Reviewed by Tom Coyne (Morocco 1981–83)
What to say about a debut novel, unpublished until about a quarter century after it was written?
First, The Unspoken: The Lost Novel was not really lost. Over a six-year period, author Christopher Conlon started this novel in college, continued writing it in Peace Corps (Botswana), and finished it in several other locales. Then, it languished on paper and floppy disks until this year. Second, Conlon was apparently loath to cut any bit of it. At 750+ pages, The Unspoken is a behemoth. Third, to use the author’s favored character description, this is a very glum story.
Conlon is now an established writer — a winner of awards.* In his informative new introduction to the book, he observes:
The Unspoken is a young man’s book. Now in middle age, I refuse to mute that young man’s passionate voice. All these years later, it’s finally time for him to have his say.
Truth be told, an actually passionate voice can be hard to find here. Nevertheless, Unspoken is written in a fluid style. Conlon demonstrated mastery of his craft early. The theme is spare: Robin Withers, an aspiring writer, has troubles. They start with Mom and Dad troubles and continue with girlfriend troubles (he “withers”). Robin’s biggest trouble is an intermittent but prolonged case of writer’s block that prevents him from relieving his innate miserableness through publication.
Glum — the murky emotion — is the pervasive mood of The Unspoken. The reader begins to pine for some plot point to move the story in a happier or sadder direction. Also, this novel is quite long for its simple premise: Love Mom + Hate Dad = Can’t Write. That theme is expressed in Robin’s internal monologues, and inferred through successive interactions with other characters. It is re-stated, but without depth or perception in any of the echoes. This is especially disappointing with Heather Seabright, the girlfriend. She is integral to the plot; she has a very intriguing backstory, but we learn little about her.
Conlon does try to mix it up. His talent for surprise and the macabre is evident in an inventive passage about a suicide pact. If he had stopped there, killing the final 100 pages of the book instead of a major character, he could have said much more, with less. As a literary flourish, Conlon constructs large segments of The Unspoken as a story within a story. John Irving did the same gimmick, with Pension Grillparzer, inside The World According to Garp, and it worked. Drowning, the story within The Unspoken, is so very similar in tone, topic (and typeface) with the main plot of The Unspoken, that it becomes nearly indistinguishable.
This book is perhaps a good read for a special niche of reader. For the non-glum, be advised that The Unspoken runs long and says little in its moody pages.
Reviewer Tom Coyne has had a long career as a Federal grants manager — a decade each in Washington, Kansas City, and now Chicago. His favorite reading spot is the Quiet Car, on the BNSF Metra line into Union Station.
* Including the 2004 Peace Corps Writers Award for Best Poetry Book for Gilbert & Garbo In Love: A Romance in Poems