Author: Jill McCorkle
Illustrator: Steve Godwin
Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Published: July 2020
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
“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.