The American writer whose sudden deafness opened up a new world

The Hearing Test is Eliza Barry Callahan's first book
The Hearing Test is Eliza Barry Callahan's first book - Peninsula

In August 2019, just as she embarked on an MFA programme at Columbia University in New York, Eliza Barry Callahan, a 24-year-old musician, visual artist, filmmaker and writer, woke up with sudden deafness. She experienced a loss of low-end hearing, and yet she was inundated with a deep drone akin to “a large piece of sheet metal being rocked, a perpetually rolling thunder”. It was, she writes in The Hearing Test, like “God adjusting his piano stool but never getting around to the song”.

Quickly becoming the prized ­subject of multiple researchers and physicians – fees waived, doors opened – Callahan’s condition was diagnosed as “the result of the brain attempting to replace the ­frequencies the ear had lost”, and a possible precursor to a ­degenerative condition that would end with the “sincerest strain of quiet”. These are the events that inspired Callahan’s excellent semi-autobiographical novel, which “keeps score of a year in which I was flung suddenly from my own life, only to learn that to see ­something in its entirety is to be entirely outside of that thing.”

The Hearing Test is a book defined by constant doubling, as author-Eliza splits from ­protagonist-Eliza, who, in turn, describes the writing process as taking “one long walk around myself”. Meanwhile, the loss of external hearing is met with an amplified internal kind. “The ­phenomenologist Husserl,” ­Callahan writes, “proposes that even in the instant when we speak to ourselves silently, there must be something like a tiny rip that divides us into the speaker and the hearer. This rip somehow separates you from yourself in the moment of hearing yourself speak … I found that this tiny rip had become, to me, imperceivable.”

Chance, too, is a recurrent theme. Encounters with strangers result in metaphysical ­conversations about there never being “only one of ­anything”; her work with an ­audiologist, Robert Walther, makes Eliza recall Robert Walser, the Swiss writer interested in forked paths, whereby (she writes) “the right path often leads to the wrong things, and the wrong path to the right things”.

In a somewhat prophetic ­interview with her landlord, Eliza recalls being told that a replica of the latter’s one-bedroom ­apartment had been made on the set of ­Hitchcock’s film Rear Window. (“She said this was fitting because she was someone who always made sure to have two of everything she liked, just in case.”)

James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window
James Stewart and Grace Kelly in Rear Window - Corbis Historical

As we move through the book’s four sections – “turning points” in a claustrophobic narrative that lasts 12 months – the concept of metrical, employable time, which Eliza ­previously spent scoring films as a “paid distraction” from what she “really intended to make”, is replaced by asynchronous and ­differently productive rhythms. Her new course, new score, is defined by appointments and doses, hypnotherapy and steroids, taking “a long time to respond to things if at all”. (Today, Callahan is on an experimental treatment, and her illness is in remission.)

During that year, Eliza finds “clarity in misinterpretation”, and philosophical truths in speechless activities: “I thought, if something is silent, is it honest?” Eventually, silence becomes no longer a form of absence or presence, but a form of both, of loss and production at once: “The weekly tests became monthly tests. Milligrams: up. ­Decibels, dollars, days: down. I went to see foreign movies for the subtitles and wore the carpenter’s ear coverings from the hardware store. I kept score; I wrote it down.”

In this ambitious yet compact book, we continue to occupy the slippery ground between mimesis and anti-mimesis – the place where life imitates art and vice versa. More innovative, though, are the places where loss of hearing becomes the basis for a kind of physiological ekphrasis. Scouring radio ­frequencies and movie theatres, while citing the works of Francis Bacon, Merce Cunningham and François Truffaut, Eliza, ultimately, finds a new kind of composition in the body. “The tense of silence? Present, renewing itself always.”

The Hearing Test is published by Peninsula at £10.99. To order your copy for £9.99, call 0808 196 6794 or Telegraph Books