Thursday, October 16, 2008


Todd Hasak-Lowy received his Ph.D. in comparative literature from UC Berkeley, where he studied Hebrew, Arabic, and English literature. He is currently an assistant professor at the University of Florida, where he teaches Hebrew language and literature. He is the author of The Task of This Translator, a collection of stories.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, Captives, and reported the following:
Captives is a novel about a man who suddenly finds himself on a perilous professional/political/spiritual/familial/moral/facial-hair journey, a good chunk of which takes place in his very own house. As such, one could do worse than p. 69.

The protagonist, Daniel Bloom—a successful screenwriter who is finally and quickly coming undone thanks to the implications of a new project—enters his son’s room in order to try out (per the reckless and/or brilliant advice of his new rabbi) lowering himself to his knees and bringing his forehead to the floor. (p. 67: “You ever see a Muslim pray? On your knees. Good. Lower your forehead to the floor. Good. Submit, that’s what Islam means. Submission. A moment of humility. Now think whatever else you feel like thinking. Be aware of the new thoughts that come to you in this position. Too many Jews pray without their bodies. It’s hopeless.”) Daniel’s decision to assume this position in his son’s room provides the narrator with the chance to note how Daniel worries and/or senses that he and his only child are growing apart (which, of course, complements the looming disaster that is his marriage). But then this:

Daniel enters the room, sweeps aside a pair of sweat pants and an Indians’ baseball cap with his foot, crouches to the floor, briefly goes to all fours, and then gently touches what some might call his third eye to the soft, welcoming carpet covering his son’s floor. And then, quite instantly, he feels, if not good, then better, yes, somehow better.

Without giving too much away, what soon follows is arguably the most optimistic, painless (for the protagonist) moment in the entire novel. Daniel may have actually stumbled on something that makes his very existence in this world tolerable (the recent intolerability of this existence more or less setting the plot in motion some fifty-three pages earlier). Here’s what he experiences:

Daniel attempts to feel, not so much name, just feel whatever it is that he feels when bent and bowed low. He is not sad, but he notes immediately how suddenly unobstructed the path to his sadness has become. Likewise his tension, his rage, his fear, his absolute sense of helplessness. Motionless and nearly curled up, Daniel sees himself, his emotional topography, laid out naked before him. No feature of its worrisome terrain surprises him, indeed his ability in this moment to face it, to simply survey his vast, raw inner landscape without judgment, without recoiling, without turning and rushing toward the pleasant, the easy, the acceptable brings with it enormous relief.

End of page. Of course, the solution, if there is one, to the problem called Daniel Bloom won’t prove so easy for him to find, and not only because a novel that finds it denouement on p. 69 isn’t much of a novel. P. 69 is a time-out for Daniel, but only a very brief one, as eventually this, too, will be consumed by his merciless disquiet. Thankfully, perhaps, his rabbi still has more advice, which, if I must come down on the matter, is both reckless and brilliant.
Read an excerpt from Captives and learn more about the book at the publisher's website. Visit Todd Hasak-Lowy's faculty webpage.

Check out the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue