Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle | Book Review

Flat JacketAuthor: Jill McCorkle

Illustrator: Steve Godwin

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Published: July 2020

Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction

Pages: 320

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“A story is easier to fall into than your own life…”

– Jill McCorkle, Hieroglyphics


Memory and history share a disingenuous and diverting crossroads, much of which becomes a diluted and dilatable personal history. Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle, recounts the elder couple, Frank and Lil (look to the past), the first a history professor and the latter a dance instructor, from Boston, Massachusetts. They possess an unsaid understanding communicated on the visage of blunt and esoteric notes that last into their retirement in North Carolina. The younger couple, Shelley and Brent (look to the present), a stenographer and car mechanic, have an unofficial divorce, leaving this mother and wife to rear her unenlightened and impressionable son, Harvey, in North Carolina. Frank has unfinished business with his past and to complete it, he must visit Shelley’s home, his childhood home.

Two tragical epochs, Boston’s Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942 and the Rennert, North Carolina train wreck of 1943, challenge these tragical couples as they overlap each other in a time-bending way through mementos, keepsakes, notes, and personal effects. Much of Hieroglyphics is headspace work, a tedium that promises and processes mundanity. In this sense, memory is made a personal history where the past catches up with the present and vice versa. The innate truth (the absence of identity) and the adaptive truth (the loss of innocence) create a transformative internal conflict. The value of Lil’s hording tendencies and her hair-splitting plurality is not without its sincere reasons, as notional as they often are. Frank is a believable history buff, lost in times not his own as he comes to terms with a rocky childhood and an avalanching adulthood. Similarly, Shelley’s and Harvey’s inappropriate but wholesomely exaggerated use of escapism leave the mother and son stilted and siphoned as a family unit.

McCorkle’s novel succeeds in its sparsity or narrowness but also suffers from it. Circuitous paths lead to an ineffability, one that poses memory, however unreliable or indelible, as akin to living beyond any timeline’s marker. The bottleneck then, and a necessary one, is knowing what to part with and what to hold onto. The trouble is knowing and remembering the fragility and mystery of words said or written and unsaid or unwritten. Deciding between meaning and meanings, death’s forgetfulness and life’s displacement or life’s forgetfulness and death’s displacement, for posterity. Hieroglyphics leaves more unsaid than said through memory as history, leaves the pieces behind to be picked up again by the impromptu historians, and runs out of track long before the train has left the station.

Final Rating:

PillRate

Red/Blue Pill

Wisdom Lossed

Not Feeling Wise

“That was a wink to show I wasn’t loopy; it doesn’t show.”  

For those of you who don’t know or haven’t experienced an amnesia trip before, this should sound interesting. Just around the hour of  8:00 AM today, I had all four Wisdom teeth removed. What a wonderful way to start a rainy, Friday morning, right? Anything beforehand was still remembered, but after the fact and in an instant, nothing matters. I couldn’t believe I retained what I did when I rose from that relaxing, 45° lounge chair. The night prior was torture though.

I kept thinking to myself how they put you under for an hour at the most and assure you of no memory of it all whatsoever. That drove me even further to reassure myself that the year would still be 2014, even if the future people were convincing. I was dying for a midnight drink of water (yet the doctor prescribed no food for twelve hours) and considering how warm I was in bed, no matter how quick a gust of wind could be picked up from the ceiling fan, the night was sleepless for a good two-thirds of it. Just being a bit groggy from sleep had to be the worst sensation. You’re half able when you haven’t had breakfast because you can’t. You’re running on empty knowing you’d be asleep again like you never left your bed. I was hesitant up until the final moment. Mmmm…

Sorry, *smack* *slurp*, I was just taking dollops of a delicious Frosty. Talk about a smooth transition. Now for the twinge talk. Before the appointment, I had an assortment of pills, 3 of a kind. One was a preventative for possible infection during and after the procedure, the others are for pain. Of course the preventative pill was three times the size of its relatives; four of which I had to down with as much as a spoonful of water (too much water would cause an upset stomach afterward).

IMG_20140815_140005651_HDR

“On the left and right, pain pills, and in the center, the Peril Pills.”

An hour goes by, my father drives me to the office’s waiting room and the room holds six people, including us, of a possible fifteen or twenty. Reception was *vanilla’s so good* nice as always and they have to, otherwise who would want to avoid death row? “I bet I’m the first one back there,” I said to my father. One patient, younger than the girl in front of us and I, had been the first and was done within ten minutes of waiting; she had likely been there longer before our arrival. Then the woman sitting adjacently, was next. She and the girl before her were never seen from again, by us anyway. Third times the charm.

I’m guided to the operating chair, and just so you know it’s nothing like the dentist’s, the assistant lady doctor gave me the run-down, very nice and helpful once again, and she began the preparations. Wired tapings on my chest and sides, which I can imagine didn’t feel good coming off, a plastic, pulse pincher for your finger to read your heart rate, which jokingly became a nervous detector, and the stress ball to get your veins pumping and inflated. “Wired,” “pincher,” and “stress” are not words you hope to hear. On the bright side, the doctor was awesome, very subtle and soft-spoken; I could tell he’s been at his practice for a long while. Naturally I trusted him. We get to talking about his daughter, how she’s an English major and how that’s my goal later on in college and thereaft-

That pausing “-” meant a poke and prod of an indistinguishable needle at the top of my hand. I barely felt the sting and it didn’t take me by surprise but he calms me and goes on with the conversation. “What’s your favorite kind of literature?” he asks. “I’ve been leaning towards British Literature,” I reply. I tell him how it’s English yet it sounds like a different language when reading and saying it. I tell him how people quote literature sometimes without having ever read the source it came from. He laughs! I share my favorites like Edgar Allan Poe, describe their works and such. I wanted to mention Sir Arthur Conan Doyle but it didn’t cross my mind. He tells me to keep talking. I get to American Literature from Walt Whitman (which by coincidence happens to be my doctor’s name) and his book, Leaves of Grass, and how he’s a poet in his prose, just a natural speaker with soliloquies and speeches, as it seemed to me. Next thing I know, I’m attached to oxygen nozzles for my nostrils, my glasses are removed, and I draw a blank. Nothingness for forty minutes (according to my Dad) which only felt like five.

Poe-Whitman

“Representing those English greats!”

I wake up, sluggish, but sane and the lady takes me outside the exit of the building with my Dad at the ready with his get-away car. We parted ways and we never saw them or that building again. A happy ending? Not in the slightest. The whole ride home I was conscience and lucid, but for some reason the drive away and towards home brings up small images, slow and sudden like the kind in a View-Master. A blink here, a blink there and were home. I feel my face with a taped gauze hand, numb to the texture of rubber and casually I brush an elastic fashioned around me from head to chin. The gauze from the mouth was a bunch of a red blots, the right side of my lower lip went limp, so any chance of me speaking without unintentional flimflam or gushing dribble was not likely. To think something so fast would make you so slow.

Now I’m feeling better and the only drawback is a minor case of the hiccups and the salt water rinses. I took a pain pill midday and the gauze is relieving my bite. My only worry, and what will surely be a detriment soon enough, are the soft foods. I know cavemen used their molars since their diets consisted of hard, tough meats to chew, but I’m a carnivore too! Despite that fact not found in the already informative oral surgery pamphlet, I understand not risking the chance of crooked teeth, so there’s that. I guess it was worth it, but let me tell you something. Do it when you’re younger; the teeth aren’t fully developed then meaning less pain if any. For the next week it’s nothing but oatmeal, scrambled eggs, mashed potatoes, mac n’ cheese, and things of that sort. I had three soft-tissue and one grown Wisdom teeth. Gone. It wasn’t such a bad procedure, but I appreciate the ice cream godsend.

I always thought wisdom was a good thing, but I learned some advice is better than others.

More ice cream? Don’t mind if I do!