book club: ‘the lost language of cranes’.
by Michael King
I brought my friend to Indy Reads Books with a mission of showing him a place he might fall in love with. Nestled at the end of Massachusetts Avenue, this particular bookstore feels a bit like a love letter to literature. Every shelf feels carefully tended, walls papered with the pages of books. For my friend and me, it was one of our last days together in Indiana. At least for this chapter.
‘You’ve got read this,’ he said with a smile, handing me a novel he’d pulled from a bin waiting to be dispersed. The Lost Language of Cranes, by David Leavitt. I read the summary –– a young man, Philip, decides it is time to come out to his parents, Owen and Rose. But Owen and Rose are faced with their own concerns, the changing real estate rules of New York City forcing them to consider buying out their long-dwelled apartment. And Owen, unbeknownst to his wife, continues to struggle with his own suppression of his desires to be with a man.
New York City. Family. Gay men navigating their truths. I smiled at my friend, rolling my eyes, and bought the novel. I decided, on that day, it would be the first novel I began and ended in New York City.
Whenever I’m in the midst of a novel, if I read a line or paragraph that’s particularly good, I try to take a picture of it so that, later, when I’m wanting to share with a friend or gather a quote for a book response, I can highlight examples. My friends, The Lost Language of Cranes is written so beautifully, so thoughtfully, that I took over fifty photos.
As Rose worries over the apartment dilemma on a Sunday by herself, she decides to go on a walk through the City. The journey is rife with description and thoughtful contemplation; she catches her reflection while drinking coffee and, before she realizes it’s her, she feels pangs of pity. When Owen returns from one his long days away from the house –– where does he go, Rose wonders –– the distance between them is shown in vivid detail.
“At night they lay awake, far apart, each clinging to the extreme edge of the bed, and assumed the other to be sleeping. Cars passed outside, casting their shadows twelve stories high, and the shadows swept like swift birds over the carpet.”
The novel grants the reader plenty of quality time with each member of the family, and so we not only understand them, but we understand how they are seen by the other members of the family. Rose, a long-time literary editor, likes her life organized and in its place, and the upheaval of her apartment has her analyzing every facet of her life. Owen, a teacher and admissions overseer at a private boys’ school, has kept most of his honest thoughts to himself his entire life, long accustomed to his lived story standing in contradiction to his desires. Philip, young and emerging, frets over his first love, a sensual and reckless painter named Eliot, whom we can instantly tell will crush Philip before long.
As a writer, Leavitt enjoys quiet moments with each character, steeping us in one of their pastimes and then pulling threads apart to open questions about why it is we do the things we do. Take this passage, where Rose –– amidst a great deal of chaos –– immerses herself in a crossword puzzle.
“At the end, she knew she would be presented with a whole thing –– a coherent quotation, the title and author of which could be found by lining up the first letters of all the answers to the clues –– and it was this she longed for. The meshing of meanings, the knitting of one set of words into another: It all made sense as a curative principle.
“And she wondered, suddenly, if all copy editors, encycopledists, cartographers, crossword puzzle editors, were people who had stumbled into their careers because they desperately needed to forget things all the time.”
In their meanderings, the three central characters bring the reader in contact with quite an array of interesting people. Philip’s lover Eliot is charismatic and careless, and he has a roommate named Jerene, a lesbian woman disowned by her family and who has been toiling in academia on a dissertation for years and years. Rose reflects on a lover she took some years ago, a man who broke their affair off when his wife became ill, and –– in a moment of desperation –– she asks him to a drink.
Owen, increasingly unable to suppress his impulses, explores the avenues traveled by many a closeted, married man of his time –– adult movie theatres, phone sex hotlines, a rendezvous with another married man.
“Frank lay stretched naked on the bed, his hands behind his neck, and Owen was suddenly astonished by the two shocks of black hair under his arms. They stared frankly at him, like an extra pair of eyes.
“‘What are you going to tell her?” Frank asked.”
As the novel winds to a close, the family members unearth their secrets to one another. Philip, emboldened by his relationship with Eliot, comes out to his parents, only for Eliot to disappear to France some time later, not so much as a word to Philip. Owen, upon hearing Philip explain why he couldn’t bear not to be honest about who he is, surrenders to fits of tears, and the epiphany falls slowly over Rose. What is the cost of our secrets, the novel asks, and how much more do we injure people when we try to protect them from our truths?
The characters navigate heartbreak, suffering, and healing. No character remains in simple dimensions; there are no ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys.’ Just people, in honest, vivid detail, trying to manage a world –– and family –– that’s shifting around them.
“But he could not describe it. Eliot’s influence was ephemeral; it grew brackish in memory. Already, when Philip visualized their days and nights together, the scenes had a greenish, unreal tint to them, like old film that has sat in a canister too long. They looked as if they were taking place underwater. The memory was fading.
“Like any samaritan, Philip knew, Eliot’s own pleasure demanded that he give pleasure to others; but was that samaritanism, or greed for control? Had Philip been misreading Eliot all along, thinking he wanted nothing but to give? Every sensualist requires an object, after all, just as every magician requires a volunteer from the audience –– some tame, trusting creature, full of earnest feeling and unexpected desire, immensely sensitive to his immediate surroundings, in other words, someone nearsighted, nearly blind.”
I loved The Lost Language of Cranes. When the time came to close it out, set this story aside and move forward, I found myself mourning a bit. I wanted to know more about what would become of Rose, of Owen, of Philip. I hoped they would find new pathways forward. Leavitt wrote characters so beautifully honest I found them hard to let go.