“What We Cannot Speak About We Must Pass Over in Silence” begins with the anonymous fiftyseven-year-old narrator announcing that he has a friend with a son in an Arizona prison. About once a year, this friend visits his son. The friend says that the hardest part of visiting is leaving, in the painful knowledge that his son is left behind, trapped in prison.
The narrator has just received a letter from a lawyer announcing the death of his friend, who is called Donald Williams. Inside the lawyer’s envelope is a sealed letter that the friend has addressed to the narrator. The narrator is surprised that Williams thought him significant enough to be informed of his death. They had not known each other well and had been acquaintances rather than friends. Because of their not being close and because he accepts death as inevitable, the narrator has no strong emotional response to Williams’s death. However, he finds himself grief-stricken over the plight of the son, who, according to Williams, never had any other visitors. The narrator wonders if his grief is partly due to the fact that he himself is, metaphorically speaking, imprisoned, interacting less and less with others.
He writes to the lawyer asking for the son’s mailing address. The lawyer’s office replies saying that while it executed Williams’s will, it has no knowledge of any son. The narrator researches prisons in Arizona in an attempt to track down the son. He finds that there are many prisons and retirement communities in that state and wonders if the skills required in managing retirees translate to managing prisoners. This human “traffic” is processed by a huge number of computer specialists who input and retrieve information all day.
The narrator is motivated in his search by curiosity about the son and anger that though the system has the information he requires, it refuses to divulge it. He observes that if a person ever reaches a human voice, its hostile tone implies that the caller has done something wrong.
Finally, he locates the son. He writes to the son offering sympathy on his father’s death. The son replies curtly, saying that he knew nothing of his father until he received the narrator’s note. The narrator wonders if this is a case of mistaken identity or whether father or son was lying, or even hallucinating.
He goes to the lawyer’s office and talks to the lawyer’s paralegal, a young Asian woman called Suh Jung. Suh Jung has a brutally short haircut. She had her long hair cut after her domineering father, who had forbidden her to cut it, committed suicide by hanging himself. Suh Jung confirms that her office has no information on the son, but she offers to help the narrator in his search. The narrator flirts with Suh Jung and gets her telephone number. Though the narrator has now obtained information on where and how to visit the son, he delays his visit while he and Suh Jung begin a sexual relationship. He finds himself breaking through his usual timidity by taking small risks, such as bathing her and smoking marijuana with her. He imagines how it would be if the son, not he, were with Suh Jung, as the son would be a more appropriate age for her partner.
Traveling one day on a bus, the narrator notices fresh blood on one of the seats and sits as far away from it as possible. He recalls an exhibit of works he visited by the Swiss sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti (1901–1966). He reflects on Giacometti’s belief that “art always failed” because it “lied” and also on the notion that people’s eyes lie, in the sense that “No one ever sees the world as it is.” Indeed, the narrator cannot even remember his dead friend’s face and tries to reconstruct it from his own reflection in the mirror. He recalls some research showing that most people do not see accurately what is around them. As he gazes into the mirror, he is amazed at how beaten-up he looks and concludes that he prefers to see nothing.
In order to ease the narrator’s passage through prison bureaucracy, the son tells him to claim on the form that he is the son’s father. As the narrator waits for the prison to authorize his visit, he is afraid that this lie has been discovered. He calms himself with the thought that it is no crime to believe one is someone’s father, even if it is not true. With Suh Jung’s help, he gathers more information on the son. He learns that the son has done “the worst kinds of things” and that as the state cannot execute him, it will never let him go. Suh Jung says she would think twice about visiting, but the narrator tells her that everyone has crimes to answer for and that innocence or guilt is sometimes irrelevant in deciding who ends up behind bars.
The narrator arrives at the prison two days later than scheduled, and there is a delay while the prison authorities check up on him. He hears two guards laughing as they discuss a coyote that came scavenging near the prison’s perimeter fence and that had been casually shot by a guard. The narrator imagines that the guard was having a bad day and took out his frustration on the coyote.
The narrator must go through a metal detector and various locked doors to get into the visiting area. Every step of his security progress is watched and monitored by machines. He is held in an openair wire cage, exposed to the baking sun. Hot and silently furious, he waits as the prison staff shuffle papers and punch buttons on a computer console. He fears he might be trapped there forever and forced to confess his sins. Finally, one of the staff arrives and tells him his visit has been canceled and that according to the computer the inmate he seeks is not at this facility. The story ends with the narrator being told to come back on another day and to make way for the next visitor.
Ira Mark Milne, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students, John Edgar Wideman, Volume 24-Gale (2006)