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Dead Languages, by David Shields

Robert Yates, Caroline Dunant | 01.06.2000

Reviews by Robert Yates and Caroline Dunant.

Review by Robert Yates

Dead Languages

Colin Wilson once decried the error that beginning writers often make when they assume that the injunction to "write about what you know" means simply "write an autobiography". So it is with Daniel Shields: he has collected a series of often moving and amusing anecdotes, but without transmuting his experiences into the form of a true novel. If you compare "Dead Languages" with autobiographical novels such as James Joyce's "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" or Sylvia Plath's "The Bell Jar", Shields' work seems like a half-completed experiment. Then again, this may be exactly the effect he was aiming at; if so, hopefully he will aim a little higher in future.

"Dead Languages" is the fictional memoir of a (half) Jewish stammerer, Jeremy Zorn, whose speech difficulty is made all the more acute by his family's love of language. Jeremy's politically-correct mother is a hellraising amateur journalist, and his father exasperates him with his stereotypically Jewish flight into literature as an escape from life. Instead, Jeremy longs to escape from the demands and strictures of language; he loves the sound of Biblical Hebrew precisely because he can't understand a word, and it therefore has no power over him. (Ironically, he is echoing other Jewish writers like Kafka and Pinter in his distrust of language.)

Jeremy's antipathy towards words is accentuated, of course, by his stammer, but he grows beyond seeing a facile causal connection ("Stutterers are truth-tellers; everyone else is lying.") The problem with words is that they can take on a life of their own, beyond the authentic expression of feelings. When Jeremy's mother dies, he overlays his account of the experience with a fictionalised narrative and analyses her friends' condolence messages for errors of syntax.

"Dead Languages" is very much about stammering. Shields' anecdotes about embarrassing speech situations and often equally embarrassing attempts at therapy will ring a bell with many BSA members. I especially liked the Romanian speech therapist who hasn't mastered basic English grammar and tries to 'cure' children with speech problems by putting a button on the end of their tongues. "Dead Languages" is important because it treats stammering as an appropriate subject for literature and communicates the stammerer's suffering to a readership that would otherwise be unaware.

Summer 2000 issue of 'Speaking Out'.

Review by Caroline Dunant

Jeremy Zorn is born into a family - American, Jewish, educated - in which language is seen as the magic key to success. His mother is a journalist, a feature writer on leading newspapers, and committed activist for liberal causes. His father is a reporter, photographer and gifted raconteur. And his sister Beth, 'Miss Historian', is on a direct route to top-flight academy, from the cradle. A family who are as much talkers as writer. Language is important, fluency is vital, and Jeremy stutters.

His struggles begin at four-years old when his get-things-done Mom attempts to blitz the problem in an afternoon. Jeremy had been unaware of the seriousness of his impediment until then. And he continues to attempt to deny it as he grows up, despite occasional, determined, well-meaning but usually misguided, adult intervention. Jeremy dislikes the label Stutterer. To him it sounds like 'Atheist, Heretic, or Cat Burglar. Stutterer, life sentence, with no chance of parole'. He is a boy who is touchingly proud of his difference, and states "I don't want to be happy. I want to be u-u-unusual".

But Jeremy is bothered by his 'problem with language' and develops a line of what he calls 'compensatory activities' which he pursues with obsessive zeal - basketball, running, dating highly articulate and sophisticated girls who often do a great deal to develop the speed of his running, singing, acting, debating, Latin, and finally, writing. In these, he attempts not to talk at all, talk a great deal, have the talking done for him, talk in another language which no one understands, and then talk on paper. His aim is to attempt to control communication, and writing strikes him as his last opportunity to stop being the victim of language and become its master.

The novel is narrated in the first person, and told in flashbacks. A boyhood lived first in Los Angeles in the late fifties, to San Francisco in the late sixties and Berkeley in the seventies. Jeremy undertakes his novel as part of his intensive speech therapy which he begins as a college student, at a point at which he was having extensive difficulties conducting conversations anywhere other than on his own in the shower. He walks into the UCLA Speech and Hearing Clinic and is assigned Sandra as his 'clinician'. As he puts it, hearing was fine, as were his high whistles and low whispers, but the rest..... He had come to use language 'as well as he could to communicate the difficulty of using language'.

It is not stated whether the novel is autobiographical, but the astonishing insight given, and the telling mix of humiliation and hilarity, reveal someone deeply acquainted with the very differing attitudes of parents, teachers, other boys and the other sex, to a speech impediment. Shields not only gets deep into the heart and mind of a boy from child to youth verging on manhood, but at the same time, maintains a narrator's detachment and comments with wry wit and the understanding of hindsight.

Shields is an impeccable stylist. From a literary point of view, the novel is a pleasure to read. Sheilds/Zorn obviously adores language and has become its master. He has achieved - with brilliance, I believe - not only an enormously informative and entertaining book about stuttering, but also about the wider problems of language; stuttering as a metaphor for the difficulties of human communication - the verbal rituals of play, of love, sex, basketball, politics, families and, last but by no means least, the breathtaking jargon of American speech therapy.

Autumn 1993 issue of 'Speaking Out'