Thursday, July 24, 2014

"What Is Visible"

Kimberly Elkins was a finalist for the National Magazine Award and has published fiction and nonfiction in the Atlantic, Best New American Voices, Iowa Review, Chicago Tribune, Glamour, and Village Voice, among others.

Elkins applied the Page 69 Test to What Is Visible, her first novel, and reported the following:
Note that Sarah Wight is the teacher of real-life historical character Laura Bridgman, the first deaf-blind person to learn language 50 years before Helen Keller. Here, she is teaching Laura to dance. It is 1845, and Laura is 16.
... -she yanks with it some hair from my braid, and I cry out, I mouth her name, but she doesn't stop, she is tapping away, and I'm trying to stop the spin, all in one or two seconds that are sprinkled with bright lights in my head, and then I'm turned--taptetaptapTAP--she has turned me most the way around--taptap--and the shade pulls clean off my eyes--TAP--and Sarah Wight stops completely, stumbling back a little when she sees, I guess, what has happened, and taking my shade with her.

I have lost her arm's protection, and I go down at the end of my twirl, my dance, crouching on the floor with my hands over my face. Doctor has made it a rule that I am never to uncover my eyes for anyone but a physician in private, and he certainly brooks no argument from me on that point. It is as far from my desire as Boston is from the North Pole to offend my friends' sensibilities, to frighten or disgust them.

Stop touching me! Miss Wight is all about me, hands and arms, patting, poking.

"So sorry." Waiting. "We'll put it back."

No, I am comfortable making my ball here on the carpet, with its varied beveled tufts against my cheek. Jeannette told me this pattern is roses and angels in blues and golds. How beautiful to behold roses and angels together. Sarah Wight is practically lying on top of me, causing us both to sweat, in her what--grief? anguish? embarrassment? I am the one eyeless, revealed, naked in the face in the cruelest way of all nakedness--why should she be aggrieved? If the eyes are the windows to the soul as one of Doctor's poet friends recited, then what kind of soul do I have, Wightie? What did you see of my soul before I went down, cowering on the floor like the wild child, the beast, I used to be?
This passage in my fictional biography, What Is Visible, finds Laura at her most absolutely vulnerable; by this time at the age of 16, she is considered the second most famous woman in the world in the nineteenth century, save Queen Victoria, for her unprecedented ability to learn language, fifty years before Helen Keller. The scarlet fever that left Laura blind and deaf at age two also took her senses of taste and smell, leaving her bound to world by touch alone. Laura is practicing dancing with Sarah Wight, her new teacher, whom she is trying desperately to impress, feeling the beats of the music through her feet. But then her ribboned shade becomes tangled, and is pulled violently from her eyes, and she knows that Sarah has seen those empty caves of bone, the eyeballs suppurated by the scarlet fever, the only person to have seen them except for doctors and her mother. While the benighted, tragic tone is not representative of most of the novel, you do get a clear sense of Laura’s voice: her precocity, her stubbornness, her demanding intelligence. She is both fierce and frail, by turn, but always alive to all of life’s possibilities, endlessly curious and seeking connection at whatever cost. This moment will prove a great turning point in Laura’s relationship with Sarah, beginning the establishment of a deep and loving bond, made all the more poignant by the fact that the two are tragically parted just four years later.

So as a random pull from the text, this page proved lucky in providing a nuanced glimpse into not just Laura’s soul, but also in the way into which she interacts with others. Lucky 69!
Visit Kimberly Elkins's website.

My Book, The Movie: What Is Visible.

--Marshal Zeringue