Glenn Diaz’ novel presents itself a noir. A group of call center agents in Manila orchestrated an embezzlement scheme using the technology and access the company they work for provides, and manage to get away. Is this a case of the subaltern using the tools intended to enslave him, fighting back at the Empire? The Quiet Ones is a meditation that asserts this is true, as well as declares its defeat.
The crime dimension is immediately dropped as we go through the characters’ stories of intimacies, multiracial and queer or in the best cases, both; an underemployed agent and a young American anthropologist on a scholarship sprouting Walter Benjamin in Chinatown, a Spanish divorcee falls in love with the beaches of Pagudpud and her supposed tour guide, an American operations manager asks his star employee for marriage. These entanglements, made possible by the networks of capital, maintain the noir atmosphere by careful unfolding of individuals’ vulnerabilities, simultaneous with the withholding of secrets and releases of disenchantment. These lives would later tie up tangentially in the end, united by common silences and their responses toward them. Hence the title, I believe.
This is also a workplace drama; detailing the excruciating routine of outsourced customer service—the long hours, the racism, the ruined body clocks, lost time from loved ones, and the little consumerist splurges to sooth these nocturnal micro-traumas. It is also a nuanced mapping of the city; high-rise buildings and affluent leisure spaces, right behind crowded streets and nightmarish commutes. One moment, they are having Starbucks on their break, and in another treading a knee-deep flood. The beating heart of Third World urbanism outlined by people who move about in its contradicting spaces, recall Fredric Jameson’s take on Raymond Chandler.
Lastly this is the nation at the birth of the 21st century, or at least echoes of it; missionaries abducted by terrorists, military coups that failed, a Senate hearing dedicated to a celebrity sex scandal, Jasmine Trias joining American Idol and losing, Manny Pacquiao consistently suspending crime for a day. Jan Padios’ study of BPOs makes for great companion reading. This also brings to mind Rogelio Braga amazing novel Colon (Balangiga Press, 2015), with a call center employee as a protagonist as well, but zeros in more on national and historical traumas. A more grassroots look would be from the zines prepared by AUX (Artists in BPO Unite for Social Change). All these layers, makes The Quiet Ones much more than another narrative of petty bourgeois yuppies seeking a cure to their loneliness, but rather an investigation of aborted promises of modernity, or the bare minimum of upward social mobility. The weaving of subjectivities and their environments is effortlessly demonstrated in Alvin’s, one of the agents, upbringing;
It was this vocabulary of nocturnal capitalism—ceviche and porte-cochère, Walmart and Plexiglas, “But wait” and “If you call now”—that galvanized for him years of nebulous English lessons, on count nouns and mass nouns, direct objects and indirect objects, the fascistly irregular verbs, Robinson Crusoe and Mother Goose and Lemuel Gulliver. Soon the punch lines on Sienfeld and Murphy Brown did not have to be cued by the laugh track; he understood them, the way he began to suddenly understand the myriad other cyphers in the city, cyphers that managed its chaos (No Loading, No Swerving, Public Utility Vehicles, No Entry), directed its commerce (Ice for Sale, Room for Rent, Wanted: GRO), and laid bare its history and contradictions (US Bases Out Now, Ramos for President, Never Again to Martial Law).
The collage of the nation porous to, as well as being swept by, the flows of global capital is a welcomed change to the tradition of heavy-handed national allegories in the novel. Books from previous decades that almost always slide into liberal essentialisms, a glaring tendency in Philippine fiction in English. This emerges in a postcolonial paradigm that feeds desires of making palatable to metropole readers the experience of , or the Empire’s idea of, nationhood.
Fast-paced but self-aware and told in exhilarating prose, The Quiet Ones prefers the smaller frame of daily details and moments, the view where its own act of dissent lies. This book is a document to look back at the birthing of the century; how things came to be, and how they should not remain as such.