The Raw and the Cooked

Dead Languages

by David Shields
Knopf, 246 pp., $18.95

A Prayer for Owen Meany

by John Irving
Morrow, 543 pp., $19.95

During the past decade in particular, the line separating fiction from autobiography has frequently seemed on the point of being almost erased. Novel after novel has appeared in which not only the background and chronology but also the major events of the first-person narrator’s life closely parallel what is publicly known of the author’s. The material is offered up uncooked, so to speak, without the subtlety and depth derived from imaginative transmuting of personal experience into fiction. the gains in journalistic immediacy are generally offset by the absence of the play of novelistic invention (a very different matter from autobiographical fibbing in the manner of Ford Madox Ford or Lillian Hellman).

Conversely, certain novels by writers of whom we know nothing except what is revealed on the dust jacket can have an autobiographical tone that at once distinguishes them from other realistically grounded stories in the first person that we unhesitatingly accept as fiction. One is not tempted to read The Catcher in the Rye as a largely factual account of an episode in J.D. Salinger’s adolescence. On the other hand, David Shields’s new novel, Dead Languages, which also deals with the experiences of a precocious, lively, but seriously troubled boy growing up in the Fifties, has the ring of experienced, autobiographical “truth.” The difference resides, I think, not so much in the voice of the narrators as in the books’ narrative shape. “All I’ve ever had are memories,” Jeremy Zorn, the narrator of Dead Languages, declares on the first page of the book. “No imagination, only memory.” The shape imposed by the dominance of memory over imagination (i.e., invention) affects the very sound and feel of Shields’s remarkable novel. (Of course every character and every event in Dead Languages may, for all I know, be entirely Shields’s invention; what counts is that the novel is written so as to make us feel we are in the presence of literal memory.)

Jeremy Zorn is a stutterer with the misfortune of having been born into an exceptionally articulate family. His mother, Annette, dominates the household. She is a journalist, a West Coast correspondent for The Nation and other left-liberal papers, a woman passionately concerned with the fate of the Hollywood Ten and causes supported by the ACLU, a tireless opponent of inquisatorial congressional committees, a crusading advocate of racial equality. But she is also a “Cossack” where her pathetic Jewish husband, Teddy, is concerned.

It was just not her way to rush to Father’s defense. She didn’t do that sort of thing. Father was so helpless he would have needed the Russian Army as a defense and, although Mother was the Russian Army, she was never especially prone to eliminating the enemy for him. Or, rather, she was the enemy for him. Why was she always so sweet to strangers and so tough on Father? I wish I knew.

Toward her son, she is superficially affectionate and subtly undermining. In …

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