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How to Read an Unwritten Language

BOOK: How to Read an Unwritten Language
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How to Read an Unwritten Language

Philip Graham


Braided Worlds
(co-authored with Alma Gottlieb)

The Moon, Come to Earth: Dispatches from Lisbon

Interior Design: Stories

How to Read an Unwritten Language

Parallel Worlds: An Anthropologist and a Writer Encounter Africa
(co-authored with Alma Gottlieb)

The Art of the Knock: Stories

The Vanishings
(prose poems)

Praise for
How to Read an Unwritten Language

“From storywriter Graham, an exceptional first novel about the unveiling of secret lives and hidden stories … a poignant, multifaceted debut novel about the obscured treasures of the ordinary.”

Kirkus Reviews

“I was utterly entranced by the keen and idiosyncratic vision of
How to Read an Unwritten Language
. Philip Graham has created a fable for our time, of a family torn apart by tragedy, and the son who sets out into the world to redeem his life by a series of trials. A truly original novel, tough-minded and compassionate, and above all beautifully written.”

–Lynne Sharon Schwartz

“Evocative, lyrical prose and a keen eye for unexpected detail hold the reader spellbound through this odd, poignant tale of a sensitive man's quest to understand himself and his loved ones by cracking the code of their lives' elusive symbolism … Through Michael's gentle voice, first-novelist Graham (author of a short-story collection,
The Art of the Knock
, and two other books) fashions a resonant narrative that explores the value of storytelling to make life bearable and the unending struggle to make sense of those closest to us.”

Publisher's Weekly
(starred review)

“Philip Graham has long been, with his remarkable short stories, one of the most original and ravishing voices in American fiction. Now he has brought his prodigious skills to a novel and—how rare this is—he has produced work of equal brilliance in both forms.
How to Read an Unwritten Language
is a book full of passion and poetry and profound insight into one of the great and eternal themes of art, the formation of self. I come away from the novel seeing the things of the everyday world quite differently. The shape of a tree, the scuff on a stranger's shoe, the put-on face of a troubled child: these are the words of the language that Graham teaches us how to read, and what is written here always matters in the way our very identities are shaped and revealed.”

–Robert Olen Butler

“An exceptional first novel, by a midwestern writer with a highly original, mystical vision. As he did in his short story collection,
The Art of the Knock
, Graham layers psychological realism with surreal comedy in this story of a son burdened with the crippling eccentricities of his parents.”

–John Blades,
Lit, New City's Literary Supplement

“A fascinating collage … rife with raw emotion from unexpected sources.”

-Liam Callanan,
The New York Times Book Review

“Powerful … moving … Graham's heartwarming subject is empathy between human beings and the cost to our lives of deaf ears and barricaded hearts.”

-Carey Harrison,
San Francisco Chronicle

“No matter that many disasters appear ‘in the form of car collisions or flooded basements, they more often appear from some secret place inside us.' So says this book's narrator, Michael Kirby, who has learned to intuit the dark secrets of the heart, to hear what people don't say … to all these relationships, Michael brings a sixth sense that is both hard-won and unnerving to those involved. And just as the character of Michael operates always on two levels–the seen and the unseen–the author himself writes on more than one plane. Beneath his deft execution of the narrative runs a dreamy, subconscious state that effectively places the reader deep into the thought (and unthought) processes of Michael's mind, plummeting the subterranean currents that run through us all.”

–Colleen Kelly Warren,
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Touching, comic, and heartbreaking … The special strengths of this novel are its clarity of prose and its alert sensitivity.”

–William O'Rourke,
Chicago Tribune

“Highly recommended … With great skill and control, Graham describes the sorrows of a family in disintegration.”


“Graham began by writing prose poems, graduated to short stories and has now produced a novel. It's a special sort of a novel-mystical, philosophical and respectful of the language of inanimate objects.”

–Michael Silverblatt, KCRW's

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 1995, 2013 by Philip Graham
This e-book reprint is a revised version of the original 1995 Scribner edition.

All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.

Cover art image copyright 1991-92, 1996, Gary Hill

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Graham, Philip, date.
How to read an unwritten language: a novel / Philip Graham.
p. cm.
I. Title.


ISBN 0-684-80373-9


By Alex Shakar

It's a curious feat that some of the most arrestingly realized characters in
How to Read an Unwritten Language
are also some of the most withholding. There's the lovable and retreating Kate, whom the protagonist Michael meets in college, a budding artist so out of place among people she can only draw objects; all-too briefly in their relationship, she crests above the waterline of a silence ever ready to reclaim her. There's Michael's stern father Gerald, an endless wall of a man; his means of expression are almost exclusively limited to the silent plants that he grows in his garden store and the bowling pins he explosively fells on family outings.

Graham's novel is tantalizingly rife with seeking and hiding, pining gazes meeting thousand-yard stares, children and lovers reaching out, parents and spouses pulling away. Michael's mother, the emotional epicenter of his narrative, goes by innumerable names, donning a fresh personality every day. The behavior, which begins as a game with her children, devolves into a torment for them: behind her masks, she will never admit to being more than a passing stranger. Later in life, Michael's sister Laurie flirts similarly with emotional masks and disappearing acts, to the desolation of those who try to get close. One of the central and deeply empathic insights of
How to Read an Unwritten Language
is that knowing others and allowing ourselves to be known are inextricable acts, and that, therefore, our efforts to hide our pain can prevent us from being available for the witnessing and mending of the pain of others.

Michael's childhood of trying to scry his parents amid their evasions dooms—and as well, inspires—him to a life of looking. He becomes a student of the “unwritten language” of people's secret tells, because once seen, he seems to believe, people will have no choice but to see him in turn. This un-language of tells extends not only to people but to the objects around them that have soaked up their stories. He becomes a collector, hoping that his menagerie of objects will silently speak to people, “breaking the spell of [their] inner knot[s].” But will they? Could they possibly? One can't help but wonder, as Michael secretly knots his beloved's boot with a shoelace from the collection that he's never explained to her, hoping that its “subtle energy” will break her silence, whether this is magic or magical thinking on his part, whether Michael is himself succumbing to the disease of proliferating inwardness he hopes in others to cure. In this novel full of bracing questions, perhaps one of the most is whether Michael's—and by extension the human—imagination amounts to a prison or to freedom itself. Do the inner lives we create allow us to imaginatively connect with others, or do they lull and goad and maze us in endless halls of mirrors?

Of course, it isn't the objects Michael collects but the stories spun around them that matter, and once Michael grasps this fact, he comes into his true power. He becomes at once an artist and a witch doctor, wielding his talismanic objects and the stories he tells about them to change people's lives—sometimes for the better, to bless and liberate, and sometimes, chillingly, to curse and ensnarl.

Toward the end, his story nearly told, Michael transitions to the direct writing and rewriting in his mind of the lives of the people he's tried hardest to know, searching for the best possible endings for them that might still accord with the truth of what he's seen of their trajectories. Perhaps Kate drowns in that sea of silence; or perhaps, mermaid-like, she finds in it her element. Perhaps Laurie remains alone and hidden forever, a theater act for no one at all; or perhaps she finds communion through literature, fictional stories to reach her in ways no living person can. Again, the reader may not know how to feel. Are Michael's imaginings, presented almost as fact, a kind of retreat from his hard won lessons about the limits of storytelling without communication? Or are they something else—a moment of protagonist and author recognizing each other through a two-way mirror darkly, this storytelling character now spinning himself into authorhood? Maybe it's cheating, a power grab. Yet maybe too it's precisely the reverse, an acknowledgment of his limits as well his powers, limits which all of us share: We can reach out for others; we can read them and see them and speak our truth. And some, when seen, will see both themselves and us anew. And some will flee themselves still deeper and lose sight of us even more. And so the best we can do is dare to be both open-armed and open-eyed—to see, in each other and ourselves, the most loving reading that could be true.



A Secret Performance

My Second Language

The Collector

We Want You Back


The Butterfly Effect

Our Phantom Limb

No Seeing Left for Us

Father and Son


Matching Faces

The Dream-Lit Room

A Form of Floating

Chiming Glasses


No Rain Today

Little Explosions

Who's Next

Suicide Songs


I Had a Hunch about You

Stitching Wounds

The Gallery

Extended Family



A False Road

A Matched Set

Ecstatic Wings



I would like to express my thanks for the invaluable support offered by the Corporation of Yaddo, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, during the writing of this novel.


The things of the heart cannot be read by too many people. They burn inside like a big fire which people cannot know how to put out.


I was running to meet everything that was visible, and everything that I could not yet see.


A Secret Performance

I'd always felt that the secret life is available, either on the chipped and lipsticked rim of a coffee cup or in a crumpled tissue's faint smell of sex, in the smudgy fingerprints of a child's frayed comic book or along the jagged flap of a crudely torn envelope. A single gnawed crescent of fingernail is a voice that can speak, in the same way our faces percolate with transformations, mutating into languages that invite and defy fluency. But where had this belief brought me? There were so many objects I'd lost, so many stories and people

BOOK: How to Read an Unwritten Language
7.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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