Language Arts/Stephanie Kallos: Reflections

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

I took a single novel with me to Hilton Head Island—the third novel by Seattle-based Stephanie Kallos, who brought us TODAY Book Club selection Broken for You as well as Sing Them Home, which was named by Entertainment Weekly as one Ten Best Novels of the year.

I was expecting very, very good, for I'd read those books and I know a little about Stephanie. I know how hard she has worked over the past four years toward this story she's called Language Arts. I know that she has broken it apart so that she might stitch it back together. That fortitude was required. And faith.

I'll enjoy this, I thought, as I packed my tiny red roller bag.

I had no idea what I was in for and here's the reason: I had no idea that a book like this was possible.

I spent nearly two hours on the plane this afternoon trying to summarize this book. I cannot. Yes, it's about a high school English teacher with a severely challenged (and now institutionalized) son. It's about the teacher's past, his regrets, a best friendship he once betrayed, the wife who left him, the daughter he loves. A family story, a deeply involving family story. It is absolutely that.

But it is also about the Palmer Method of handwriting, a brutalized Italian nun, Janet Leigh, Life magazine, thalidomide babies, and a young student who wears a camera for a necklace and has some ideas about art. Absolutely none of that is decoration, distraction, or tangent; it all counts. How and why it counts is a great part of the genius of this book.

And why you have to read it.

Structurally significant, philosophically whole, unbelievably well written, and please forgive me, Stephanie's best book yet. I could deconstruct this book for days. I could hang the sections by clothespins to a line and lie beneath the fluttering pages, pondering, but I would never be able to figure out just how this book got made. How Stephanie summoned the patience. How she held its many parts together in her head, then put them down for us.

Talk about fluid.

Talk about transporting.

Talk about clever in places and deeply sad in others.

Talk about a stab in the heart, and then a healing.

Language Arts is blurbed by Maria Semple, and anyone who loves Maria Semple (Where'd You Go, Bernadette?) will love this book. It is edited by the very great Lauren Wein of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and anyone who loves Lauren's books (I love Lauren's books) will love this book.

For the rest of you, if there are any rest of you, I give you one small passage about language from Language Arts.
Language left him gradually, a bit at a time. One would expect words to depart predictably, in reverse order—the way a row of knitting disappears, stitch by stitch, when the strand of working yarn is tugged off by the needle—but that was not the case.
Look for it next June.


Melissa Sarno said...

June? Sigh. You had me until June. Well then. Something to look forward to. : )

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