- Speaking in Tongues
Perhaps the crowning achievement of David Jauss’s new collection of fiction, Glossolalia, is the way in which it conveys truths of human feeling and experience that are beyond words, beyond denotative expression, beyond logical comprehension. The only way to comprehend them is to feel them, and Jauss is a master of creating that felt experience through language incapable of explaining it.
In the title story of Glossolalia, a sixteen-year-old boy finds his father on the kitchen floor rocking back and forth on hands and knees and speaking “a kind of crazy language, like speaking in tongues.” As a grown man looking back, he says of his father’s babbling that it sounded as if the “words turned inside out, so that only their emotion and not their meaning came through.” That description seems a perfect one for glossolalia, more commonly known as “speaking in tongues” and most often associated with spiritual ecstasy or spiritual hysteria. It seems also a perfect description of the language spoken by the protagonists of the seventeen stories in Jauss’s new book.
The term glossolalia refers to speech that conveys emotional intensity in a language that, though it imitates coherent speech, is entirely undecipherable. The characters in Jauss’s stories speak most frequently about deeply felt love, and although they speak in their native languages, their listeners—and sometimes even the speakers themselves—fail to decipher their meanings. In the title story, the narrator’s (Danny’s) father looks up from the kitchen floor and says, “Save me.” Danny does not understand his father’s words until years later when he is a father himself. Then, he understands “that our children are our only salvation, their love our only redemption.” Still, however, when Danny as a father tries to comfort his small son waking up from a nightmare, he realizes that his words sound incomprehensible both to himself and to his son. He is attempting to express his love, a love so deep and so intense that it is inexpressible in common language.
Using common language himself, Jauss almost flawlessly conveys what cannot be expressed through that language. He creates—or recreates—the felt experience, which is beyond words and which, sometimes, instills an unsettlingly sympathetic view of typically unsympathetic individuals. The most emphatic example is “Shards,” a story in which a man’s love for his mother, who died in front of him and his stepfather, drives him to unspeakable crimes. As evil as his actions are on the surface, Jauss manages to make him disturbingly sympathetic because even his crimes can be understood as an attempt to express his love.
Other, less extreme examples abound in Glossolalia. Seriously flawed characters become sympathetic because of the intense love they feel but are unable to express sufficiently. Danny in “Glossolalia” loves his father and wishes to support him but is also so embarrassed by him that he sometimes wishes him dead. In fact, he even tells classmates that his father did die. In later years, the two reconcile but never truly get past that one bad year because neither can manage to express his love for the other. In “Brothers,” among the most powerful of the stories in this collection, Ted once had an affair with his brother Marty’s wife. The two have not spoken for eleven years. Marty now dying of cancer, Ted wishes to reconcile. When he visits Marty, Marty says that Caroline, Ted’s ex-wife, told him that Ted once said that the bond between brothers was a love unlike any other.” Marty says, “I always thought the same.” Still, Ted’s mistake created too deep a rift, and Marty says, “Take your sorry ass back to your empty house.” As Ted drives away, he weeps and closes the story by observing, “God, how I loved my brother.” Thus, despite having committed adultery with his brother’s wife, he is a deeply sympathetic character who seems redeemed by his love for his brother.
Similarly, Alec, the alcoholic protagonist of “Rainier,” who...