Thursday, May 13, 2010

"Call It What You Want"

Keith Lee Morris is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Clemson University. His short stories have been published in Tin House, A Public Space, Southern Review, Ninth Letter, StoryQuarterly, New England Review, The Sun, and the Georgia Review, among other publications. The University of Nevada published his first two books, The Greyhound God (2003) and The Best Seats in the House (2004), and Tin House Books published his novel The Dart League King.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new story collection, Call It What You Want, and reported the following:
First let me say that I refuse to back down from the challenge as some others (who shall remain nameless) have done before me—“Well, page 69 isn’t really a very good example, so let me refer you to page 27 instead,” blah blah. No, it’s the “page 69” test, dammit, and based on the merits of page 69 I will let my book sink or swim, I will let my star rise or fall.

Problem, though—uh, the book is a short story collection, and page 69 is the final page of a story called “Camel Light,” and, well, it’s actually you might say half a page. So, in that sense, I fail miserably. I mean, hey, the vast majority of pages in the book are in fact pages of full text.

Plus, the concluding page of a story is always different from the beginning page, or the middle pages, because you have this deal where you’re required to wrap up stuff like plot and theme and then, you know, lots of times there’s revelations or twists or epiphanies. For instance, the main character in “Camel Light,” Rick Steuben, is in the middle of an existential meltdown, all because of a frigging cigarette he finds on the floor in his kitchen while he’s home alone one morning. Nobody in his family smokes, so he starts imagining whose cigarette this is, and he eventually gets around (as husbands do) to deciding that his wife must be having an affair. Then after that he really goes off the deep end, imagining that we’ve reached the end of civilization as we know it and whatnot:
Global warming, shrinking ice caps, expanding oceans, extensive flooding, widespread drought, mass starvation, a whole species on its way to becoming fertilizer or fish food. It was right there in front of him. You could read the signs in the daily paper.
Whoa, that’s some depressing shit, and I promise that this sort of thing doesn’t happen to my characters on every page. Besides, Rick is actually having what we in the biz might call a false epiphany—i.e., he thinks he’s having this massive, life-changing moment, but as soon as his wife gets home, he forgets all about it:
... he sat crying quietly when Maggie’s car turned into the drive. How nice it looked out there in the sunshine, the gleaming black Volvo wagon he had just washed yesterday. Maggie emerged, carrying a new beaded handbag. She’d worn her glasses today. He remembered that now, could see them in the moment she’d walked out the door an hour ago. She was approaching the house. He didn’t want her to see him crying. He wiped his eyes with his hand and the hem of his T-shirt.
Etcetera. So, wait—page 69 is like the rest of the book, because the stories are mostly about illusions, or delusions, or self-delusion—the stories are about the stories we keep trying to tell ourselves when the real ones are ugly or frightening. They’re about the shaky line between dreaming (in this case daydreaming) and reality, about how we so rarely see things clearly, and not for very long.

Therefore, my book passes the page 69 test!
Read an excerpt from Call it What You Want.

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

--Marshal Zeringue