FEBRUARY 11, 2021
“AUTHORS CAN’T TELL us everything,” Peter Mendelsund wrote in What We See When We Read, his 2014 guidebook to understanding how our minds visualize fictional descriptions. “We fill in gaps. We shade them in. We gloss over them. We elide.” In other words, omission amplifies our literary imaginations. Given less, readers can do more.
As a graphic designer — of books such as Emma Cline’s The Girls and Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series, and of The Atlantic as the magazine’s creative director — Mendelsund is minutely acquainted with the ways pictures characterize words, and vice versa. He’s also a two-time novelist whose most recent book, The Delivery, gives sparse narration a more explicit storytelling function.
Set in an unnamed ringer for New York City, The Delivery is perhaps the first novel ever written from the vantage of an e-bike delivery boy. The protagonist, “the delivery boy,” has recently arrived in what is presumably the United States, speaks little of the native language, and is working as an indentured servant for a metropolitan delivery company. As a textual demonstration of the delivery boy’s inability to communicate, the novel’s first part is written in radically pared-down prose. Its earliest chapters are single pages containing a sentence or two (Chapter One merely consists of the line “Delivery 1: ★★”). The delivery boy’s thoughts are often compiled as terse, numbered lists, and parentheses cage the continuous hermeneutic associations he makes over the course of his fragmented days. Paragraphs and chapters thicken and elongate at a glacial pace as he learns to recognize new vocabulary, subtler expressions, and, through them, existential emancipation.
The Delivery is in this sense a survivalist bildungsroman. The coming-of-age that takes place begins further down Maslow’s hierarchy than those of other Western-set 21st-century novels, and many readers would consider its apex a default. Yet the saga of the nameless, faceless delivery boy deconstructs intricate human preoccupations much to the same degree as recent voguer New York City fiction (think of Ben Lerner’s 10:04 or Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation). Unlike his first novel, Same Same (2019), an imagistic first-person narrative about a shop in the desert that generates equally valuable duplicates of any object, Mendelsund writes The Delivery in a minimalist close third person. Periodically woven into this are equally minimal authorial interjections from an older, omniscient meta-author who long ago had similar experiences as a refugee learning a foreign language. Mendelsund’s triumph this time around — one much more common in visual arts — is the active collaboration between his new novel’s subject and its physical form. This relationship between the way words are arranged on the page and their connotative meanings gives The Delivery’s economy an Odyssean intensity.
The literary strategy of crafting medium to mirror narrative isn’t strictly new. Well-known champions of this practice include James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the language of which becomes more complex as Stephen Dedalus matures, and William Golding’s The Inheritors, which uses unusually compact syntax to convey the nonhuman minds of Neanderthals. While Mendelsund pays homage to these way-pavers in The Delivery — its last chapter even takes on a kind of Joycean stream of consciousness with a 30-page paragraph that recalls the unpunctuated ending of Ulysses — his application is glaringly innovative.
Instead of describing a hypereducated aesthete’s vacillation between art, vice, and religion, or recreating a prehistoric mental apparatus alien to humans, Mendelsund is demonstrating the cultivation of fluency. Without it, the delivery boy struggles to connect his inner and outer worlds.
To make this agenesis visceral as well as intellectual, The Delivery’s pages not only bear fewer words than usual, but the text also lacks details. The language the delivery boy learns is unspecified. We infer as readers that it’s English due to invocations of a certain famous American city: 1. “a streak of yellow” passes the delivery boy on the road; 2. “a broken fire hydrant gushed, redundantly”; 3. “upriver,” “bridges,” and “the busiest of the broad avenues”; 4. the delivery boy “stoop-sat.” Mendelsund doesn’t describe the delivery boy beyond his feeble mustache, thin chin hair, and between-boy-and-man physique. He mentions neither ethnicity nor native tongue, but readers familiar with the five boroughs’ delivery systems fill these in as “Latin-American” and “Spanish.” Of the book’s few supporting characters, most are titled, not named. There’s the exploitative warehouse “Supervisor,” a corrupt foreman named “Uncle,” and a dispatch girl with a callous facade who gives the delivery boy language lessons, simply known as “N.”
In N. lies the novel’s axis. She’s the delivery boy’s infatuation, his main source of information about the world beyond his predicament, and a bully who consistently confuses him by being both helpful and belittling. (“Of the upturned-mouth expressions, she preferred the smirk.”) N. simultaneously rebuffs, protects, and educates. Foundational words and phrases of N.’s curriculum include 1. “cocky” (which onomatopoeically manifests in the clanking of the delivery boy’s loose bicycle power-assist: “Cocky. Cocky, cocky, cocky…”); 2. “stay dry” (which the delivery boy takes as an order rather than a well-wish); and 3. “asswipe” (a term that N. bestows on the delivery boy herself; he later likens it to the method for unlocking his smartphone, then both words describe him squeezing through a crowded mall atrium — “He sideswiped, frontswiped, and asswiped several of the other shoppers in the process”). When the delivery boy acts, it’s usually for and in real or imagined conjunction with N.
The name “N.” is also a reference to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1953), the analytic philosophy treatise on language that serves as The Delivery’s backbone. The anonymous actors that populate Wittgenstein’s hypotheticals are given one-letter monikers like A, B, and N. These sketches try to isolate the mental process of understanding language from “coarser and therefore more readily visible” byproducts of that understanding, such as rules, patterns, and etiquettes. Wittgenstein rejects Saint Augustine’s “extension” model for language, in which words derive their meaning from that which they describe. He argues instead that the meaning of words is determined by how they’re used: “Think of the tools in a toolbox: there is a hammer, pliers, a saw, a screwdriver, a rule, a glue-pot, glue, nails and screws. — The functions of words are as diverse as the functions of these objects.” Language’s finite toolbox and its infinite uses are stored within us from birth, waiting to be triggered, Wittgenstein suggests. To “go on” is the phrase he uses to describe the capacity unleashed by its triggering.
The Delivery is a narrative and typographic crescendo, and the delivery boy learns how to “go on” at its loudest point. His eureka moment comes after cycling hours north of the city to deliver four mystery packages in “Manor Grove” (Westchester County, perhaps). But the recipient doesn’t seem to exist. With almost no battery life left on his phone, the delivery boy is stranded for the night in a suburban orchard. He eventually resigns himself to opening the forbidden cargo he’s hauled and finds that it’s been filled not by the Supervisor or some distributor but by N.
In a surging density of clauses and sentences, the delivery boy at last understands N. and the language she’s been teaching him. He comprehends that words like love and affection, yellow and green, have no singular or fixed significance, but rather are animated by so many actions and reactions. The epiphany dislodges an agency in him, “to go on endlessly if necessary, on and on, and […] whatever was to befall him at the end, he would be able to say, finally, that he was conversant.” This “glad start,” as Wittgenstein calls it, is the unearthing of linguistic improvisation and, in the case of the delivery boy, the means to cope with adversity.
If the way one tells a story and the concept of that story are independent variables, capable of chemistry but not mutually inclusive, then it must be possible to separate their merits. (It’s not difficult to name novels with prodigiously original plots that suspend disbelief, yet that are largely told by direct, almost rudimentary means.) Through this delineation, one can isolate the ways these two ingredients affect one another within a particular piece of writing. When conveying a story about something as immediate as learning language, there’s a limit to the dimensions of experience that description alone can induce. It’s the design of Mendelsund’s writing, rather than the content he writes about, that makes The Delivery a more felt experience of language acquisition than Wittgenstein’s rigorous dissection. The medium — which Mendelsund artfully transfigures like a cut key fashioned from a heavy blade and bow, or a microchip X-Actoed from a motherboard — is more vital than the message.