Author: Jill McCorkle
Publisher: Algonquin Books
Price: $26.95 (Hardcover)
Many, many years ago on an elementary school field trip to the New York Museum of Natural History, I was stopped in my tracks by the Egyptian hieroglyphics. I had a little notebook and pencil and was copying them, thinking that I could somehow, later, figure out at least a part of what this writing from the past meant.
My teacher came into the Egyptian room, got me and off we went. Back home I had little luck, no surprise, but I think the urge is nearly universal. We want to decipher the messages from the past, to discover their meanings.
This is one of several thematic strands in McCorkle’s new and very sophisticated novel. The characters try to understand the past; they strive to understand one another in the present; and they leave traces of themselves for those in the future to find and interpret as best they can.
McCorkle has created a small group of individuals. They at first seem unconnected to one another. But then, Kevin Bacon-like, we see that there are surprisingly very few degrees of separation between people.
Nevertheless, paradoxically, we never really know another—children don’t know their parents’ innermost selves; spouses, even after decades, are somewhat mysterious to one another.
The four main characters, Shelley, her son Harvey, Lil, and Frank, take turns revealing their stories, a little at a time, as it is in real life. After all, when we meet someone new, he does not deliver his biography, aloud, for hours. We come to know a new person in layers, onion-like, with important, sometimes difficult revelations saved for after we are quite well-acquainted. So it is in “Hieroglyphics.”
Shelley is a court stenographer.
Her recording of testimony, on her machine, is unreadable to the untrained, but perfectly clear to her.
She’s is worried about losing her job because, mind wandering, during the trial of a sadistic killer she has accidentally appended to the official record her grocery list and some remarks about the judge, her hair and her shoes. What would posterity make of that?
Her state of emotional distress is part of why she does not allow Frank to come into her North Carolina home, which had been his childhood home, even though, now in his 80s, he is not at all sinister.
He had been sent there at age 10 to be with his mother while she mended from broken bones in a sensational train wreck in which his father was killed.
Frank is married to Lil.
After a lifetime in Massachusetts, they have retired in 2014 to Southern Pines, where Frank walks the tracks at the site of his father’s death and where Lil is keeping a journal AND sifting through old journals and letters hoping, as we all do, to make sense of her life.
She and Frank had met at a party, but not “cute.” They “met mortal,” one might say, or “met tragic.” Lil’s mother was killed in the Boston Coconut Grove nightclub fire. Having exchanged dead parent stories at a party, they fell in love.
Frank had his career as an archeologist, specializing in understanding ancient tombs and burial rituals.
Buried in her journals of the 1980s, Lil reads the entries concerning Frank’s love affair with a younger colleague.
The marriage endured. She forgave him, but we can see she never forgot. And the written record endures.
Her journals, however, are her side of their history and we will learn Frank’s story as well.
Thomas Wolfe famously said “We come in to this world alone, we live alone and we die alone.”
Perhaps true, but we certainly do TRY to understand the past and each other.
Needless to say, Frank and Lil’s children know little about the major conflicts in their parents’ lives. In this novel, at the millennium, the grandchildren’s school project is a time capsule, an effort to choose objects meaningful to us and thus give our descendants clues as to what we were like—but it may all turn out to be hieroglyphics in the end.
Don Noble’s newest book is Alabama Noir, a collection of original stories by Winston Groom, Ace Atkins, Carolyn Haines, Brad Watson, and eleven other Alabama authors.