‘The Hearing Test’ by Eliza Barry Callahan ’22 Published by Catapult

Lisa Cochran
April 05, 2024

The Hearing Test, a debut novel by Writing alumna and Adjunct Assistant Professor Eliza Barry Callahan ’22 (CC ’17) was published by Catapult Books, distributed by Penguin Random House, in March 2024.

The narrator and protagonist of Callahan’s novel––a composer in her late-twenties who lives alone with her dog in New York City––wakes up one morning with a whirring in her ear. The diagnosis is Sudden Deafness without any known cause. After being told she may go fully deaf, she starts to keep a meticulous log of her daily life, documenting a vast spectrum of loneliness, enchantment, and chance occurrences. 

According to Callahan, much of what is endured by the narrator is informed by personal circumstances. “The contents of the book dovetail with events that took place in my own life—I experienced sudden and radial loss of hearing and like my narrator, was told I could be deaf within a few years time.” 

“I was going through this experience while in the program which also happened to be during the pandemic,” she said. “I really came so close to leaving the program and I believe if I had, this book wouldn't exist or if it did, it wouldn't be this book. This was just really a project of endurance which I think is [true of] most books. I also see it as a kind of durational performance—as a walk around oneself.” 

The narrator of The Hearing Test is subject to numerous fleeting and comical encounters with faraway friends, doctors, strangers, neighbors, and an ex-lover. These chance meetings, alongside artistic and philosophical works consumed by the narrator, become an avenue for survival. 

“In this striking novel, ‘controlled panic’ gives way to a cool remove when a young artist suddenly goes deaf,” said writer Amy Hempel. “Silence, for her, ‘is dressed as an injury,’ but it is also the point of entry into the lives of other creators, and philosophers. Elegant and startling, The Hearing Test is a contemplative gem.” 

“Eerie and tender and utterly consuming, The Hearing Test has built an entirely new world from the materials of the one we know,” said Associate Professor Leslie Jamison. “It takes you to a restaurant called the void, Il Vuoto, and serves you its primal, beguiling sustenance: a nourishment of pauses, estrangement, and bewilderment. The voice here is wise and wry and wondering; in its fresh and faltering silences are frequencies I’ve never heard before. From the first paragraph, I knew I wanted to keep reading Eliza Barry Callahan forever.” 

“This debut work by Eliza Callahan is an extraordinary piece of literature," said Adjunct Associate Professor Kate Zambreno, "to be read alongside the novels of W.G. Sebald, Rachel Cusk, and Maria Gainza.” 

Jamison and Zambreno were both Callahan’s professors during her time at the School of the Arts, and she credits them immensely in the creation of The Hearing Test

The Hearing Test was very much a product of my time at Columbia,” said Callahan. “I began a short essay that would later become a collection of fragmented essays and eventually a short novel. The very first part of the book was written during a seminar taught by Kate Zambreno. I really began to focus on the document as a book length piece in Leslie Jamison's senior thesis seminar. Both classes and professors were so important for what would become the book. As were my classmates.”

Callahan will be discussing The Hearing Test alongside Jamison and fellow writing alumna Emmeline Clein ’22 on Thursday, April 11, 2024 at the Lenfest Center for The Arts. RSVP here.

Callahan is a 2023 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow. Her fiction and criticism can be read in frieze, The Brooklyn Rail, BOMB, and The Believer. She is one member of the musical duo Purr and her narrative and documentary films were selected as critics picks on the digital video channel NOWNESS. She received her BA from Columbia and returned to complete an MFA.