An unheard-of surprise

Hayley Campbell reviews Gerald Shea's <em>Song Without Words</em>.

Song Without Words: Discovering My Deafness Halfway Through Life
Gerald Shea
£17.99, 320pp. Da Capo Press.

“What matters deafness of the ear, when the mind hears.” – Victor Hugo

When I met Gerald Shea I was painfully conscious of sound. The book launch had been going for two hours, I had arrived late and – after loudly thanking the coat-check lady and trip-trapping my old Cuban heels across highly polished porcelain tiles – found that his speech was already well underway in the carpeted quiet room of the posh Chelsea house. There were glowers, stares, and the overwhelming cloud of expensive perfume hit me with such force it was near audible. I choked. Shea on his pedestal, mid-speech, never wavered. Jokes. Applause. Shea’s recently published memoir laid in piles next to him in a room so quiet I could hear the fabric of a suit as two legs were crossed twelve feet away.

His is a story of a life that could have been completely different, perhaps un-memoir-worthy, had he only known one thing: that he was deaf. By the time he found out he had already made it through Harvard and Yale and became a successful lawyer. He was not profoundly deaf, but partially; not from birth, but the age of 5, when a bout of scarlet fever ravaged the epithelial cells in the lower part of the cochlea, the most complex and vulnerable component of the ear. Most vowels and some consonants disappeared from his world. Before their absence was discovered in a routine test in his mid-30s, he put his failure to understand things down to an intellectual defect rather than aural: he thought he heard the same things that other people heard and they were just better at understanding, that he was slow – a fraud in the world of academia. Girlfriends told him he was a bad listener and left him. They were technically entirely correct. If only he’d listened.

His story is like something straight out of Ira Glass’ radio show, This American Life – one of those episodes where the music stops on the crucial soundbite where our hero says “and I never knew” and makes you cry on the bus. How different would his life had been, what would he have done instead of guzzling Mylanta for stress-related stomach ulcers while looking at his own exhausted face in the public bathroom and saying: “I wish I were dead”? Professionally, he would have done nothing differently – he would still be a lawyer. But he wouldn’t have had to quit in the end and break his own heart.

I’ve had little experience with the profoundly deaf aside from being the only hearing person at a deaf film festival. The crowd was inexplicably noisy: all the sounds that hearing people learn to stifle are there, unmuted. Everything is louder bar the applause, which is a visual jazz-hands style wave rather than anything audible. Sound doesn’t matter here. Being profoundly deaf gives you a separate world to belong to – one with a language entirely of its own – but sound is different in Shea’s world, where being partially deaf casts you adrift between two places, the hearing and the other. Said Shea: “We the partially deaf, are not as well off as those who sign, for we have to combine our dual paths of understanding, our eyes and our ears, to get the message in a medium in which we are not at home.” Everything moves slower in the in-between, where brainpower is devoted to tasks unnatural to it.

In her Harper's Magazine article in 1954 the American writer Sylvia Wright coined a term for the things that Shea would later call “lyricals”. As a child she had misheard a line of the ballad, The Bonny Earl O'Moray: “laid him on the green” had become “and Lady Mondegreen”. She said: “The point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens, since no one else has thought up a word for them, is that they are better than the original.” Reading Shea’s book you can’t help but agree with her. Lyricals commonly happen to the hearing in the form of song lyrics: kiss this guy, Alex the seal, and, less commonly, a man I know was genuinely confused for an entire childhood as to what could possibly be romantic about the warts on the knees of a woman. He figured it was something he’d understand when he got older when females were no longer an alien species (as it turns out, the wants and the needs of a woman are still as mysterious to him as the warts on their knees). Shea might hear the lyrical “This is summer’s wilting youth in a Moma” where others would hear “Mrs. Sommer will see you in a moment.” Lee Marvin’s line in the old film Bad Day at Black Rock, “You gotta big mouth, boy – makin’ accusations of disturbin’ the peace” went into Shea’s head as: “You gotta big mouth, boy – makin’ of today a song of second peace.” Infinite possibilities for poetry and beauty and Edward Lear-ish nonsense lie in the most mundane of daily sentences.

These “lyricals” were how Shea lived his life and studied, too, in a language all of his own: taking notes in lectures (to him, verbatim) and, later, in important legal meetings. He was “freezing the lyricals in time and figuring them out” or in other words: deciphering them late into the night instead of sleeping, slowly killing his relationships and himself.

The book is not his just his own history but also that of the profoundly deaf and partially deaf throughout the ages: he talks about Juan Pablo Bonet in the Middle Ages attempting to make mutes speak simply by forbidding sign language; Roch-Ambroise Auguste Bébian, the first hearing teachers of French sign language in the 19th century; and Helen Keller being made to learn the cumbersome art of fingerspelling instead of her own language of mime. It’s a history of how people find a way – their own way – when one (or more) sense is gone.

Toward the end of the launch I got to speak to Shea, a thoroughly polite and deliberately spoken American man called Gerry who now lives in Paris with his French wife. He wears hearing aids, and as long as you speak to him face-on there is no miscommunication. He talks briefly about hearing birdsong for the first time, the tinnitus locusts in his head replaced by something outside of it: in short, the book spiel, the jacket copy. But then he looked wistful and told me about hearing “the sound of [his] own piss in the john” for the first time. I later wonder why he didn’t put it in the book given it was his most relatable example of hearing loss so far. A lifetime not knowing that piss had a sound?

Humans communicate. It’s not second nature, it’s nature. Without that, what is it like to be human? Shea’s Song Without Words is as eloquent an answer as we are likely to get.

A plate from Gray's Anatomy. Photograph: Getty Images

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage