Sunday, June 7, 2020

"The Brightest Place in the World"

David Philip Mullins is the author of The Brightest Place in the World, a novel, and Greetings from Below, a story collection that won both the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and the International Walter Scott Prize for Short Stories.

He applied the Page 69 Test to The Brightest Place in the World and reported the following:
From page 69:
He still hasn’t returned to work, so he has the time and energy for this. Now that the pickup has been restored to working order—now that he’s finished dealing with the claims adjuster and the body shop—a range of open hours lies before him each day. He’s stopped reading Bud Stone’s emails. Oh the joy and release of hitting “delete” when they appear in his inbox! Simon has stopped opening company correspondence altogether. What he knows about the condition of WEPCO he’s gotten from the news. Lawsuits have been filed, dozens of them. Three more bodies have been found at the site; Andrew Huntley’s is still missing. Not much else has been reported. The investigation into the cause of the explosions continues. Simon can’t get himself to care. He hasn’t quit, not officially. He’s merely gone silent—off-grid. (Can he call it that?) He and Rebecca have enough socked away for when he’s inevitably let go. For now, Simon still receives his bimonthly paycheck. Maybe when it ceases to arrive he’ll look for a new, low-tension job, a job of another sort entirely. Driving a school bus. Shelving books at a library. Some line of work that provides just enough income, if they’re frugal, to offset the dwindling of their savings. Work that carries little risk, little danger of something blowing up.

Juliet travels farther into the city, ending up on Las Vegas Boulevard, passing the Monte Carlo, Bellagio, Bally’s, the Flamingo and Caesars Palace and Harrah’s. He stays several car-lengths behind, the Strip glowing like a Lite-Brite. It always reminds him of that old toy from the sixties, the casinos and their multistory signs showering a hazy incandescence onto everything below, calling out to the endless passersby, Look at me! Look at me! Through his open window, the ruckus of automobiles—revving engines, honking horns, the low-frequency output of high-priced sound systems. He changes lanes whenever Juliet does. As far back as he is, he feels connected to her by some invisible string stretched tight, as though the Jeep and his pickup are opposite ends of a tin-can telephone, as though he might say something, sending his eager vibrations her way, and Juliet will hear him and respond.
Page 69 of The Brightest Place in the World does a fairly good job of conveying the overarching conflict of the novel—namely, the various changes (emotional, psychological, physical) the four principal characters undergo as a result of the chemical-pant explosion that opens the narrative. At the same time, page 69 only focuses on one of those four characters: Simon.

The way page 69 focuses on Simon (the exposition, the dramatic action) reveals, I think, some of the major concerns (themes?) of the novel: apathy and/or transfiguration in the wake of disaster; obsession; grief; infidelity; deceit; the desire to connect with another human being, in ways that might be contrary to one’s own welfare. Page 69 illuminates, too, the situation at the core of the narrative: Andrew Huntley’s death, and his missing body. Which is in fact an anti-situation, in that Huntley is never seen in the novel’s front-story (only a couple of times, briefly, in flashback), and yet the four narrative strands of The Brightest Place in the World connect directly to him. This was intentional, early in the writing process. I wanted to see if I could pull that off—structuring an entire novel based on a character the reader never really sees or knows. Whether or not I did pull it off is up to the reader, of course.

--Marshal Zeringue