Friday, October 14, 2011

"The Dubious Salvation of Jack V."

Jacques Strauss is a South African freelance digital producer and consultant.

He applied the Page 69 Test to The Dubious Salvation of Jack V., his debut novel, and reported the following:
I trust you will give me a little leeway on this. For one, I always thought it was the page 99 test, but having Googled the whole thing I notice that both are in common use. Then I thought , hey maybe people do the page 79 test or the page 89 test? You can save yourself the bother – turns out 69 and 99 are the real deal. My book fails both tests miserably. Page 69 is about a minor character that doesn’t really have much to do with the story. Page 99 is about a minor character that doesn’t really have much to do with the story. I did both these tests on the same day that I got another review bitching about the plot. There’s been a lot of that – bitching about the plot. (But in case you’re thinking Jeez – why would I ever consider buying this book – even the damn writer is putting me off - I would say there have been very nice reviews – very kind, insightful, astute reviews that don’t bitch about the plot). The point of all this is how the page 69 test is completely different for the author than it is for the reader (which is why I like the idea of this blog) and it got me thinking about how I must in some way have failed, if all these people are bitching about the plot.

The book is set during the apartheid years and centres around the eleven-year old protagonist’s very minor betrayal of his black housekeeper. I wouldn’t say it was inadvertent, but it’s as close to being inadvertent as something can be without it actually being inadvertent. And it’s this you see – that has annoyed people. People want big betrayals and high stakes, but big betrayals and high stakes could never capture the complexity of the South African situation. The complexity lies in the question: what does it mean when you are born complicit? And whatever guilt Jack may feel about the specific betrayal, it is emblematic of a much broader guilt for a situation in which small acts of betrayal are magnified (sometimes horribly) by a system of which he is both part and beneficiary of. You can write a novel about the torture camps (Vlakplaas) or the secret police. You can write a novel about white people murdering and torturing black people. I could have written a novel in which Jack hacked off Susie’s head with a machete completing his metamorphosis to beastly right-wing lunatic – but I’m not sure what it would really tell us about Apartheid.

To get back to the point. As a writer, the page 69 test and the page 99 test, remind me that the book isn’t very heavily plotted. But both pages talk about characters who, in very different ways, are complicit in what is going on (as is almost everyone in the book). What is interesting is that even very warm reviews comment on Jack’s charming naivety or innocence about the political situation. The truth is I think Jack isn’t sufficiently na├»ve or even sufficiently stupid. I’ve not met many eleven-year olds that acutely aware of moral complexity. And that’s the thing about Jack. He knows. Jack knows and it’s the knowing that makes it terrible.
Learn more about the book and author at Jacques Strauss's website.

Writers Read: Jacques Strauss.

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

--Marshal Zeringue