Sunday, August 26, 2007

"What Goes Around"

Susan Diamond was a fellow at the Iowa Writers' Workshop and spent seventeen years at the Los Angeles Times as a feature writer and columnist. She has worked for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, Time, People, and the Village Voice.

She applied the Page 69 Test to What Goes Around, her first novel, and reported the following:
As a one-time teacher and long-time journalist, I should be able to make any passage symbolize the whole book and represent a literary trend to boot. In fact, page 69 in What Goes Around gives just a feeling for the novel’s tone and characters, barely touches on its themes and only slightly furthers the plot.

On page 69, the Los Angeles county coroner is visited by Polly, one of five women who undertake to avenge the death of a friend at the hands of three of the most powerful men in California, and in carrying out their covert and careful campaign, also change their own lives. The novel isn’t really a murder mystery; the reader knows whodunit in chapter one. It’s about the rewards of a good revenge, “good” meaning both justified and well-done.

Unlike the reader, the women know only that their friend Ginger has been found dead on a path outside the mountain retreat of an exclusive men’s club, and questioning the coroner is part of figuring out what happened. As indicated by the easy conversation and the chord obviously struck between Polly and the coroner, the protagonists are not practiced sleuths but simply competent, successful women who are also thoughtful, ironic and witty, whose individual stories wind around the central plot. Their only weapons are their intelligence, their moral outrage, good business connections and a belief that private evil must be matched by some professional wrong-doing they can find and expose.

“The dead teach the living,” says the coroner, sounding one of the book’s themes — the thin line between life and death. And when he explains that each jarred specimen — the cross-section of a smoker’s lung, for example — “speaks of ultimate consequences,” he voices the novel’s main point: What goes around, comes around, whether it’s the effects of smoking or the righting of wrongs, both moral and commercial.

Page 69 , almost all dialogue, personal and humorous, still reflects the tone of the book. In spite of serious themes — the righting of wrongs, the connection between public and private life, the bonds of friendship — the novel is a caper, a dark-nights, back-roads, wall-climbing, car-chasing adventure, and, I hope, a good read.

Page 69:

once almost ruined me. In any case, it doesn't make the best dinner table entertainment."

"Beats my field," said Vere. "At least it's clean and dry. Here I am, a single father of teenagers, supposed to have a grownup dating life, and who wants to hear about my afternoon autopsies? Anybody who had me coming to them at the end of my day would want to hose me down on the front stoop. What would we discuss over dinner? Gangrene? And my association with death doesn't help."

"That's odd," said Polly. "In my case, it seems to be a real turn-on."

"How so?"

"You know, poor young widow and all that. I couldn't handle any more popularity if I were really popular, and a lot of it is sight-unseen referrals."

"I wish I'd known of that. I'd have murdered my wife instead of divorcing her."

"I don't think it works for murder. Undercuts the sympathy factor. I thought every single girl alive was supposed to want a doctor, whatever his specialty."

"Well, there are many people these days who don't mind blood -- the movies have done that for us -- but body parts gross them out."

"Why do you keep so many body parts around?" Polly gestured around at the cabinets.

"I find it instructive," said Vere. "Keeping in mind that this is what's left after death, and in many cases, is what caused the death, each specimen speaks of ultimate consequences. Like that lump of coal in the bell jar. It's a piece of lung, a smoker's lung. The photo behind it is a cross-section of the whole lung -- almost an undifferentiated mass. The other bell jar with the pink sponge-like lump is healthy lung -- same age guy, forties, but a garroting case, I think. And the picture behind that one is its cross-section, but this one's filled with little lines of veins and deltas of oxygen-carrying alveoli."

He raised his palms apologetically. "The dead do teach the living, not just how they died, but how to live."
Read an excerpt from What Goes Around and learn more about the book and the author at Susan Diamond's website.

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

--Marshal Zeringue