Review: I Can’t Tell You

Okay, I decided to finish reading I Can't Tell You instead of editing. (It's short and moves fast.) (Like a jockey.) (The protagonist makes a lot of puns based on literal interpretations of phrases, which of course endeared him to me.)

The book is about a college student named Jake who, after saying some things that have made his best friend/roommate angry with him, decides to stop talking; he writes notes instead. The book consists entirely of the notes that he and others write to each other, plus headings indicating when and where they were written.

When Twig told me about that conceit, I was pretty dubious, but once you accept the conceit, it turns out to be a charming book, and it made me laugh out loud three or four times, and I got a sort of sympathetic nostalgia from reading it because parts of it are so much like my high school and college experience. Notably the endless obsessing over whether She Likes Me That Way or not, even when she's making it pretty clear that she does, and the further endless obsessing over my inability to Tell Her I Was Interested.

(Where for me "her" = various friends at various times throughout my time in college, a few of whom may be reading this. Hi! (I did eventually talk with some of them about it, years later, and kept being surprised when I found out that various of them had indeed been interested at the time, but had thought I wasn't.))

On the other hand, I did occasionally roll my eyes while reading this, just a little, about just how angsty and Fraught it all is.

Of course, I still haven't learned how to tell people I'm interested in them. But the protagonists in this do sound young to me. Which makes sense, given my advanced age and the fact that they're college students and all.

Another thing I found intriguing about the book is that I tried intentionally not talking for a while a couple of times, in high school I think. Not for very long--a few hours, maybe a day. And I didn't do so much of the note-writing. But it was kinda neat. So I liked seeing that play out.

I also liked the bits of the book about talking and listening; that rang pretty true to me, especially one line about Jake's parents' lack of communication. I see a lot of people talking without listening these days.

I had a few nitpicks about the book. For example, there are several things I found very confusing at the beginning (especially things that I misunderstood because of the phrase "Try to coax you out of Sean's bed" on the first page, which eventually turns out to be literal rather than idiomatic); but later, I was kinda charmed by how the author regularly puts kind of cryptic things into the story and then comes back later and explains them in other contexts.

Another nitpick is that she takes liberties with the timing of the writing--a bunch of things written out in full that would've caused long lulls in conversation, which seems especially unlikely when the other person is watching the note being written. But I can chalk that up to artistic license.

I was also confused by some of the blocking--a fair tad bit of the dialogue is written on whiteboards outside people's dorm rooms, but those notes often say things like "Are you here?" which seem like they'd be less than useful if the person is inside their room. So I wasn't sure whether the whiteboards were the ones I remember--hanging on the outside of the door--or some other kind of arrangement where they're visible inside the room somehow. But again, this wasn't really a big deal, just something I stumbled over once or twice.

Finally, my last nitpick is that various aspects of the communication in the book seemed a little old-fashioned to me--I suspect that to really work as an accurate reflection of current college life, most of the book would have to be translated into text messages, IMs, MySpace, Twitter, and LJ. In that regard, this book could more or less be set twenty years ago; the author, Hillary Frank, is (according to her MySpace page) 31, so I'm guessing she was in college in the mid-'90s, so I'm assuming the approaches to communication were roughly the same then as when I was in college (though my friends who were students in the late '90s used IM a lot more than the book characters do); but these days all the note-writing with pen and paper may seem a little old-fashioned to current students. But most of what I think I know about current students' communication styles is second- or third-hand at this point, so I may well be wrong. And for me, this aspect didn't detract from my enjoyment of the book. I'd be curious to hear what current students think of it.

(. . . Side note: I had no idea until just now that there's a social anxiety disorder called selective mutism (formerly known as "elective mutism"). Despite the fact that Google Books lists this book's topic as Mutism, Elective, it really isn't about that disorder as such.)

Anyway, I suspect I would've adored this book in college. And those of you who are still in college (and even those of you who aren't) may want to consider (a) reading it, and then (b) giving a copy of it to the Secret Object Of Your Affection, along with perhaps a sticky note inside the back cover expressing your interest.

(Edited in 2019 to update the broken link to the author’s page about the book.)

2 Responses to “Review: I Can’t Tell You”

  1. Wayman

    I can’t fathom how a whiteboard visible through the door would work….

    FWIW timelinewise:

    At Swat in the mid-to-late 90s, I think IM was basically unheard-of. We used Broadcast between Macs which, as I remember, had no “buddy list” and hence no ability to see who was online; and talk or ytalk on UNIX machines for direct conversations (or just chatted in IRC channels). I didn’t discover IM until 2002, which was when I first encountered a circle of friends who used it.

  2. Wayman

    … and I remember something called Zephyr was all the rage at MIT c.1997, which may have been MIT/Athena-specific.


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