Thursday, September 5, 2013

"A Guide for the Perplexed"

Dara Horn, the author of the novels All Other Nights, The World to Come, and In the Image, was chosen one of Granta’s "Best Young American Novelists" in 2007, and is the winner of two National Jewish Book Awards. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and four children.

Horn applied the Page 69 Test to her new novel, A Guide for the Perplexed, and reported the following:
Page 69 happens to introduce one of the major themes in the book: the paradox of fate and free will. Josie, my main character, is a software developer on a three-week consulting gig at the Library of Alexandria in Egypt (yes, this is in contemporary times—and yes, it doesn’t end well). The cultural divide between her and Nasreen, the media specialist working with her, is much larger than Josie expected. On page 69, Josie discovers that Nasreen believes our lives are directed by forces beyond our control—the opposite of arrogant tech-nerd Josie’s worldview. Ten pages later, when Josie is abducted, both women’s opinions begin to change.

A Guide for the Perplexed is loosely based on the biblical story of Joseph. One of the puzzles of the Joseph story is that Joseph is able to interpret people’s dreams—the assumption in the bible being that dreams reflect one’s future rather than one’s past. We think of ourselves as rational people, but what’s amazing to me is the constancy of human belief in predestination—whether to a destiny determined by an omnipotent God, or by genetics or socioeconomics or brain chemistry. But the biblical Joseph story suggests that while we may be unable to control the future, we can in a sense control the past—not by changing past events, but by selectively remembering them in a way that turns our lives into a meaningful story. In the ancient Library of Alexandria and in the high-tech world today, what matters is not how much data we collect, but how we choose what’s worth knowing.

Excerpt from Page 69:
“Why would it be necessary to know me in order to understand my dream?” Nasreen asked.

This was baffling. Was it not obvious? “To know what these people and ideas mean to you, of course,” she said. The challenge of not condescending was immense.

“Why would it matter what they mean to me?” Nasreen asked. “The message ought to be clear on its own.”

Josie considered this. In fact the dream did have a rather obvious interpretation, but it didn’t seem like one Josie should share. “That would depend if you think dreams are internal or external,” she said. “I suppose the message ought to be clear to anyone if you believe that the dream’s source is something outside of your own mind. But if the dream’s source is in your own mind, then it should matter what these people meant to you.”

“In the end it is not that different, is it?” Nasreen said, her dark lips set in a smug grin. “There is a message either way, just as I said.”

For a moment Josie was silent, hovering on the edge of a respectful nod. But then she could no longer contain her irritation—with Nasreen, with the library, with the radiance of the past buried under the nonsense of the present, with the thick walls of illogic that had been closing in around her from that very first moment at the airport, when she had been sagely informed that she was a mistake.

“It’s actually extremely different,” Josie said. She no longer held her exasperation under her breath. Her voice rose. “If the dream is some sort of supernatural message, or something reflecting the—the will of God, so to speak—then it should matter a lot, and you should care a lot about what it’s trying to tell you. And if the dream is that kind of supernatural message, then presumably what it is trying to tell you is some sort of—prophecy, as you put it. Some kind of prediction or warning about the future that you couldn’t otherwise know.”

“Precisely,” Nasreen said.
Learn more about the author and her work at Dara Horn's website, Facebook page, and Twitter perch.

The Page 99 Test: The World to Come.

The Page 99 Test: All Other Nights.

--Marshal Zeringue