. One must not impose one’s will on the world. Instead, one must listen humbly, discover, understand, and respond.
This is true of objects. When Auri enters a place, she takes in every detail. She listens to the knick knacks around the room and lets them tell her what their names are and where they belong. Then she puts them in their place. When the objects around her are at peace, so is she. But when something is out of place, off kilter, Auri is frantic until she sets it right.
Occasionally, the silent things around Auri scream in their pain of displacement. In this aspect of developing Auri’s character, I believe the author has managed to creatively render the psyche of a person who has obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). In one scene, the not-rightness is slippery to Auri. She can’t fix the wrongness, find the object’s right place. The object is a large metal gear she has found. She knows it belongs somewhere, but where?
She is agitated, and she returns to her lair, only to find an animal has eaten her soap. “Some thing had eaten all the perfect soap she had made. It dared come here, into the proper place for soap, and eat it all” (85). Auri’s washing riturals are as important to her as her placing of things. After her loss, “Auri lay in the dark for a long while. She was tired and tangled and hungry and hollow” (93).
Eventually, she finds the basic ingredients she needs to make more soap. “The tallow and cinderwash would make a serviceable soap. But there would be no apples in it. Nothing sweet or kind. It would be hard and chill as chalk. It would resemble bathing with an indifferent brick. So yes, in some ways, these would be enough for soap. But how awful would that be? How terrible to live surrounded by the stark, sharp, hollowness of things that were simply enough” (111).
As Auri goes through the lengthy and laborious process of making soap for herself, she pauses often to rinse in water. Just to rinse. The lack of soap is taking its toll on her, and she is starting to unravel. “She felt the panic rising in her then. She knew. She knew how quickly things could break. You did the things you could. You tended to the world for the world’s sake. You hoped you would be safe. But still she knew. It could come crashing down, and there was nothing you could do. And yes. She knew she wasn’t right. She knew her everything was canted wrong. She new her head was all unkilter. She knew she wasn’t true inside. She knew” (115). As she works, unwashed, the sounds of the outside world are breaking in on her. Her usual defense gone, she is vulnerable. She begins to hear “the sounds of things she normally could not hear. A keening of the world, all out of place. A howl of everything all turned from true…” (116).
Finally, the soap is finished. Auri can wash. But cleaning herself does not resolve the wrongness that she still has not found the proper place for the gear. She is so in tune with the objects around her, that she is frantic and distraught. “She went looking for her name [symbolic of her sense of self] and couldn’t even find it flickering. She was just hollow in. Everything was. Everything was everything. Everything was everything else. Even in her most perfect place. She needed. Please she needed please…” (116).
She looks around her room, the world spinning and screaming at her. Then she sees it. A ledge up high in the wall. She realizes if she turns the gear upside down, she can set it on the ledge. She tries it. It fits. It clicks into place. “Trembling, she looked around and saw that everything was fine. Her bed was just her bed… Nothing was nothing else. Nothing was anything it shouldn’t be. Auri sat down hard upon the floor. So sudden-full of sweet relief she gasped. She gathered up the gear and held it to her chest. She kissed it. She closed her eyes and wept” (118).
Auri lives by a law that is sacred to her. She serves the world around her and seeks nothing only for herself. “You did not want things for yourself. That kept you small. That kept you safe… She knew that nothing good could come from wanting at the world” (79). Auri’s survival depends on her self-negation. If she does not exist, she cannot be found. If she cannot be found, she cannot be hurt. She strives to leave no footprint on the world.
Auri is in tune with objects, but she is also in tune with the days. Each morning, when Auri awakens, she waits to discover what they day is for. “Some days simply lay on you like stones. Some were fickle as cats, sliding away when you needed comfort, then coming back later when you didn’t want them, jostling at you, stealing your breath … Some days were trumpet-proud. They heralded like thunder. Some were courteous, careful as a lettered card upon a silver plate. But some were shy. They did not name themselves. They waited for a careful girl to find them. This was such a day. A day too shy to knock upon her door. Was it a calling day? A sending day? A making day? A mending day?” (79).
Once Auri learns what is right for the day, she serves it, doing with the hours what they were made for. This is something she discovers, not decides.
I am fascinated by Auri because she is so different from me. Her world so different from the noisy world above ground. It is easy to see how living like Auri would change the way I feel about the most basic tasks in my life. If a sink full of dirty dishes were Silent Things to me, I would find joy in serving their needs by washing them and putting them in their proper places. If I listened to the day, I would know if it was a washing day. If I understood that was simply what the day was for, I would not resent the intrusion of these tasks on my clamoring schedule and plans. The dishes and laundry would become sacred acts, infused with meaning and relational significance. If my life were not so scheduled, controlled, and preplanned, if I were not so selfish in demanding that things be what I want them to be, so set on having my environment serve me, I, too, could live with a slow regard of silent things.
This is what beautiful stories do. They perplex and explain. They confound and illustrate, obscure and illumine.
Patrick Rothfuss almost didn’t publish this novella. In his preface, he all but apologizes for writing it, but explains it simply had to be done. It was its own Silent Thing inside him, begging for its place in the world. I, for one, am glad it found its place on my shelf. I highly recommend it, along with the rest of his (still unfinished) series: The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear.