How to Read an Unwritten Language

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How to Read an Unwritten Language (Scribner, 1995), a novel. Nominated and longlisted for the 1997 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and included in the 1996 Magill’s Literary Annual as one of the 200 outstanding books in any genre of 1995, the novel also appeared on the Wordstock bestseller list. The paperback edition (Warner Books, 1996) was listed as a “New and Noteworthy” paperback by The New York Times Book Review.

How to Read an Unwritten Language is now available (2014) as an e-book in the Dzanc Books contemporary literature reprint series, featuring a new cover by Gary Hill, and an introduction by Alex Shakar.

PLEASE NOTE: This is a newly revised edition of the novel, which the author (that’s me) now considers as the official version.

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“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

“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, July 15, 1995.

“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), August 7, 1995

“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, New City (Chicago), October 10, 1995.

“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, December 10, 1995.

“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, January 5, 1996.

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“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, host of KCRW’s Bookworm

You can listen to the radio interview with Philip Graham about How to Read an Unwritten Language at Bookworm.

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You can listen to Philip Graham read an excerpt from the chapter “Little Explosions” here.

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Original cover of the 1995 edition (Scribner). Artist: Gerald Guthrie.

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Excerpt from chapter 16, “Suicide Songs,” of How to Read an Unwritten Language :

When the time came, Kate packed her half of our dividing house with a light touch, filling each box almost tenderly before taping the cardboard flap shut. I worked more slowly, noticing that she took special care not to pack any objects I’d collected–did she somehow understand that they held secrets, like the illustrations she kept inside herself?

Yet there was something from my collection that I wanted her to have, a secret gift that would be my rueful farewell: a long brown bootlace that once belonged to a young woman whose lush blond hair, I’d been told, was her own halo. While resting one afternoon in a park, she’d caught sight of a friend she secretly loved, unexpectedly approaching along one of the cobblestone paths. Though caught off guard, she quickly untied the lace of one of her boots and used it to tie back her hair. She greeted him as he walked by, and when he stopped to chat she casually reached back and loosened the knot, her hair tumbling undone for this man who now, suddenly, had nowhere else to go.

While Kate continued her meticulous, patient packing, I climbed the stairs to our nearly empty bedroom and searched in her closet for her slim leather boots, hoping she hadn’t yet packed them. There they were, in a dark corner beneath a line of dresses, one boot lying sadly on its side. I picked it up and examined the lace–it was nearly the same color and only slightly thicker than the one I held in my hand.

I quickly exchanged them, my fingers fumbling at the button hooks, satisfied with this small presence I was bestowing on Kate. Each autumn through winter she’d wear these boots, tightening them in the mornings and then going about her day, but in the evenings she’d unloose those laces, and the subtle energy of the one I’d just given her might make her pause for a moment, as if she heard someone speaking from far off, not yet recognizing that stirring within as the urge to finally let herself go. And one day, as all laces do, this lace would snap, perhaps finally breaking the spell of her own inner knot.

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Original cover of the 1997 paperback edition (Warner Books). Artist: Julie Metz.

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Excerpt from Chapter 8, “Father and Son”:

Perhaps it was inevitable that my brother would bring his trouble-making home. Over the course of a few short months toothbrushes and favorite drinking cups vanished, mysterious stains began to ap¬pear on the carpets, two of the dining room chairs’ wicker seats sud¬denly developed frayed holes, an ugly scratch marred a kitchen cabinet.

Then the living room houseplants all died at once, an inexplicable mass suicide. Of course Father blamed this latest disaster on Dan, who stood before him and declared his innocence in nearly convincing, stuttering frustration. “I didn’t do it, why d-do you always blame me?”

“Why do I always blame you?” Father returned with mocking contempt. He swiveled his recliner away to face the wood paneling on the wall.

“Why? W-why do you—”

“That’s enough, son.”

Again, Dan was nothing. Torment distorted his face, and he turned that face on me—on me, who hadn’t done anything— before rushing from the room and the house.

Father’s chair rocked back and forth while I stood by the window and watched Dan’s unhappy figure striding down the block. He was surely off to seek revenge somewhere out in the neighborhood, revenge that would certainly invite further punishment. But couldn’t this cycle be broken? I had to bring him back. Without a word to Father—who rocked and rocked and thought whatever thoughts he locked inside himself—I slipped out of the house.

My brother was already far off and walking a good imitation of a run, and I hurried to catch up, silently willing my brother to please cool down, please come back. Turning down one street, then another, Dan seemed to be following a well-worn path, each angry step habitual, and then I decided to follow, to see where he would lead me. I lagged behind, keeping a careful distance between us.

At the edge of our town’s small business district Dan turned a sharp corner and when I reached the street he was gone, as if he’d been biding his time to lose me. Was he peering out through one of the shop windows, pleased with his little trick? No, I thought, he’d never once looked back: if my brother was inside one of these stores, he wasn’t thinking about me. I paused—maybe Dan came downtown to shoplift. If so, I needed to find him quickly. My eyes scanned the street for the most likely store.

I tried the comic book shop and stalked the aisles, prepared to come upon Dan paging through a new adventure, surrounded by racks of superheroes and monsters. But he hadn’t sought refuge there and I hurried out, skipped a flower shop and the law office, then sped through the stationery store so swiftly the cashier seemed to suspect me of shoplifting.
The toy store farther down the block was another likely candidate.

Like some cartoon version of a detective, I edged along the storefronts: a deli, then the model train museum called Tomtown. Devised by a Tom somebody, this sprawling little world was one of our town’s few prides, though I hadn’t wandered in there for years. At the sound of a tiny train’s shrill whistle, I couldn’t help glancing inside.

There was Dan, his back to me, and so preoccupied that I easily snuck in and stood a few feet behind him. Three sets of trains rolled with restless energy through a miniature downtown much like the one I’d been sneaking through: fast-food restaurants, clothes stores, mom-and-pop shops, a church and travel agency. Those tiny trains must have turned in the same circles and tracks for decades, past the carefully sculpted hills, an abandoned factory, a drive-in movie and a fairground’s tacky carnival. The thought of such relentless repetition made me queasy.

Dan hadn’t moved or shifted his head once since I’d come in. Instead of following the trains, he was watching something in the miniature town, where nobody moved, no matter how pressing the business of those little plastic figures. A mother led her reluctant son to the barbershop, a drunkard hunched over in an alley, two kids peeked into a toy-store window, a dogcatcher reached out with his net for a mongrel, a hook and ladder crew hurried before a house engulfed by red-paper flames, and every action was locked in place. Which of these scenes held my brother’s attention?

Then I noticed Tom himself standing quite still in a corner, an old, old man with alert, shifting eyes, enjoying us taking in his carefully constructed world. He began to shuffle down the aisle, ready to point out some little detail that we might have missed.

But I didn’t want Dan to discover me so I stepped backward, trying to keep out of his line of sight. Then I was out the door and down the steps, hurrying across the street to Young Miss Fashions—somewhere my brother would surely never go—where I’d wait for him to leave.
Unfortunately, the saleswoman seemed to think I had no business wandering in her shop. She dogged me down the aisles, interfering with my lookout on Tomtown’s entrance and I had to feign interest in the racks of blouses and skirts. “I’m looking for something for my girlfriend,” I offered as she hovered beside me, and she finally left me alone.

I still had no idea how to even ask a girl out for a date and doubted I’d ever learn, yet I pretended the smooth, pleated skirt in my hands belonged to an actual girlfriend rather than someone I’d invented for the sake of a saleslady. Blushing at my ignorance of the secret world offered by this store, I stroked the shoulder pads of a blouse, lightly touched a skirt’s belt loop in an attempt to defeat my shyness. I discovered that skirt zippers were thin, almost delicate, and that blouse buttons buttoned on the wrong side—I flushed at the thought of my clumsy fingers ever undoing them. Then I saw Dan march down the street and out of sight.

I didn’t follow. Instead, I returned to Tomtown and stood right where Dan had kept watch. Crouching slightly to reproduce his line of sight, I peered at the crowded downtown street of meticulously painted figures, searching for whatever had drawn my brother’s attention.
I heard Tom’s steps behind me and then his hand was on my shoulder. He coughed lightly and said, “You know that boy who just left here?”

Had Dan stolen something? Afraid of betraying myself, I shook my head no without turning around and lightly shrugged off his hand.

“You sure? You look a little alike I think. And that was you who came in a while ago, wasn’t it?”

I nodded, stalling for time. “Uh-huh . . . I, I remembered I had to post a letter for my dad.”

“You always walk backwards out a door?”

Speaking quickly to distract him from my blushing, I said, “I do if I don’t want to miss what the trains are doing. I haven’t been here for a while and I’d forgotten what a great place this is.”

Tom didn’t reply, then sighed. “Well, too bad you don’t know that boy. I’d ask a question or two about him if you did.”

Afraid anything I might say would give me away, I didn’t reply and continued my survey of the little figures: a mother and daughter holding their hats against the wind, a dog eyeing a fire hydrant, two old men taking it all in from a storefront bench.

“Y’know,” Tom broke in, “he comes in here about once a week and he doesn’t move from that spot you’re standing in.”

I nodded, straining for disinterested politeness, and peered at a tiny man slipping a coin in a parking meter.

“He can stand there for up to an hour, real interested in whatever it is you’re looking at.” Tom coughed. “Though perhaps you could move just a touch to the right.”

While thankful for his advice, I didn’t move, still not trusting Tom enough to give him satisfaction. Eventually he walked back to his captain’s chair in the corner, and of course I shifted before he turned around.

At first I saw no difference: the barber staring out his window remained the same barber, and the young mother kept pushing a baby carriage past the same streetlamp. Then I noticed a tiny arm raised in the air, cut off by the sharp corner of a hardware store—Damn it, I thought, I hadn’t moved enough to the right. Tom was watching me now, so I took infinitesimally small, infinitesimally slow sideways steps until that upraised arm became a man leaning over a child, a lit¬tle boy who crouched down and shielded himself from a coming blow.

They were father and son, two tiny figures that never moved, the father’s threatening gesture always held in check. This terrible stalemate must be what drew Dan here week after week under Tom’s watchful eye, a little sculpture of what he came home to every day after school, for weren’t Father’s angers and silences a kind of beating, inflicted without lifting a finger? I remembered his harsh words the opening night of Laurie’s school play, remembered her later that evening, her cheek as raw and pink as if she’d been struck.

A train and its five little passenger cars chugged by, and I stepped away, ready to leave.

Tom called out, “Find anything?”

I had, and with his help, but this was nothing I could share. “Sorry,” I managed, and ran outside.