Wednesday, February 26, 2020


Dan Vyleta is the son of Czech refugees who emigrated to Germany in the late 1960s. He holds a Ph.D. in history from King’s College, Cambridge. His novels include Smoke, Pavel & I, The Quiet Twin, which was shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and The Crooked Maid, which was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and won the J.I. Segal Award.

Vyleta applied the Page 69 Test to his new novel, Soot, and reported the following:
Page 69 finds us in an alternate New York, in the midst of a slightly re-configured Central Park that runs from river to river and literally separates Downtown from Uptown. This shift—along with many other slight re-configurations—is a result of Smoke, that mysterious and highly infectious substance that rises out of human bodies whenever their passions are enflamed. The year is 1909. A theatrical company that works with Smoke—that uses manifest emotion which can be communicated from body to body, like a fever, as part of its performance—has just finished a show. Eleanor, the troupe’s newest “talent”, and Etta May, who controls the spectating crowd by curbing its most unruly desires, are having a conversation. Eleanor has a secret: she is the niece and ward of the most powerful man in Britain, which has been engulfed in Civil War these past ten years. On page 69, she is disturbed: things happen during the performance, spectators come up to touch her, kiss her garments, bow. She approaches Etta May to talk it out.
[...]For the longest time they simply sit. Etta May does not push for con­versation, is patient, placid, waiting for rain; Eleanor awkward, precise, stockpiling words. At last Eleanor breaks the silence and describes it: the odd conviction that she has been accumulating followers at the end of each play; the shy obeisance paid to her by men and women twice her age.

Etta May absorbs it matter-of-factly; shifts her big rump in her chair.

“They come to you to be blessed, do they? Well, why not? Sometimes I feel like getting a blessing from you myself!” She pauses to retrieve a cigarette from her sleeve, lights it, then speaks through a wreath of smoke. “You take their pain away, girl, their anger. It curls out of them, all their nastiness, right into you and there it stays. What comes back out is lighter, kinder. The parts of themselves they like.”

“You’re a Soother, Em. Isn’t that what you do?”

Etta May snorts at the suggestion. “I am merely slow to rouse. Sluggish Smoke— it calms things down, dampens them. And the Shapers are differ­ent, too. They are actors, see; they step into an emotion and broadcast it, making sure it dominates. But you don’t act. It’s quite the opposite. I have never met anyone quite so still.”

When Eleanor does not respond, the big woman leans closer and touches Eleanor’s shoulder as though testing her solidity.

“Balthazar says your uncle kept you in some kind of machine. It pun­ished you when you smoked.”

“It didn’t. It taught me to punish myself.”

“And now he’s looking for you. What does he want?”

“Cruikshank said that I hurt his pride. That I was his vision for the future but I ran away instead.”

“And what do you say?”[...]
At the heart of all stories are characters, talking to one another. It’s the great lesson of the theatre: that talk is the real action. Nobody much remembers the sword-fight in Hamlet—it’s two men waving sticks; but the good Prince telling his poor mother that she is a whore (“Nay, but to live/In the rank sweat of an enseamèd bed/Stewed in corruption”)—now that is memorable. And this is what we find on Soot’s page 69: a bit of scene-setting followed by a conversation: two women who have but recently met, probing each other; each line imbued with its own emotional inflection.

Then is page 69 a good place to get a sense of Soot? Yes and no. There is a reason, after all, why we start books at the beginning: narrative builds; moods, plot hooks, characterisation are all carefully orchestrated to produce specific effects. Storytelling is a sequential art (like life itself). So to jump in, willy-nilly, at some random page will always hurt the author just a little. That being said, the page does provide a sense of the rhythms of the narrative (there will be many conversations, many confrontations; information will be bartered for; friendships will be founded and broken), as well as of the rhythms of its language (for a novel is like a score: it has its range of tempos and is just as much composed for rhythm as is poetry).
Visit Dan Vyleta's website.

--Marshal Zeringue