Tag Archives: past and present

The Language of Secrets

The Language of Secrets: A Novel by Dianne Dixon (Anchor; $14.99; 272 pages)

Tracing our steps from the beginning/ Until they vanished into the air/ Trying to understand how our lives had led us there…   Jackson Browne, “Late for the Sky”

“A sense of desperation rose in Caroline…  She had unwittingly written her life into a language of secrets, into an indecipherable code riddled with questions.”

It was Jackson Browne who said of the past, the things we remember seem so distant and so small.   The past – and its impact on the present – is the theme of The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon.   This is the story of Justin Fisher, a man who grew up outside of Los Angeles, the son of Robert and Caroline Fisher.   But somehow he thinks that this was just a part of his life.   He begins to remember growing up as “T.J.” with a red-haired mother, living in the snow of the east coast, perhaps in Boston.   “…the information was presenting itself to him in erratic bursts.   In bits and pieces.   Out of nowhere.”

In this tale by a Hollywood scriptwriter turned author, Justin’s search for his past is painful.   It is a past filled with family secrets and a great deal of anger.   He is just one of the characters who have both pleasant and painful memories of home and relations.   “Home is the place in which you were rooted by your beginnings…  It marked and branded you.   And if it was a broken, desolate place it would leave you hungry and dangerous, and punished, for the rest of your life.”

The Language of Secrets repeatedly deals with the tension between remembering one’s childhood home as a place of sanctity and safety, and as a place to escape from.   “Mom, I don’t need a house.   I’m head of publicity for a major movie studio.   I’ve got a kick-ass life that I love.   I have no interest in getting married and settling down…  (This house was) a nice place to grow up in.   But that’s the whole point of being a kid and then becoming an adult.   You grow up.   You move on.”

So says one of Justin’s sisters to his mother.   But usually in a family at least one of the siblings must lead the life chosen by his or her parents.   In this story, it is Justin’s father who winds up living a second-hand version of his own father’s insurance salesman’s life.   Disastrous consequences follow for everyone.

Clearly, Dixon has devised a fascinating set-up for a novel.   There’s love here, but also – as previously mentioned – a lot of anger and rage.   Rage that comes from seeking independence, even as a fully grown adult:  “I have a rich father-in-law who treats me and my wife like we’re a wholly owned subsidiary.”

Dixon’s strength is in getting the reader to want to follow along with a not-so-pleasant tale, wanting to turn the page, and the next, with a bit of trepidation as to what’s ahead.   In The Language of Secrets, life is not what it seems to be.   This is demonstrated by jumbled memories of jumbled events.   (Haven’t we all been corrected by family members about when and where something in our past occurred?   And don’t we, nevertheless, continue to believe our own version of what happened?)

The difficulty with reading The Language of Secrets is that events seem to happen in strange order, in non-chronological fashion, even when the author identifies the time and place.   The reader might be tempted to make a chart of the events in the story, and may find that they just don’t chart out in sequence.   Perhaps this is Dixon’s way of reminding us that life remains anchored in confusion, and fog.

The great revelation perhaps never did come.   Virginia Woolf

The Language of Secrets is such a complicated story that in the end there’s no great revelation.   This reader would love to see a follow-up from Dixon that is a bit simpler and told in chronological order.   Still, The Language of Secrets serves as an indication that a very promising new writer has arrived on the scene.

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

“A lovely and compelling debut.”   Kristin Hannah, author of Distant Shores and Night Road.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Note:  Four novels have been released that have similar titles – The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby, The Language of Secrets by Dianne Dixon, The Language of Flowers by Virginia Diffenbaugh, and The Language of Light by Meg Waite Clayton.

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Simple Survival

The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey: A Novel by Walter Mosley (Riverhead Hardcover, $25.95, 288 pages)

“Sometimes I wonder what it’s gonna take/To find dignity…”   Bob Dylan

When Robyn, a young woman of seventeen, rekindles in ninety-one year old Ptolemy Grey, either consciously or subconsciously, the will to actively engage in life, the phrase, “Be careful what you ask for,” comes to mind.

Ptolemy’s brain is a jumbled mess of neurons, and the fuzziness of his inner mind is adeptly reflected in Walter Mosley’s prose.   There are no chapters or definitive breaks in the storyline.   Rather, the book is 277-pages of a third person account of Ptolemy – an African-American man – trying to connect episodes of his past and present in a way that actually makes sense of them.

Ptolemy lives in squalor in a Los Angeles neighborhood where local characters threaten the old man in search of his pension checks.   The initial pages invite the reader to like, root for, and sympathize with Ptolemy, but as the story unfolds, the warts of all of the characters involved are revealed.   The moral high ground is a mass of gray in this violent world in which survival is the only reality that matters.

Reggie is Ptolemy’s caretaker.   He helps him cash his checks, buy groceries, and run errands.   When he doesn’t show up for a matter of weeks, the reader eventually learns that he has been murdered.   Through circumstance Ptolemy and Robyn forge a relationship.   She takes him to see Dr. Ruben, whom Ptolemy refers to as the Devil.   Ptolemy agrees to treatment with an experimental drug that will temporarily restore his clarity but ensure a rapid death.

In the weeks he has left, Ptolemy sets out on a quest to make sense of losses he endured throughout the various stages of his life:  his loves – successful, unsuccessful, and unrequited; and, as he becomes more cogent, seeks to put his finances in order to take care of those he considers deserving of a mysterious and surprisingly significant estate.

But defying Father Time comes at a cost.   Whatever the benefits for those that remain after Ptolemy departs, the reader is left at the end to wonder if the man who must inevitably slip back to his previous state is any better off than he was before and, for those inclined to consider such things, what might await him next.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Mosley’s depiction of the indignities of old age is heartbreaking, and Ptolemy’s grace and decency make for a wonderful character and a moving novel.”   Publisher’s Weekly

“Simple survival is the greatest victory.”   Bob Dylan

Note:   Some readers with a long memory will see some parallels between this story and the film Charly based on the novel Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes.

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