“One thing all truths have in common,” observes Angela, the protagonist of award-winning author Jennifer duBois’s fourth novel, The Last Language, is that “they are only visible from certain distances.” Angela is a twenty-seven-year-old PhD candidate in linguistics at Harvard. She is also recently widowed. After a harrowing miscarriage, she and her four-year-old daughter, Josephine, move to Boston to live with Angela’s mother.
For Angela, distance often proves difficult to come by. Her days are premised on the immediately accessible truths of her research: namely, that of linguistic determinism, or the idea that, without language, we are nothing. That, as intellectual giants like Roland Barthes have posited, it is only in the act of expression or articulation that we come into being. Initially the fact she’ll never be so sure of anything feels like a blessing to Angela. It is only when she is compelled to take involuntary leave from her doctoral program and pursue part-time employment as part of an experimental speech-language trial for adults with acute motor impairments that Angela begins to achieve the kind of physical and figurative remove from which she begins to doubt the truth of such assertions—from which, in fact, she begins to recognize that “some truths can only be degraded by language.”
Chief among these language-defying truths is that of human connection. Angela’s primary client is Sam, a twenty-eight-year-old confined to his bedroom. Working together over time, the two strike up a complex and quickly evolving relationship; Sam, Angela discovers, is not only incredibly eloquent, but highly literate, emotionally intelligent, and endearingly witty. Like her, he holds a soft spot for storytelling—for the accruals of language and subtleties of expression from which meaning, however small or ostensibly trivial, might be amassed and shared. Over time, the feelings which Angela begins to harbor for Sam—inarticulable yet no less real—challenge her faith in linguistic determinism. They ask: might there exist truths beyond those which language can capture? Might there be knowledge, personhood—love—which is prelingual?
Told in an address from Angela to Sam following her trial and eventual imprisonment, The Last Language undertakes a Learean tragic descent. Despite the evidence of ultimate calamity provided early on, readers cannot look away, drawn by the sheer aesthetic allure of the novel’s impending catastrophe. In large part, such mimetic magnetism owes itself to DuBois’s pleasurable prose and deeply satisfying storytelling. In a book which plays so carefully with the space between speech and silence, the writer employs a highly sensory and polyphonic, often multilingual vocabulary to craft individual scenes and settings. Remembering the October day she met Sam, for instance, Angela “conjure[s] a hint of incipient rain, of rubicund leaves and ashen sky. That feeling of a coming school year. That faint electric sense that somewhere very near, new lives were just beginning—and very old ones starting over.” She caps this recollection by registering the Lithuanian word for “the start of autumn, as exhibited in nature.” Rudeneja.
To that end, and in keeping with Angela’s Harvard-educated linguistics background, the narrative is densely, often achingly allusive; moments and experiences are filtered through Russian and German writers—namely Nabokov and Chekov—whose vocabularies expand to accommodate them. Similarly, Angela invokes the phraseology or idiosyncrasies of other languages and dialects to reflect the sensibility of her downward trajectory where more fitting. Describing her relationship with Sam, she explains how Russian possessives (which take a verb, rather than a subject) capture a sense of passive precarity underlying their attachment better than English’s active equivalents. Later, she notes that “the Kawésqar of Chile have one past tense for the literal and another for the mythical. Sometimes it seems the real question before the jury is which one should be used to tell our story.” This outright acknowledgment of the mimetic nature of her narrative—of her conscious engagement in potential myth-making—again raises complex linguistic issues of truth, language, and creation. Her and Sam’s relationship, Angela allows, may indeed be the stuff of myth rather than literal experience. But does that make it any less real?
Issues and intricacies of language aside, the book bares broader human truths with near-disarming irreverence. For all its assured ruination, The Last Language is not an unhopeful story. The contrary: it suggests that language remains our best, imperfect tool for human connection.
The Last Language
By Jennifer duBois
Published October 17, 2023