In Semiotic Love, Brian Phillip Whalen employs his own dazzling array of storytelling methods with a lyrical turn of phrase to entrance the reader.
The book has an intriguing structure. It is in three parts: the first has eleven small stories, and the last, ten, while the middle only features one story (eponymously named “Semiotic Love”). All follow a diverse ensemble of characters navigating love and family relationships. These characters are largely unnamed, giving a sense of their emotional unity through their anonymity.
Whalen uses symbols (an homage to his collection’s title) to provide a powerful portrayal of the mother-child bond. A professor treasures a teacup, a gift from his mother, which reminds him of a cookie jar he had once given her. He broke it, once, as a child, and is filled with a guilt that carries into his adulthood, as he considers the fragility of things given, and the love they represent.
A narrator reflects on how our ancestors patiently posed for daguerreotypes. He describes, then, how we treasure their photos for they are our ‘sources of light in the darkness.’ But, he feels at a loss as to how to help his sister, a living person struggling in the present. “But tell me,” he says, “how do we recover living ghosts? How dark must it be to see their fading light?”
There is also much to admire in Whalen’s technique in developing characterization through objective correlative. Two brothers fight to replace the music in their restaurant, and each finds his effort thwarted in an amusing, repetitious cycle. However, there is a turning point in the conflict the narrator does not see. He returns from the bathroom to find complete disarray: an upended food trolley, a felled stereo system, and broken dishes everywhere. The destroyed restaurant mimics the destroyed relationship of the brothers.
The central story of the book, “Semiotic Love” focuses on spousal tension, devoted to the relationship between an academic and the husband she considers intellectually incompatible. Though she wishes to end the marriage, her husband yearns to understand and love her for her genuine self. Distressed, he asks: “But where in that head of hers was she?” Here, symbolism takes its most abstracted, visual form, weaving the story through a square-shaped diagram. The corners of the square are marked by words like her, not her, him, and not him. To depict the varying see-saw of emotions in the couple, Whalen keeps altering the initial diagram by removing and adding lines, till, ultimately, the diagram ceases to exist.
The stories in this book provide clear, thumbnail sketches of greater emotional situations. They are enhanced by standalone snippets that pop up randomly throughout the book, articulating anonymous feelings, opinions and humorous exchanges. These scenes are a delight to read. For example: “Est (1929). On Main Street, his father, pointing to a stone engraving, says, ‘Bad year to start a bank.’” Another goes, “(Woman, Sighing, Exiting a hat shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts). I have a gigantic head.” The playful whimsy of these lines translates to Whalen’s astounding imagery: “The moon was pastried in the sky like a Nilla wafer.”; the sun in Norway is described as “dangling on a plumb line.”
Taken as a whole, reading Brian Phillip Whalen’s Semiotic Love is like eating a multi-layered trifle, digging into scoop upon scoop of people, events, and emotions, topped with clever narrative techniques and symbols, all drizzled with language that is as rich as it is innovative.
Publication Date: March 2, 2021
Publisher: Awst Press
Reviewed by Meera Parasuraman