Tuesday, August 21, 2007

"by George"

Wesley Stace, a celebrated musician and songwriter who performs under the name John Wesley Harding, is the author of two novels, Misfortune and the just-released by George.

He applied the Page 69 Test to by George and reported the following:
By chance, Page 69 is key. And not just according to me.

Today, by coincidence, I was sent the questions for an email interview with the NY Post, one of which began: “On page 69…” No other page number was referenced. And what happens?

A mother cruelly belittles her son’s ambitions. He describes the vaudeville act he has been planning to take on the road – a “Distant Voice” presentation where voices, thrown by him, will appear throughout the theatre, amazing the audience. She laughs at him. Distant Voice went out with the ark, she says. She should know: she and her dummy Naughty Narcissus have the greatest ventriloquial act in 1930’s Britain. Joe, crushed, slumps to the ground, refusing to speak. Faced with his silence, she answers for him, as though he were her dummy.

This précis misses one vital piece of information: the narrator is a ventriloquist dummy called George, an unwanted gift to Joe from his mother.

by George tells the story of the secrets and lies of a show business dynasty, the Fisher family, from two different perspectives: that of a 1930s ventriloquist dummy, called George Fisher, and a schoolboy in the 1970s, with the same name, heir to the family power struggles above. Both boys, for different reasons and in different ways, are struggling to find their own voice.

The book also traces the history of ventriloquism, from its genesis in religious mystery to its current degraded status as a rather seedy children’s party entertainment. The key moment in its recent development is the birth of the boy: the boy who traps the ventriloquist’s voice and finally takes over the act, killing his father by reducing the ventriloquist’s status to that of a mere straight man.

And so, somehow, Page 69 has the entire novel on one page: a domineering mother and a weak son engage in a struggle (of which the result is a foregone conclusion) over what makes good entertainment; in particular, a struggle over voice production. He wants to be silent; she wants to speak for him. And the history of ventriloquism is laid out in a nutshell – the dummy is slowly taking over, in fact, narrating.

Page 69 turned out, rather unexpectedly, to be crucial. It gives me hope for the book as a whole. Perhaps every page has the vital themes of the book played out this neatly. (It doesn’t.)
Read an excerpt from by George and more about the novel at Wesley Stace's website and his MySpace page.

--Marshal Zeringue