Wednesday, April 8, 2009

"The Local News"

Miriam Gershow graduated from the Program in Creative Writing at the University of Oregon and was a Fiction Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. Her stories have appeared in the Georgia Review, Black Warrior Review, and Quarterly West, among other literary journals. She lives in Eugene, Oregon, where she is a college instructor with the English Department at The University of Oregon.

She applied “Page 69 Test” to her new novel, The Local News, and reported the following:
The Local News is the story of bookish, awkward Lydia Pasternak, whose older, more charismatic brother, Danny, disappears before his senior year. At the time of his disappearance, Danny and Lydia are largely estranged.

It’s hard to write a book that includes something as headline-grabby as a missing teenager, without people thinking that’s what the book is about. But the disappearance is not the central focus. It permeates the book, but the central focus is Lydia’s coming of age, with Danny’s disappearance as backdrop. One reviewer wrote: “For Lydia, everything is about Danny, and nothing is about Danny,” (Eugene Weekly). This is true, and the same thing could be said about the book itself. Everything and nothing in it is about Danny.

So what’s about Page 69? Page 69 takes place two months after the disappearance. Lydia is taking part in one of the weekly sweep searches. Well, sort of. While volunteers march around looking for any clues to Danny’s whereabouts, by page 69, Lydia has left the search and veered into an off-limits abandoned factory with two characters she barely knows: Lola, a girl who used to have a crush on Danny, and Bayard, Lola’s French friend.

The page begins:

We moved past hulking, unidentifiable machines. In the dark, one looked like a loom, another a gross imitation of a grand piano.

“What’d they used to do in here?” I called, my voice loud and echo-y. Neither answered, but Lola let out an unusually high pitched squeal followed by a loud, skittering noise. When I turned around, she was down on all fours, splayed like an animal.

“I tripped!” she yelled, her tone as if she were accusing us of something. “I tripped!”

When I got to her, she was breathing heavily, examining her wrists for scrapes. I helped her up by the elbow. She had an expression I hadn’t seen before, far more intent and fiery than normal. She looked like she was working hard to bite back something. The sight of it made me like her more than usual. It made me give her more credit. I helped brush the dirt off her pants.

“I’m cut,” she said. She held her palm to my face. There was a thin trail of blood on the fleshy pad beneath her thumb. “I think there’s some glass in there.”

I felt around her hand impotently, imitating something my mother must have done a long time ago. I couldn’t feel anything.

When Bayard got to us, he proclaimed: “Come on. This will be fun.” The hood of his rain jacket was pulled back now; several curls had broken free of his gel and popped from his head like loose bedsprings. His ears were huge. I felt like laughing.

“Zis weel be fan,” I said to Lola. That made her smile a little.

So, is this representative? Yes.

Lydia is wandering through unfamiliar territory with virtual strangers. Through much of the book, Lydia is unmoored from the familiar, surrounded by new people and new experiences. Here, like on many other pages, she lets herself fall into sudden, if not completely secure, companionship with whoever is in close proximity.

More notably, Lydia spends much of her time on 69 as she does throughout the larger story–distracting herself from what’s really going on. Just outside the factory door, volunteers are slogging through the rain, looking for answers about her brother. But here’s Lydia, in contrast, fighting the urge to laugh at Bayard’s big ears and unruly hair.

Importantly, though, the end of 69 is equally representative, in that Lydia’s attempts at distraction are often impotent:

Bayard found a dark stairwell that smelled rancid, as if someone had long ago left meat to defrost here. Lola cupped both hands over her nose and mouth as Bayard bounded up the stairs ahead of us. The darkness was so dense, I held my arms out in front of me protectively. The smell was potent; it went right to my throat and I started coughing. For a quick moment, I thought: Danny. I felt, briefly a fleshy, sweaty sureness.

There he is, rearing his head–the boy who is everything and nothing in this novel. As much as Lydia tries to quash thoughts of Danny, he appears and reappears. There is no escaping him, as much as she may want to. This is what Lydia has to reckon with on page 69, and what she ultimately has to reckon with in the other 356 pages of the book.
Read an excerpt from The Local News, and learn more about the book and author at Miriam Gershow's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue