Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Review of Language Arts by Stephanie Kallos

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I just finished another novel about grieving. What is the matter with me? My goal for the second half of 2015 will be to find a different theme to explore. What do you think it should be? Rage? Hunger? Shopping?

Language Arts by Stephanie Kallos is a novel about Charles, a man whose son is diagnosed with severe autism. As his son is set to age out of state care, Charles is coming to grips with all the ways in which his life did not go the way he had planned. At the same time, he is pulled backward by memories of his elementary school years and his friendship with a boy who had a developmental disability. The reader knows that something difficult happened, something that will be revealed as the novel progresses.

The “Language Arts” of the title refers to many things. Charles teaches Language Arts at a private school in Seattle. In elementary school, he was selected to be part of a pioneer program in Language Arts, before it was a standard subject. His son has limited language ability, and Charles hasn’t discovered the art of communicating with him. He does, however, communicate freely in writing with his college-aged daughter, and part of what is he navigating is her physical absence from his daily life.

My experience with this book is much like my experience with all of this author’s work. On the one hand, I admire her aspirations to write complex novels with big themes. This one asks some provocative overarching questions about religion (Why do bad things happen? Is there a plan? Is there value in disability?). But I do find that her work veers quickly into the territory of “too complicated.” There are multiple narrators here, as well as a shift between present and past. There’s a patchwork sense about the book, and the reader has to wait a long time for the pieces to knit together.

One thing that I thought about while reading this one is role of setting in an interesting novel. This is a book about Seattle. Kallos gives specific place names on every page, so if you have local knowledge, you will be walking on familiar ground.  But I wonder what the experience would be for readers who aren’t from Seattle. Is all the heavy description of setting helpful or distracting?  Does it make you feel connected or does it isolate you?

You can find an interview with the author here.

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