The Unstable Truths of ‘The Last Language’

“One thing all truths have in common: they are only visible from certain distances.” Angela, the protagonist of Jennifer duBois’s novel The Last Language, arrives at this conclusion from prison. It’s one of the many instances in the book that forces readers to ask themselves if she can be trusted—or if her relationship with Sam, her 28-year-old nonverbal patient, is predicated not on what she claims to be “love” but abuse.

The Last Language takes the form of an unrepentant confession that Angela is writing after being convicted of sexual misconduct. As Sam’s family takes legal action against Angela, she attempts to prove to everyone—perhaps herself most of all—that her infatuation with Sam was mutual. Though her confession is not bound for the court nor Sam, she addresses it to Sam directly, writing in the second person as she accounts for the events of the previous year.

Angela begins her story at one of the lowest points of her life, when she was placed on involuntary leave from her linguistics graduate program at Harvard—an ousting prompted by her eccentric behavior in the wake of her husband’s abrupt death. Despite losing the fruits of her life’s work in one fell swoop, she appraises the situation from an alarmingly neutral point of view, writing, “It was the agency of [Harvard] acting upon my weaker self.” Angela and her four-year-old daughter JoJo subsequently move in with Angela’s mother while she searches for work. Soon enough, she stumbles into a lab position at an organization referred to only as The Center, which offers an experimental therapy designed to help nonverbal patients with motor impairments learn to communicate.

The Center’s work challenges core academic beliefs that Angela has held her entire life. Her research at Harvard rested on “the idea of language as the fundamental infrastructure of thought,” shaping everything “from our sense of direction to our conception of time.” As Angela learns to use The Center’s signature machine to assist patients with communication—essentially a gloried typewriter—she tests her preconceived notion that thought cannot occur without spoken language. And when she is assigned to work with Sam, who has spent the majority of his life in his bedroom, in silence, something fundamental shifts beyond just her academic convictions.

Sam’s condition is unclear (“autism, possibly”), but Angela soon realizes that he understands spoken and written language. Not only that, he’s well-read, charming, and discerning. He jokes, via The Center’s machine, that he is “excruciatingly literate,” citing his love for deep-sea fish, ichthyology, and the White Sox. He is also keenly aware that he is a lab rat and frequently questions his own participation in The Center’s research: “What if I don’t want to be understood?

Readers experience Sam’s thoughts and emotions through his writing, revealing the depth and complexity of his character. But the fact that these peeks into his inner world come to us only through Angela’s narration casts a shadow of doubt over much of what we learn about Sam. Per Angela, the two often launched into philosophical, jargon-laden tangents about Chekhov, Shirley Jackson, and famous photographs from National Geographic. Sam’s intellect is undeniable, but it remains unclear whether Angela is projecting her own intellectual interests onto him. She weighs this possibility herself, musing, “You were absolutely, jaw-droppingly brilliant. We both were!”

As the two grow closer, and as Angela gains the trust of Sam’s family, Angela becomes increasingly convinced that she is the only person who can truly understand Sam. She engrosses herself in her new role as a “language facilitator,” despite having no training that would qualify her for such a position, and she grows comfortable deviating from The Center’s procedural guidelines to account for Sam’s astounding leaps and bounds in progress. She admits, “I did this a lot, in the beginning—made exceptions for you into general policy, then congratulated myself for my innovation. Those days were a parade of logical fallacies.” Angela manages to be both self-aware and delusional about the limits of her self-awareness. Throughout her confession, she condemns irresponsible conjecture but often speaks in the past present tense which is speculative at best: “You really would have been best buds, I think, if you’d ever had the chance.”

cover Jennifer DuBoiscover Jennifer DuBoisThe Last Language makes several nods to Angela’s Humbert-Humbert-like tendencies. At one point, she refuses to review the book of a former colleague, opting instead to read Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, “for consolation and for spite.” Angela expresses deep admiration for the novel, which famously tests the boundaries of fiction, inadvertently drawing parallels between the subject matter of Nabokov’s work and her own life. When Lolita was published eight years earlier, in 1954, it had enraptured readers both for its blatantly taboo subject matter and for its deceptive narrator. Humbert Humbert is a wordsmith with unmistakable lingual dexterity—a skill he continuously uses to inflate his significance to Lolita. Through Humbert’s infatuation, Nabokov demonstrates how language can be used not just to describe reality, but to construct it. The Last Language builds on this idea throughout Angela’s confession, tacking on compelling questions about agency, humanity, and ambiguity.

In Angela’s account, she and Sam share an emotional intimacy that leads to a buildup of tension, encoded in witty banter and stolen glances. By the time their relationship becomes sexual—or more specifically, by the time Angela initiates sex—it’s an inevitability that’s been hanging on the novel’s horizon for ages. From this point, judgment comes for Angela swiftly and with vengeance. One day, “in a screwy, undignified little scene,” Sam’s mother and sister walk in on Angela and Sam after they’ve just had sex. Angela is subsequently ousted from the house and Sam’s life, and in the following weeks, she spends her time harassing his family, awaiting her fate.

It’s not that Angela never considered the position she put herself in. “There are reasons, very good ones, why such a relationship is considered inadvisable,” she admits, citing the “structural imbalance” inherent between them. And of course she worries about her own reputation: she’s aware the relationship makes her look “unprofessional” and could result in “diminished credibility for all involved.” . But she clings to the notion that she and Sam are “certain of our love, certain that we were doing no harm.” Whether Angela genuinely believes the depth of her connection with Sam is not the novel’s primary concern. Rather, The Last Language reckons with a culture of individualism that harms vulnerable individuals. Throughout the novel, duBois expertly constructs characters whose thoughts and beliefs plunge readers into ambiguous territory. When analyzing Pale Fire, Angela suggests, “perhaps the narrator was a delusional academic all along, we think, the truth in plain sight for any reader willing to squint hard enough. But squint a little harder, and the vision changes yet again.”

One can’t help but feel a bit for Angela. She is, after all, in the dangerous business of being a woman in elite academia—a fate made worse by a sudden nosedive into deep grief and single parenthood. But for all her unprocessed trauma and genuine-seeming concern for Sam’s future, Angela also displays brazen egotism and negligence. “I, however, was not most other people,” she writes. “I was capable of sustaining vast complexities—more than the usual person, certainly.” Her apparent superiority proves to be of little help, though: she regularly shirks off her minimal domestic duties and shares little to no connection with her daughter, to the point that Angela’s mother must formally ask her to spend one-on-one time with JoJo. When Angela does interact with JoJo, she mostly asks her questions that feel forced and robotic, treating her daughter like any other research subject from which she can mine linguistic data.

Similar glitches in Angela’s narrative (and self-narrative) persistently hint that something is off, despite her efforts to portray herself as a neutral, reliable party. For instance, after Sam’s family has barred her from visiting him, Angela allegedly exclaims to her mother, “I’m so pleased to be prioritizing my family!” From prison, she carefully reconstructs her role as a dedicated caregiver both at work and at home, using her scholarly training as a tool for manipulating the reader’s expectations and sympathies. What’s more, she continuously fails to address that her actions have been irresponsible at best and a predatory abuse of power at worst.

The question of Sam’s agency in all this lies at the core of the novel. His disability prevents others, including his own family, from treating him with full dignity and makes him somewhat illegible to those around him. “But that’s the thing,” his mother says, “I don’t know if these are his decisions.” He cannot articulate his true feelings about Angela unless he uses a technology operated by Angela herself. The uncertainty of his autonomy haunts the jurors, who see Angela as the instigator of a non-consensual physical relationship with her patient, who cannot speak or resist.

But then, we must also consider the other possibility—the reality in which Angela’s version of events is entirely, or even mostly, accurate. While she compulsively claims innocence, she also urges a more humane, comprehensive understanding of Sam. People with disabilities are often portrayed as sexless, unlovable, or otherwise incapable of experiencing romantic love, and her testimony challenges these harmful, dehumanizing stereotypes. The Last Language is a disturbing, tangled story that makes no moral judgements and offers no concrete answers. It concludes with Angela’s ultimate conviction, which marks the end for The Center, thus cutting off Sam’s access to verbal and written communication, a feeling he describes as “Out of time. Out of language. Falling down deep into an ocean, probably about to get eaten by a shark.” Of her verdict, Angela writes, “I will need to be a monster, you will need to be a thing, and they will need to believe all of this forever. Because if they’re wrong—oh, God if they’re wrong—then what have they done?”

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