Dead Languages

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

In David Shields’s second novel, Jeremy Zorn relates a picaresque narrative of his life, his adventures comprising a series of obsessions interspersed with failed relationships and capped with the death of his mother. What emerges from this seemingly loose array of anecdotes is a finely drawn Kunstlerroman, a portrait of the conditions that have spawned a young man who turns to writing to compensate for his incapacity to speak clearly.

Writing is only the last of “an endless series of obsessions, overwrought attempts to get beyond a voice that bothered me,” Jeremy says. He first becomes conscious of this bothersome voice as a preschooler, when his mother sits him down in their living room, not allowing him to go outside to play until he says “Philadelphia” without stammering. He fails the test. Hoping to show him that he can succeed at saying words without stuttering, his mother shows him some flashcards with pictures and tries to get Jeremy to play a game they have often enjoyed together—captioning the picture. Again Jeremy fails, unable to get beyond his fear of not succeeding. This failure instigates the “principal compensatory activities” —his obsessions—that consume Jeremy in his desire “either to vanish forever or to emerge triumphant.”

Mere triumph, however, does not change anything. As a first grader, he learns to pitch a softball so fast that no one in the school can hit it. His team, the First-Grade All-Stars, beats the team of every grade above it, culminating in the tromping of the Fifth-Grade All-Stars, who turn out to be poor sports. “They went straight to the only weakness they knew I had. They pounded their bats on the grass and said, ’Say “Cincinnati,” say “Chanukah,” say “Golden Gate Park.”’” Fortunately, young Jeremy is often able to say a word if someone else has already said it. He meets their demands, following which he is carried away on the shoulders of his teammates. This triumph does nothing to alleviate Jeremy’s obsessional nature. A paragraph later, he launches a description of his next obsession, one that strikes a little closer to the real problem: He attempts to confess his way out of the overwhelming burden of guilt he feels. This new obsession begins when he accidentally breaks his mother’s prized sculpture. By chance, on the same day, his mother has sold a major article to the San Francisco Examiner. When she comes home, radiant from her success, she graciously accepts Jeremy’s trepidacious confession, adding, “[I]f you do something I should know about, will you come tell me rather than make me find out for myself?” Mistaking her good spirits for love and deciding he “must never lose her love,” Jeremy makes a ritual of confessing every evening anything that could be construed as something his mother should know about. This leads to an attempt to having nothing to confess, which means being both “morally impeccable and squeaky clean.” Fortunately, this obsession dies a natural death, eventually exhausting itself, though not before approaching a psychotic intensity and binding Jeremy in situations of involuted absurdity.

His mother having suggested that he might get rid of his “neurasthenic self-consciousness” by pursuing “a selfless discipline such as politics,” Jeremy is coerced by her into running for student body president of his conservative private elementary school on a platform of desegregation. He campaigns with much energy and flair. On the day before the election, upon finishing his speech, he is booed by the students and pelted with “a good percentage of their bag lunches.” His mother comes running up, tears and adulation in her eyes. “You were beautiful .. you’re going to be famous!” she shouts, oblivious to how cruelly her words are being contradicted by all Jeremy’s peers.

Jeremy is not oblivious, though. He flees the spotlight of politics for the anonymity of the school chorus, enjoying “being unable to hear my own voice: being part of a long song outside myself.” Soon, however, he finds himself humiliated, placed in the back row with a group of boys who are requested by the conductor only to mouth the words—to pretend to sing. He takes the suggestion and runs with it; he arms himself with a pencil and pad, learns sign language, and refuses thenceforth to talk. This continues until his father, a timid man with a tenuously situated psyche, wrestles him to the ground, shouting, “Why won’t you talk to us?” The first words out of Jeremy’s mouth, after such a long period of silence, are “I hate you. I hate all of you.”

It is fitting that this expression of anger is an outcome of an attempt to abolish forever the bothersome voice. Moreover, it is notable that this...

(The entire section is 1952 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The Boston Review. XIV, August, 1989, p.26.

Library Journal. CXIV, April 1, 1989, p.115.

Los Angeles Times Rook Review. June 25, 1989, p. 5.

The New York Review of Rooks. XXXVI, July 20, 1989, p.30.

The New York Times Rook Review. XCIV, June 18, 1989, p.22.

The New Yorker. LXV, July 3, 1989, p.95.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, March 10, 1989, p.74.