Monday, January 28, 2008

"Now You See Him"

Eli Gottlieb's The Boy Who Went Away won the prestigious Rome Prize, the 1998 McKitterick Prize from the British Society of Authors, and was a New York Times Notable book.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel Now You See Him, and reported the following:
Page 69 of my book, when isolated, is pretty dull. It belongs to that particular variant of prose whose sentences deal with the heavy, utilitarian lugging of objects around space and time. "He drove to the store." "She picked up the can opener." Ah, fond mimesis! My poet friends often laugh at the way in which, as a novelist, I have somehow crucially to bear witness to the "withness" of language, its embeddedness in the dumb operations of life. Fortunately, my lifelong situational dyslexia has galloped to the rescue, and in this case, staring at 69, I see 96.

Page 96 of my new novel, while not exactly a chorus of nightingale glissandoes, at least gets off a couple nice moves. It deals with that moment in the book when Nick, the married narrator, is returning to his domestic nest after having made out with an old girlfriend in the parking lot of a nearby diner. His already shaky marriage has been rattled further by the fact that his wife, though she doesn't know the exact details of his assignation, is furious at him that he even saw his old gal pal. For his part, the fact of having kissed another woman and felt the old erotic quickening, has given him a fresh appreciation for his original marital bona fides. As the page opens he is ruminating on the newly chilly distance between himself and his beloved. In the words of Barry Hannah: "Behold the husband in his perfect agony!"

I could watch the word-bubbles drift upwards from her mouth. I could see her fingers splayed slightly against the clear surface in greeting or goodbye. But instead of language, all I heard was the faint, underwater hiss of her respiration.

During dinner that night, I remained extra animated, with the children especially, and I tried to catch a variety of small ripples of momentum from the boys upon which to float my way across the table and touch her with warmth. I was an old hand at this kind of redistribution of feeling, this sneaky inter-generational transfer. But on this night, as the previous few nights, it was no dice. She was as skillful as I was at maintaining an open channel with the boys while keeping me out in the cold, and though I admired her virtuosity, the anaerobic withdrawal of feeling stung me.

All of this was especially sad because, buoyed by my transgression — a half hour of making out with Belinda in the car; an hour of excited chat in the restaurant — I was not only tactically happy. I was happy. I felt renewed in my marriage and I wanted her to know it. Pity is a vasodilator of the heart, just like love. And yet it's not love, for it requires loss of some sort to activate it. Lucy, without knowing it, had lost ground and become an object of my pity. And I, without understanding why, had felt the charge of that emotion and pronounced myself newly in love.

Over the next few days, I continued to observe my wife with fresh eyes, noting as if for the first time the bending grace of her figure, her gentleness and kindness with the children; her diligence in running a house whose cleanliness and order I had always taken for granted. Uncomplainingly, she had shut down her own career in the service of our family, and to this, as to so many other things, I'd been indifferent. The dailiness of cohabitation is like a rain of glass beads that wears away the larger perceptions of gratefulness and leaves behind only the chilly relicts of feeling. How could I have been so blind to the truth?
Read an excerpt from Now You See Him, and learn more about the book and author at Eli Gottlieb's website and blog.

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

--Marshal Zeringue