In our Craft Capsules series, authors reveal the personal and particular ways they approach the art of writing. This is no. 181.
“Truth is not an unveiling which destroys the secret, but the revelation which does it justice.” —Walter Benjamin
Writing my new novel, The Last Language, published last month by Milkweed Editions, was an exercise in managing mysteries. The book follows the story of a linguist-turned-speech-therapist, Angela, who uses a controversial new technology to communicate with a nonverbal client, Sam. The two fall in love, and Angela is arrested for alleged sexual assault. The book’s moral puzzle hinges on the question of whether Sam was ever genuinely communicating at all.
The Last Language is narrated entirely from Angela’s point of view, which gives her airtight control over information and interpretation: She believes completely that she and Sam are misunderstood lovers. But in order for the book to be interesting, I needed to find ways to suggest that Angela might be wrong about this, maybe disastrously so. In considering how to conjure this ambiguity, I was conscious of the distinction between what Angela knows that the readers don’t versus what the readers know and Angela does not. I tried to keep in mind the difference between what my late, great creative-writing teacher Michael Downing called a “hint” versus a “suggestion.” A hint, according to Downing, has one possible explanation: A sympathy card on the mantel, for example, would hint that someone close to the homeowner has died. A suggestion leaves open the possibility for multiple interpretations: A black dress could be worn to a funeral or a cocktail party, for example. In The Last Language I tried to make Angela’s distortions feel more like suggestions than like hints. I wanted to make sure that her evasions felt authentic to her psychology and that her eventual disclosures felt impelled by the narrative, not my own convenience. (George Saunders says that there’s an inverse relationship between a reader’s tolerance for a coincidence and a writer’s need for it, and I would argue that something similar goes for big, juicy revelations.) And although I don’t love the term “unreliable narrator”—because I think all narrators are unreliable to some extent—it is true that some narrators are more unreliable than others: Their cognitive biases are more extreme, their moral judgements more self-serving, than the average person’s. And some of them, of course, will straight-up lie to you. I had to decide which kind of narrator I believed Angela to be.
I wanted Angela’s voice to raise this question from the get-go, even as her characterization and context provide possible explanations. She is grandiose and emotionally stilted—but then again, she’s a Harvard-trained linguist who, we learn early on, has just suffered significant trauma. She is obviously self-serving, but also strangely self-aware about how self-serving she might appear to be. Her first-person narration is addressed to an absent “you”—Sam, we understand—which grounds the narrative in a sort of defensive crouch; Angela’s fundamental human bias in favor of herself is compounded by the fact that what she is writing in the book is both a love letter to a lost beloved and also, potentially, a legal document. Maybe it makes sense, then, that she’s vague about some important elements of her backstory, including the circumstances surrounding her ejection from the linguistics program and the nature of her husband’s death.
She has, it turns out, left out essential, meaning-altering context from her accounts of both of these episodes. The first indication that there might be more to the story of Angela’s husband’s death actually comes more than halfway through the book, in dialogue. Sam’s mother, Sandi, asks Angela how her husband died. ‘“It was an accident,’ I said. ‘With some pills.”’ Sandi then crosses herself. It made sense to me that Angela might tell Sandi a truth she’s withheld from her own thinking—an event she’s thought around but never looked at directly and narrativized. She’s grown close to Sandi, and Sandi has just shared an awful story of her own. At the same time the context invites some ambiguity: We know what Angela has said, and we know what Sandi assumes she means, but we still don’t entirely know if Angela has told the truth or if Sandi has interpreted her words correctly. Angela has a lot of reasons to court Sandi’s empathy; maybe that’s all she’s doing.
This, I felt, was an interesting question for readers to consider, an uncertainty that was worthy of their patience—a “necessary” mystery, as one of my graduate-school professors once put it. An “unnecessary” mystery, he argued, is essentially just confusion, the kind of obscurity that occupies a reader’s attention to no particular end. A necessary mystery is a meaningful question the text is pondering—maybe narrative, maybe moral, maybe psychological—and it is in considering these that the reader will be rewarded.
One unnecessary mystery in The Last Language that needed clarifying: how, exactly, the device that Angela uses to communicate with Sam works. Over and over I revised these sections, trying to convey the physical details of the process—how the characters sat, where and how they touched, what cues from Sam guided Angela as she stabilized his hands. Honestly, revising this part was boring. I was much more interested in other things. But that was the whole point: I had to give the reader as clear a picture as possible of the prosaic so that they could have an unobstructed view of the mysterious. So again and again, I reworked descriptions of scenes involving the device, trying to help readers understand exactly what they’d feel and perceive if they were Angela. I wanted to give a full account of the physical realities, then I wanted to walk away and let readers decide what they meant. Because that’s a mystery that belongs to them, and not to me.
Jennifer duBois is the author of The Last Language (Milkweed Editions, 2023), The Spectators (Random House, 2019), Cartwheel (Random House, 2013), and A Partial History of Lost Causes (Dial Press, 2012). A recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship, a Civitella Ranieri Fellowship, and a Stanford University Stegner Fellowship, duBois teaches in the MFA program at Texas State University in Austin.Art: Pascal Muller