By Percival Everett
Graywolf. 208 pp. $22.95
Reviewed by Steven Moore
In the 1970s, the American literary profession was rocked by a French invasion comparable to the British invasion of pop music a decade earlier, with critics embracing Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Jacques Lacan and others with all the fervor of teenyboppers swooning over the Dave Clark Five. Structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, semiotics and other approaches gave critics new tools with which to examine literature and a new vocabulary to express their findings. However, there were drawbacks: Until then, any educated person could read a book of literary criticism, but after the '70s only fellow critics could read each other's work because of the bizarre jargon and rarefied theory. Opponents complained that the results of these new approaches sounded more like the literary analysis a computer -- with no innate sense of language -- would come up with, like a child prodigy who can solve complex equations with no real sense of how mathematics works.
A linguistic child prodigy is the narrator of Percival Everett's new novel, Glyph, which is set in the 1970s and satirizes the impact of French theory on the American professoriat. Baby Ralph is the offspring of Douglas Townsend, a poststructuralist who sends his paper on alterity to Barthes and Derrida as if he were a teenager sending a love letter to Ringo, and who is stuck in a frustrating marriage with Eve, a painter. At 10 months Ralph can understand sophisticated language, and by 18 months he has read more books than most doctoral candidates. The first book he reads is not Goldilocks and the Three Bears but Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. He reads voraciously but refuses to speak. Instead, he writes: first notes to his startled parents, and eventually this novel.
His parents are naturally perturbed by Ralph's preternatural ability, especially since the baby seems to understand poststructuralism better than his old man and is wise to the professor's dalliance with a female student. The parents take Ralph to a child psychologist named Dr. Steimmel, who sees in Ralph a vindication of her theory of language development and decides to kidnap him and take him to a hidden laboratory for further testing. There the baby is rekidnapped by a woman professor who is teaching a chimpanzee to talk; she likewise feels Ralph would be useful to her research, only to lose him to another kidnapper who plans to use Ralph as a "Defense Stealth Operative" for the U.S. government. Ralph is kidnapped a final time by a sympathetic prison guard (whose wife wants a baby of her own) and taken to Mexico, where all of the above parties converge to stake their claim on the precocious toddler.
Overlaid on this farcical plot is all the forbidding arcana of French literary theory. Each of the novel's eight sections is prefaced by a linguistic schematic and is broken down into narrative units with headings taken from semiotics and theory (seme, ephexis, libidinal economy). Unattributed quotations interrupt the text, along with vocabulary lists and imaginary dialogues between writers and philosophers (Aristophanes and Ralph Ellison, Balzac and G.E. Moore). Several of Ralph's poems appear, all on anatomical themes with such titles as "Copora Cavernosa" and "The Weight of the Encephalon." We are treated to several of Ralph's musings on linguistics, which could be parodies of French theorists if their own writings didn't already sound like parodies of ratiocination. There's an alliteration-mad children's story. There are footnotes, limericks, jokes, mathematical formulae, even an appendix entitled "Ralph's Theory of Fictive Space." It's a postmodern mulligan stew that will keep theory junkies fixed for a long time working out the structural patterns and implications of all these narrative disruptions.
This is a strange novel, but not strange enough. The premise of an infant with full linguistic capacities but little life experience should yield a defamiliarized language, yet too often Ralph sounds like . . . well, like Professor Percival Everett of the University of Southern California. When Ralph is first taken into the dining room of the hidden laboratory, he remarks: "The dining room was ostentatious, crowded with heavy furniture and ornate lamps, but lit mainly by a gigantic chandelier of hundreds of multicolored, faceted glass spheres tethered on a too-small-looking chain." Even a baby who has read Proust (as Ralph has) would have limited empirical grounds for judging a concept like ostentation, an aesthetic judgment requiring previous acquaintance with interior design. And having never seen a chandelier, how could Ralph tell that this one is larger than usual? Wittgenstein once said that if a lion could speak, we would not be able to understand him, meaning (I think) that a lion's worldview and experience would be so radically different from ours that we would not share enough contexts for the language to mean anything to us. Similarly, the worldview even of a baby who has read hundreds of books would be so circumscribed that his language would be noticeably different from ours.
Since Glyph is a farce, it's probably a mistake to get too literal-minded about such things. Everett is a clever writer with a gift for parody and a formidable library in his head. Glyph is obviously written for a small, select audience. He is the author of another, more successful novel, Suder, which is the current selection of The Washington Post Book Club. That audience should find sophisticated entertainment here and a new vantage point from which to assess the impact of French theory on those professors who lapped it up like mother's milk.
Steven Moore is the author of several books and essays on contemporary literature.