Barking Mad: Patrick Ness’ “Chaos Walking” Strikes a Chord

A graphic of a train track in the middle of a field. The title of the post is displayed on the image. The title says, "Barking Mad: Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking Book Strikes Chords Despite Dystopian Setting."
Image courtesy of picjumbo_com on Pixabay (Link here)

Patrick Ness thought of two ideas when he created the Chaos Walking trilogy. First, he thought of information overload. Then, he considered the idea of hearing a dog’s thoughts. The result is agonizing sweetness and thoughtful exploration of humanity. As readers often note, there is a tragic event that takes place in the first Chaos Walking book. I will refrain from spoiling the details of this incident. However, the story remains powerful in its chilling examination of social media oversaturation, censorship, and the conflation of masculinity and its toxic image within Prentisstown.

Hear Patrick Ness’ Chaos Walking Pitch

Chaos Walking Premise: In My Own Words

Prentisstown is starkly different for our own world. At first glance, it appears to be loud and invasive. Todd seeks refuge from the Noise. In his little breaks, he begrudgingly spends time with Manchee. His dialogue with Manchee gets more complex despite the limits of his dog’s vocabulary. More than anything, the emotional weight of their dialogue increases as the story develops.

While we may not literally hear thoughts, the Noise is reminiscent of social media. Many Internet users rely on social media to get support from communities that they wouldn’t find in real life. There are geographical limitations to finding like-minded supporters. Some use social media to express stress. Todd definitely picks up on repeated words in people’s Noise. In other words: everyone can see what preoccupies the minds of Prentisstown citizens.

One of the impacts of Noise is in the social workings of Prentisstown. Noise polices people because of its revealing nature. Not only does the Noise unveil thoughts, but it also exposes emotions. Colors appear in the Noise. Often, it’s red or yellow or pink. Red Noise translates to rage. Yellow Noise connotes jealousy and pink Noise reflects pleasure. This adds an even more detailed view of how people react to things as well.

Chaos at Home: Ben, Cillian, and Complacency

Ben and Cillian’s complacency becomes clearer as the plot unfolds. Todd confronts the past with his mother’s book. Her writings introduce the possibility of a new historical narrative. She wields power as a narrator in that book. Todd’s adoptive parents hesitate to share the book with him for a good while. They do not ripple the streaming Noise by challenging the prevalent story of Prentisstown.

Part of their restraint in sharing Todd’s importance is out of losing their place in Prentisstown. Because there is no privacy in this town, it is a challenge to dwell on a thought or to develop one’s own opinions. Their hesitation is also a sign of probable protectiveness of Todd. Granted, Todd and Cillian have a lot of tension. However, I wonder if part of this dynamic has to do with how much Cillian is holding back on sharing his thoughts with himself, with his partner, with his adopted son.

A picture of a person sitting next to a dog. A quote is displayed across the image. Viola, a character from the Chaos Walking trilogy, says in this quote, "They couldn't stand the silence. They couldn't stand women knowing everything about them and them knowing nothing about women."
Image courtesy of Seaq68 on Pixabay (Link here)

Unequal Footing and Gender-Norms Subverted

When Todd meets Viola, the path of their relationship is unclear. Not only is Todd stunned to see a girl, but he also is shocked to hear no Noise from her. This is part of Viola’s power over Todd. He cannot hear her thoughts. Furthermore, he has no clue what she is feeling as well. Besides, his inability to shut off his Noise places him at a disadvantageous position.

It is the Noise that makes Todd vulnerable in Prentisstown. As he navigates the world beyond Prentisstown, it marks him as a target. But, even when he hears other’s Noise, it often adds a thick layer of tension and fear. Incidentally: the villains (so far) are men in this story. Because of this, there is an element of terror that comes to life when hearing someone’s destructive plans unfold in their Noise.

The themes of this novel match with those of traditional young adult novels. For instance, Todd and Viola’s relationship is a tongue in cheek approach to the classic Adam and Eve story. Todd has a book with him that explains the history of Prentisstown and provides information for Todd’s purpose. Much like Eve, Todd’s mother has knowledge that Todd cannot access on his own. He’s not a good reader. But Viola can read and she helps him decipher the book.

It’s no coincidence that women in this book don’t have Noise. Todd meets plenty of strong women, women who protect him. In doing so, the Prentisstown gender roles are reversed. Hildy and her sister stand out as guardians of Todd and Viola (and Manchee). If anything, most of the threats in this book are manifested in men (Davy Prentiss and Aaron come to mind).

Todd goes from being afraid of Viola to facing death for her. That is development and growth. When he falls, his redeeming quality is in their friendship and in their collaboration. She saves him just as much as he saves her.

An image of abstract ink drops with a quote from the first Chaos Walking book. The quote is from a character named Ben, who says, "War is a monster. War is the devil. It starts and it consumes and it grows and grows and grows. And otherwise, normal men become monsters too."
Image courtesy of engin_akyurt on Pixabay (Link here).

Violence and Vengeance

The toughest lesson Todd learns is related to power and perspective. His weapon in this first book is a simple knife. Patrick Ness leads him to reflect on the knife. He writes, “A knife is only as good as the one who wields it.” This is not only related to fighting skills. It’s about what a person is willing to do to eliminate obstacles.

In other words: what does a person see as ethically fair to use in a fight? It’s something that Todd must confront.

And finally, the hardest lesson Todd had to learn, and my most favorite one: violence and aggression don’t really do much. Going back to the Adam and Eve story-line, Todd must fall from grace to experience the monstrosity of humans. It’s a painful rite of passage because he’d danced around it earlier on.

Conclusion: What Do You Think?

These were some of my thoughts on book 1 of the Chaos Walking trilogy. My review of book 2 is in the works. As we await the movie adaptation of The Knife of Never Letting Go, tell me if there’s anything you are looking forward to seeing on the big screen. Keep it spoiler-free for fellow readers!

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