A baby genius: These three words describe the main character and all 208 pages of Percival Everett’s novel, published by St. Paul’s Graywolf Press. This may be the first book of all time that describes life from a baby’s point of view, and Everett deserves kudos for that.
A “glyph,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary, is a symbol—such as a stylized figure or arrow on a public sign—that imparts information nonverbally. A non-speaking baby is certainly a glyph, but what exactly it symbolizes is for the reader to determine.
Glyph, a novel by Percival Everett. Published by Graywolf Press (1999). $22.95.
The main character is a complex and extremely intelligent baby named Ralph. He never cries like a normal baby, and his parents wonder if he has a learning disability, but they soon discover the reality is the opposite. His mom—whom he refers to as ‘Mo’—becomes his main supplier of books.
Ralph’s innocent crib-bound life does not last long before his talents are discovered by outsiders. Before he can walk or has ever been potty trained, he understands complex equations, writes stories and poems, and even has a photographic memory. These groundbreaking talents lead Ralph into trouble.
After being kidnapped by his psychiatrist, Ralph is re-kidnapped several more times and ends up spying for a top-secret government agency, being rescued from a prison, and almost perishing at the hands of a crazy priest.
After being kidnapped by his psychiatrist, Ralph is re-kidnapped several more times and ends up spying for a top-secret government agency, being rescued from a prison, and almost perishing at the hands of a crazy priest. “The fight was a messy and unsightly affair that spilled out from the chapel into the courtyard. Bloodied noses and lips curled in anger shown on every face…Father Chacon was cranked with rage, though emotion did not make him a better fighter.”
The story of Ralph is genius, but there are some features of the book that detract. For some reason—maybe irony?—there are an obscene number of footnotes. There’s one on the bottom of almost every page. Everyone enjoys a good footnote, but hundreds of footnotes overcrowd a book this small.
There is definitely some fun psychological banter in the book, but I think Everett could have backed off on that too. He is a teacher at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, and it is obvious he has extensive education in psychology—leaving the reader to wonder if he hopes to see his novel land on course reading lists.
That said, Glyph is irresistible. It’s hard to put down.
Melissa Slachetka contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.
Cover image ©1999 Graywolf Press