Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"The Diviner’s Tale"

Bradford Morrow is the author of numerous acclaimed works of fiction and poetry, including Ariel's Crossing and Giovanni's Gift. He is also the founder of the literary magazine Conjunctions, which he has edited since 1981. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2007 and is a professor of literature at Bard University.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, The Diviner’s Tale, and reported the following:
What readers encounter on page 69 of The Diviner's Tale is an idyllic, wishful daydream into which our narrator, Cassandra Brooks, slips to escape the very real, very disturbing crisis she finds herself in: local police are searching the nearby woods for a hanged girl whom Cassandra, a diviner, believed she'd encountered the day before. What she had seen was dismissed as a delusion when authorities returned to the scene and found nothing. But delusion proves to be prophetic vision as physical evidence is found on the forest floor--a knit cap, a rope--and Cass now finds herself caught in the dilemma that has haunted her from childhood: she seems to have the ability to see things others cannot.

Can any single page of a novel truly be representative of its entirety? This page, ending as it does midsentence, with Cass “drawn cascading hard back” from the dreamlike scene to a startling moment in her waking life, if not representative of the book's literal content--much of the daydream centers on her father's and sons' fascination with baseball, and The Diviner's Tale is not a baseball book--does encapsulate much of what the novel is about. Cassandra's mortal struggle with visions versus so-called reality, her uneasy relationship with her religious mother, her beloved diviner father and his early-stage Alzheimer's, her twin eleven-year-old boys (one a jock, the other a math whiz), her onetime lover (now her sons' godfather and the sheriff of this rural upstate New York community), are all present on the page in question.

While the page itself does not mention the police, or the hanged girl, or the live runaway girl who turns up quite soon after this scene, not to mention 240 pages of narrative development that follow, page 69 occurs just as the novel's central action is rapidly unfolding, and is indicative of the way the novel itself often works. The Diviner's Tale is not a traditional whodunit or thriller but rather a combination of mystery, fantastic, and literary fiction. I would characterize it as a carefully-wrought mash-up that breaks many conventional rules as it delves deep into what it's like to be an outsider, a female diviner in a small town that has little credence in such things, even when Cassandra Brooks's visions become more and more undeniable, and increasingly perilous to those who live within the dark nimbus of her special imagination.Page 69:
…to know every Bronx Bombers player stat going back to the twenties and listened to games on the radio in his workshop all season long. More and more pieces of that great puzzle were getting lost now, except for times when vivid pockets of memorized information came
back with a vengeance. Both boys, especially Jonah, who carried a sea of numbers within him, had gotten it into their heads to pick up where their grandfather was being forced to leave off. A great deal of baseball talk, career numbers even for obscure players, filled our house, especially when Nep was around. Jonah was showing off his prodigious math skills, adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, even squaring players' uniform numbers with the same elegant ease with which Joe DiMaggio ran bases after swatting one into the distant bleachers. What does DiMaggio's jersey number plus the Babe's plus Yogi's times Mantle minus Stengel less Guidry divided by Jeter equal?

A-Rod, said Jonah, with unearthly calm.

What's Lou Gehrig times the square root of Whitey Ford?

Easy. That's Whitey himself.

Then I was back in the kitchen with my mother, who asked me, straightforward and disarming, Are you and Niles still, is there still something going on between you two?

While I had anticipated her question, saw it on her wary face, it nonetheless came as a disappointment even in this imagined conversation.

How could you say such a thing?

There's still something there between you.

There will always be. Sentimental as it sounds, first love makes its own special stamp on people's hearts. But he has his family and life.

And I have mine.

She handed me a plate with a ham and Swiss sandwich on it sliced in half, some chips, and a garlic pickle. I was so hungry I felt faint. As we made to go back into the other room to join Nep and the twins, my mother offered the simple, sane kind of apology only lifetime intimates can make--Cass, I'm sorry, I just worry about you so--and I was seized abruptly from my fantasy and drawn cascading hard back…
Learn more about the book and author at Bradford Morrow's website.

Writers Read: Bradford Morrow.

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

--Marshal Zeringue