A Discussion about (Mostly) Books as They Relate to a Theme of Contemporary Interest

by Rachel Z. Arndt


Almost a century ago, artists told stories of proletarian struggle in “wordless novels,” woodcut sequences heavy on allegory and moral triumph in the face of oppression so powerful it literally silenced the characters. The open forges and armed goons of the Industrial Age are history, but not the crushing oppression that robs the everyday worker—or consumer, as she is now labeled—of anything to say. Today, that oppression takes shape in routine, with advertisements and logos as its propaganda organs.

During a single October day in the titular town of Jon McNaught’s Dockwood, a cook goes to work at Elmview Nursing Home and a paperboy delivers the day’s late edition. These two characters are related not by causality-driven plot but by the coincidence of a shared commercial landscape, including a giant billboard that appears early on when a man papers over an ad for a “summer sale” at Topshop with an ad for “autumn bargains” at Matalan. Seasons change, silence remains, and synonyms serve their purpose, muting communication through repetition. The process erases difference and leaves passersby—an audience by chance, not choice—with a simple ready-made message: consume.

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Rachel Z. Arndt is an MFA candidate both in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing program and in poetry at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her work has appeared in Popular Mechanics, Quartz, Fast Company, and elsewhere.

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