Rare is the book about which one can say, in earnest, “I’ve never read anything like this before,” yet with A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause, Shawn Wen has written such a book. From its idiosyncratic area of interest to its chameleonic formal modalities, Applause resists easy categorization at every turn, and this is one of its many strengths. What begins as an inviting and imaginative gesture toward a biography of the mime Marcel Marceau branches out into a broader consideration, at turns lyrical and philosophical, of the conflict that exists between silence and language.

“A lot of what drew me to this project was playing with contradictions,” Wen says. Having begun her research nearly 10 years ago, it’s no surprise to hear that while that central interest remained, the project itself metamorphosed many times and was in fact first conceived as a piece for radio, the field in which Wen has worked since graduating from college. “I was obsessed by the formal possibilities of sound, by recording the human voice,” Wen says, “and I thought, ‘How funny would it be to make a radio piece about something that supposedly has no sound?’ ” She experienced a realignment in her approach, however, after researching Marceau’s archives at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. “I realized he was so didactic, so self-mythologizing, and such a good talker,” she says. “It occurred to me that there would be no way that I could make a radio piece that really captured all the depths and the contradictions and the force of his speech, and so this turned into a text-based work rather than a sound-based one.”

Wen_CoverWen designates A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause as a lyric essay and expresses how liberating the lawlessness of the form was for her and how well-suited it was to accommodate her subject matter. “So much of the book is about the mime creating a universe and inventing the laws of that universe, and that’s also your job as a writer,” she says. “If you feel like you have this story to tell and an enormous amount of material, you have to invent ways of telling it and write the formal rules for yourself.”

And inventive she is, erecting numerous structures within the narrative to house everything from ekphrastic translations of Marceau’s performances to meditations on the body as text and narrative to assemblages of those possessions of Marceau’s which, upon his death, were seized by the French government and auctioned off to satisfy debts he’d accrued toward the end of his life. This innovative methodology appears guided as much by instinct as by a commitment to radical play.

“When we watch the mime, desire turns to envy,” Wen writes. “Our limbs are incapable of such articulation. Our muscles cannot call upon so deep a vocabulary.” In choosing to showcase rather than obscure the unique challenges of writing this book—namely, the difficulty of rendering into language observations of an art form purposefully divorced from it—she could also be describing that relationship which opens up between herself and her audience: readers who are bound to feel a sense of envy and awe at everything Wen has accomplished in this truly magnificent debut.

Vincent Scarpa is a recent graduate of the MFA program at the Michener Center for Writers.