Monday, June 22, 2020

"The Lightness"

Emily Temple holds a BA from Middlebury College and an MFA in fiction from the University of Virginia, where she was a Henry Hoyns fellow and the recipient of a Henfield Prize.

Temple applied the Page 69 Test to The Lightness, her first novel, and reported the following:
From page 69:
Nothing, of course, for Shakespeare = nothing, as in nothing, also as in noting, as in gossip, and noting as in overhearing, and noting as in overhearing gossip, and no thing, as in what a woman has between her legs. My mother believed in all of these nothings. Nothing was sacred. Noting was sacred. No thing was sacred.

Well, opposites attract. We are told this. Paula Abdul has seared this into our brains. My parents were attracted, that much is clear. But they were repelled too, and just as forcefully. I don’t know what that means. Magnetization was not the only force at work, I suppose.

After breakfast the next morning, we found Serena waiting for us on one of the Center’s whitewashed boulders, immersed in her copy of the Dhammapada, a verse collection of the Buddha’s essential teachings, a picnic basket on the ground beneath her feet. It was the first truly hot day since we’d arrived, and everything was oversaturated and filmy. I could already feel the sweat beading on my lower back, dampening my t-shirt. Even Janet looked a little deflated, but Serena radiated perfect nonchalance, stretching one leg and then the other as she read. Now I see what a firm grip she had, how rigidly she composed every scene, the life of tableaux vivants she built up around herself. Now I imagine the way she must have propped herself up just so, waiting for us. But that day, she seemed to have sprung from the ground, as much a part of the landscape as the rock beneath her thighs, as unconcerned and constant as the punishing heat itself.
Well, what do you know—it works. I wouldn’t say you get the full picture, of course (how could you), but many of the novel’s driving elements do indeed appear on page 69—especially if we cheat a little and include the paragraphs that end and begin on the page. (Though, even if we don’t, fragmentation is no small part of the book—it’s filled with short asides, digressions, loops and breaks in logic—so maybe we should just consider this another functional layer in the game.)

So: on page 69, we have our narrator, Olivia, 1) playing with and obsessing over language, 2) turning over her parents’ relationship in the context of received pop cultural and scientific knowledge, and 3) situating herself painfully and clearly as the outsider at the meditation center to which she has run away, carefully observing the perfectly composed, ever-alluring Serena and her friends—amongst whom Olivia is accepted, if not exactly needed.

Ultimately, this is a book about language, about desire, and about belief, all of which poke their noses out here. But I think the thing readers will understand most intensely if they open to this page is the atmosphere of the novel: the hothouse, the isolation, the sweat and want and obsession of it. Whether they want to spend their time inside such madness will be up to them.
Visit Emily Temple's website.

--Marshal Zeringue