The Voice in the Closet

Raymond Federman
Starcherone Books ($9)

by Rebecca Weaver

The particular story of Raymond Federman's The Voice in the Closet cannot be told conventionally. Originally part of his third novel The Twofold Vibration, this book was excerpted by request of Indiana University Press, who called the section "unreadable." It's fortunate that Federman found another home for the section, because this short book does something hugely innovative: it conflates the known conventions of how we talk and write, since in this case, those conventions no longer serve what needs to be said.

What needs to be said in this book is that survival is possible. The book's journey toward survival is powerfully conveyed on two levels. The first is that of the physical event itself. In a looping, elliptical way, readers come to discover that a boy has been locked into a closet. His mother and father, knowing that the Nazis are coming, hide the boy and escape with their daughters. Sadly, the only one who survives is the boy; he eventually escapes to America and becomes a writer. This is where the second level intersects with the first. The boy becomes the writer Federman, but The Voice in the Closet is spoken in the voice of the boy, who is angry and confused at the way his story has been twisted and retold by the writer: "he failed to generate the real story in vain situates me in the wrong abode as I turn in a void in his obligation to assign a beginning . . ."

There is a struggle for primacy between the two voices, and as the struggle is played throughout the book, the nature of stories and how we tell them is interrogated by the constant probing of memory. After all, whose story is it? The boy's, with whom the experience originated, or the adult Federman's, who has worked to tell the story? It is in this place where fact and memory collide that another sort of oppression takes place, and the inability to make sense of it renders the boy Federman "voiceless." The only way to survive it is to escape a mother tongue that has become fraught with grief and terror, in the same way that the poet (and fellow Holocaust survivor) Paul Celan's mother tongue became for him problematic. The English language, however, is punched through with pitfalls of its own, giving the writer Federman his own linguistic conundrum: "expelled from mother tongue exiled from mother land tongueless he extracts words from other tongues to exact his speechlessness . . ." Thus, conventional language is not adequate for the job of relating the horrific event that begins the journey. The lack of punctuation throughout The Voice in the Closet further underscores the breathless and unrelenting travels between past and present, memory and story.

This book asserts that the only way we can negotiate our histories and our memories is through the acts of telling (and re-telling) those stories. Survival exists in this kind of vigilant effort. The boy begins to forgive the writer, realizing that he, too, can speak, and that the act of speaking—for both Federmans—negates absence and creates hope. Silence is too costly. In the act of speaking, of telling the story again and again, "spring wells up at last."

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001