The Lost Language of Cranes

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Owen and Rose Benjamin lead a quiet, middle-class life in Manhattan. For more than twenty years, they have lived in the same apartment, following daily routines which have become inflexible rituals. Their son, Philip, lives alone but still forms a part of the fabric of their lives.

Suddenly this carefully constructed life begins to unravel. Outwardly the cause is the threatened loss of the Benjamins’ apartment as their building goes co-op. There are, however, darker forces threatening the family. It becomes apparent that Owen has had a secret ritual, hidden from Rose and Philip. He spends each Sunday in a gay pornographic movie theater, where he can satisfy his homosexual urges anonymously in the dark. Already under stress about the apartment, Owen now finds that his Sundays are no longer enough, and he begins to struggle with his increasingly overt need. At the same time, Philip is in love and is trying to find the courage to tell his parents he is gay. His eventual disclosure gives Owen the final push necessary for him to come out, too.

Leavitt paints an uncompromising picture of life in New York’s gay community, both the seamy, transitory side and the close relationships that can develop. He deftly conveys the agony and confusion suffered by Owen and Philip as they come to terms with themselves and with Rose’s anger and fear when she finally must face a truth she has avoided for many years. He weaves into a coherent whole scenes from each of the three lives in the present and the past. A subplot involving a black lesbian friend of Philip is less successfully integrated. Overall, however, this is an affecting novel by an...

(The entire section is 677 words.)

The Lost Language of Cranes

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

In this, his first novel, David Leavitt treats several themes found in his widely praised collection of short stories, Family Dancing (1984). Among these themes are homosexuality, family relationships, and the sense of personal isolation characteristic of modern urban life.

Structurally, the book is divided into four sections. In the first section, “Voyage,” the reader is introduced to the principal characters and their lives. The story centers on Owen and Rose Benjamin, a solid, middle-class couple, and their adult son, Philip. Owen Benjamin is the first character introduced, although he is not named at the time. He is seen as a nameless, shadowy figure on an anonymous, faintly sinister errand that takes him through the deserted streets of Manhattan. In contrast, Rose, his wife, is introduced clearly and is seen in the warmth and coziness of their apartment. Philip, their twenty-five-year-old son, is barely mentioned at first although he is a catalyst for much of the action.

Ostensibly, the Benjamins are threatened by outside forces. The apartment in which they have lived for more than twenty years is going co-op, and they must either use most of their savings to purchase the apartment or move to another location. This problem, however, only serves to divert the reader’s attention from the real threat to their security. All three of the Benjamins have been harboring secrets, but it is Owen’s and Philip’s homosexuality which will endanger their basic family relationships.

Even at twenty-five, Philip is portrayed as rather callow. He is openly gay and for the first time in his life has a lover, Eliot Abrams. Yet this affair is doomed by Philip’s adolescent clinging and need for reassurance. His almost puppylike affection and enthusiasm make him seem much younger than he really is. Philip also seems to be somewhat superficial and thoughtless. In his self-centered view that his sexuality is the central thing in his life and therefore should be revealed to his parents, he gives little thought for their feelings or reactions.

In contrast to Philip’s openness, Owen has hidden his homosexuality for twenty-seven years of marriage. His one guilty concession to his obsession has been regular, furtive trips to a pornographic-film theater each Sunday. Owen, representative of an earlier, closeted generation of homosexuals, believes that his shameful secret must be kept hidden, but he is balancing on a thinner and thinner edge as he realizes that his Sundays no longer satisfy him.

“Myths of Origin,” the second section of the novel, further explores the natures and backgrounds of the characters. Throughout the section there is an emphasis on personal distance and alienation and the keeping of secrets. This is especially true in the descriptions of the father-son relationship of Owen and Philip. Owen purposely has kept a distance between Philip and himself, fearful that his unnamed obsession will be transmitted to his son like a disease.

Leavitt again presents a contrast to the Benjamins’ closed, secretive life-style as he introduces Philip into the open atmosphere of Eliot’s “family.” Orphaned as a child, Eliot was reared by a gay couple in an accepting, supportive atmosphere. It is shortly after meeting this family that Philip finally tells his parents of his own sexual orientation. The section closes with Owen’s devastation at the news and Rose’s immediate rejection of her first acknowledgment of Owen’s potentially more damaging secret.

The novel’s third section, “The Crane-Child,” is the briefest, covering only three pages, but it presents an allegory of the central motif. The story is, in fact, a report of a psychoanalytic case study of a neglected child, who, in the absence of human models, began to imitate the sound and actions of construction cranes, which he could see from his window. When the boy was found by authorities, the screeching and whirring of the cranes was his only language. For Leavitt, the story shows how one does not necessarily choose whom or what to love and how one becomes like whatever is loved. A basic tragedy and alienating factor of life is the inability to find a common language to communicate these different kinds of love. The languages are lost to all but those who already understand them.

The final section, “Father and Son,” is the longest of the four divisions of the book. Philip, Owen, and Rose all must deal with their personal crises. Their decisions and actions are made in isolation but continue to have great impact on the others.

Philip is floundering, set adrift when Eliot suddenly leaves him and goes to Europe. Having just begun to feel the security of being part of a couple and enjoying the freedom of having “come out,” he is stunned and overwhelmed by Eliot’s defection, although he has feared that just such a thing would happen. In a sense, being without Eliot forces Philip to grow up. He...

(The entire section is 2035 words.)

The Lost Language of Cranes Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Hubbard, Kim. “The Lost Language of Cranes.” People Weekly 26 (November 3, 1986): 19-20. After a brief synopsis of the novel, Hubbard considers the humorlessness of the characters and their preoccupation with sexual identity. The reviewer also questions the novel’s lack of attention to AIDS.

Jones, Adams-Mars. “The Lost Language of Cranes.” New Republic 195 (November 17, 1986): 43-46. A balanced appraisal of the novel on several levels. Jones examines the larger themes and metaphors and the use of pathos, irony, tone, and tempo. He criticizes Leavitt for underdevelopment of certain characters and the lack of a mature central protagonist.

Leavitt, David. “The Way I Live Now.” The New York Times Magazine 138 (July 9, 1989): 28-32. Inspired by Susan Sontag’s story “The Way We Live Now,” Leavitt discusses AIDS with candor and conviction. He looks at AIDS in his own writing and reviews the history of AIDS activism. Includes criticism of society’s stereotypes in fighting the epidemic.

Lo, Mun-Hou. “David Leavitt and the Etiological Maternal Body.” Modern Fiction Studies 41 (Fall/Winter, 1995): 439-465. Examines the correlation between mothers and homosexuality in Leavitt’s written works. Discusses excerpts of books with themes similar to Leavitt’s subjects, the influences of a maternal figure in the development of homosexuality, and the portrayal of acceptance by mothers of homosexual children. Offers a framework for a better understanding of the relationship between Philip and Rose.

Lopate, Phillip. “Sexual Politics, Family Secrets.” The New York Times Book Review, October 5, 1986, 3. Lopate favorably reviews the novel, commending Leavitt’s female characters and the freshness and suspense of the story. He takes issue with the novel’s emphasis on sexual identity and politics. The review is accompanied by an interview box in which Barth Healey quotes Leavitt’s views on the novel.

Staggs, Sam. “David Leavitt.” Publishers Weekly 237 (August 24, 1990): 47-48. An intimate article based on an interview with the author. Leavitt discusses his work from a dispassionate, objective viewpoint. He also comments on the challenges of youthful success, his popularity in Europe, and his responsibility as a gay writer in the AIDS era.

Time. “A Family Reveals Its Secrets.” 139 (June 29, 1992): 85. Reviews the BBC adaptation of Levitt’s novel, noting the change in location from New York City to London. The reviewer praises the adaptation, but contends that “the change of locale distances the already remote characters and undercuts the work’s emotional force.”