How to Read an Unwritten Language
Primarily a short-story writer, Philip Graham devotes much of this, his first novel, to spinning the mysterious, often ghostly kinds of yarns he presented in his collection The Art of the Knock: Stories (1985). Superimposed on the individual stories that are an integral part of How to Read an Unwritten Language is the controlling structure of a novel that recounts Michael Kirby’s journey from age eleven to manhood.
A pervasive element in this novel is the Sylvia Matthews-Michael Kirby relationship, which is told sketchily in the initial, italicized sections of parts 1-5 and is the basis for Michael’s recounting much of the Kirby family’s story. By part 6, when the Sylvia story dominates the narrative, the initial section is printed in standard type. In part 6, Michael and Sylvia are married.
Michael, the product of a singularly bizarre childhood, is both a collector and a caregiver, first to his two siblings and later to others who come within his orbit. If ever the overused term “dysfunctional” described a family well, it unequivocally describes the Kirby family.
Gladys Kirby, the mother, is Gladys only occasionally, mostly when her husband is home. When she is in the presence of her children, she regularly adopts other personas: Margaret, who hates to cook; Dot, who drives the children to a stationery store and buys them comic books and candy; Marcie, a policewoman; Tina, a dancer; Valerie, a photographer; Stella, an usher; Christie, once privileged, now a bag lady; and Danielle, an optometrist, who gives the children eye examinations.
One day Gladys, assuming the persona of a tough cab driver who once wheedled a knife away from two fares who intended to rob her, drives to the children’s school to collect them. She demands to know the address to which her passengers (her own children) wish to be taken, then tries to cheat them by taking them by an indirect route. At the beginning of this episode, Dan, the youngest of the three children, tries to avoid getting into the car with this strange mother by whom his patience is being severely tested, but Michael, ever the conciliator, urges Dan to play along with Gladys’ delusion.
As the delusions grow, the children increasingly become their mother’s pawns, sharing her secret identities and keeping them from their father, who becomes fully aware of Gladys’ behavior only after she forces Michael to play the role of a roofer and lures him dangerously onto the roof of their house.
When this hazardous antic is revealed, the father has stern words with Gladys behind the closed door of their sacrosanct bedroom. The next night, his usual night to take the children bowling, Gladys uncharacteristically goes along, and in the bowling alley the full extent of her psychosis becomes evident when she chases a bowling ball down the lane and sits on the shiny floor embracing it. Shortly afterward, she falls into a trancelike state and dies.
Each of the children is deeply affected by their mother’s behavior over the years. Dan acts out, engaging in schoolyard fisticuffs and revealing other outward signs of a boiling aggression. Just as Gladys has adopted a variety of personas, Laurie goes into acting, much to her father’s distress. He eventually refuses to pay for her education if she insists on taking acting courses, obviously fearing that she will go the way of her mother.
Michael, through interacting with Gladys—sometimes quite skillfully—has mastered the art of observing things that reveal human nature more than words can (hence the book’s title). He has from his earliest years been a collector of objects—such insignificant things as fingernail peelings and old soft-drink caps. This avocation leads him into frequenting the town’s garage sales and auctions, where he collects objects to which some story is attached. Just as a glance into a room and the sight of a madeleine being dipped in tea evoked in Marcel Proust the flood of memory that resulted in his multivolume À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931), so do the objects that Michael collects release in him memories of countless stories.
In time, Michael encounters Preston McCandles, a gallery owner who offers to sponsor a showing of his collected memorabilia. Remarkably, the show, through its enticing catalog, is virtually sold out before it opens. If this seems to be one of the book’s less probable episodes, one has only to reflect on Andy Warhol’s obsession with items similar to those Michael has collected and on his...
(The entire section is 1888 words.)