Sunday, August 3, 2008

"The Untelling"

Tayari Jones' first novel, Leaving Atlanta, won the 2003 Hurston/Wright Award for debut fiction.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her acclaimed novel, The Untelling, and reported the following:
I listed anything that would make me more attractive to employers of “personal traits”: self-starter, creative, great people skills, mature. I’d spent more than three hours checking it for errors, consulting the real dictionary when I doubted the accuracy of my computer’s spell check. As an extra flourish I’d spend an additional ten cents a page for heavy papers the color of pigeons.

The recruiters reclined in their chairs, waiting for an irresistible candidate to show herself. They all had that slightly bored, cocky attitude like obviously rich or handsome men in nightclubs. They spoke to each other with knowing looks as they sipped soft drinks. I handed a lady from Coca-Cola my résumé; she nodded and put it on the bottom of a stack of other people’s histories, and shoved a red and white brochure in my direction. I repeated this scenario at a few other tables—Georgia Power, Delta Airlines, BellSouth. Hi, my name is Aria Jackson. Here’s my résumé; I look forward to hearing from you. And, true to the nightclub model, they all promised to call.

Here on page 69, we find Aria Jackson looking for a job at an employment fair in Atlanta. This is representative of the novel in that it is important to me that my characters work for a living. (Often when reading American fiction, I find myself distracted by the nagging question: How are they paying for this lifestyle???) Questions of class are essential to this work.

Other characters that live in Aria’s world are Atlantans from all over the socio-economic spectrum. Aria’s circle includes: Keisha, a seventeen year old literacy student who hopes to pass the GED before her baby is born; Rochelle, Aria’s co-worker and roommate who is planning a fifty-thousand dollar June wedding; Aria’s sister, Hermione, who fled the misery of their childhood home by marrying their dead father’s best friend; and Dwayne, Aria’s fiancé who makes a good living as a locksmith, but lacks champagne manners.

In addition to the class issues, central to The Untelling is the question of acceptance, which is raised on page 69 at the job fair. As a twenty-five year old woman, Aria is constantly putting herself up for evaluation. The questions of the body, sexuality, and reproduction weigh heavily on her as she worries whether or not her fiancé, Dwayne, will accept her. The world for people in their mid-twenties is laced with juries and Aria finds herself again and again laying herself at their mercy.

How does she fare? The real struggle at the heart of The Untelling is facing the challenge of an adult life. To win acceptance of the people around her, Aria conceals heartbreaking truths about herself. Of course she must eventually come clean, but this is not a fairy tale. Doing the right thing has tremendous consequences; being an adult means absorbing these blows and still managing to survive.
Read an excerpt from The Untelling, and learn more about the book and author at Tayari Jones' website and her blog.

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

--Marshal Zeringue