Monday, March 26, 2007

Dara Horn's "The World to Come"

Dara Horn's first novel, In the Image, published when she was 25, received a 2003 National Jewish Book Award, the 2002 Edward Lewis Wallant Award, and the 2003 Reform Judaism Fiction Prize.

Her second novel, the highly-acclaimed The World to Come, received the 2006 National Jewish Book Award for Fiction, was selected as an Editor's Choice in the New York Times Book Review and as one of the Best Books of 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle, and has been translated into nine languages.

Horn applied the "Page 99 Test" to The World to Come and reported the following:
A reader opening The World to Come to page 99 would be dropped into a conversation between Benjamin Ziskind — a 30-year-old game-show writer who has managed to steal a million-dollar Chagall painting from a museum during a singles' cocktail party — and Erica Frank, an employee at the museum who has been charged with interviewing everyone who attended the party in order to help track down the thief. On page 99, it's clear that she has no suspicion at all that she's talking to the thief, but it's also clear that she's falling for him.

It seems rather defensive to claim that Ford Madox Ford's "Page 99 test" is "unfair." Reading any single page of any novel would of course be "unfair." The World to Come begins as a contemporary art heist, but much of its plot is also historical, dealing with the life of Chagall, the lives and deaths of Yiddish writers in Chagall's circle, the devastating betrayals of the Cold War, and the story of how this painting came to belong to a particular family whose experiences reveal how much our lives are shaped by those who came before us, whether we want them to be or not. There are portions of this novel that take place in 1920s Russia, in 1960s Vietnam, and, at the end, in a supernatural world populated by souls who have not yet been born. None of this, of course, happens to appear on page 99.

Anyone who merely wants a taste of an author's writing style can use this test quite fairly. My style tends to be very direct, focusing on character and plot rather than on language for language's sake, and this page reflects that. I have great admiration for Ford's The Good Soldier and for other novelists in that tradition, like Iris Murdoch, for whom style is a servant of character and plot rather than the opposite — a pattern which has become less trendy in an era of experimental fiction, but which, for me, matters more as both a writer and a reader. To the extent that a reader opening to page 99 wants to know whether he or she will like the style in which a book is written, I think no writer can ever claim this test to be unfair.

But I don't believe that most readers are truly interested in the style in which a book is written. While it's nice to read something written in a style that you appreciate, the style test is more of a way of rejecting a book you won't be able to stand than a way of choosing a book you will enjoy. I think most readers who open to a random page of a book are actually more interested in what the book is "about" — not its plot (which is usually summarized far more efficiently in the jacket copy), but the particular understanding of the world that will animate the story one is about to read.

If this is what readers are looking for, then I think the "Page 1 test" (or however the first page of text is numbered) would be more useful than Page 99. Page 1, after all, is the page that's consciously written with the knowledge that it may be used specifically for this test by potential readers, and it usually is. I usually write Page 1 last, after having finished the entire book — or at least reconfigure the original Page 1 to suit what the novel has become. One can't capture everything on Page 1 either, of course, but it's the one place where the writer has an opportunity to try. The World to Come starts on Page 1 like this, with three sentences:

"There used to be many families like the Ziskinds, families where each person always knew that his life was more than his alone. Families like that still exist, but because there are so few of them, they have become insular, isolated, their sentiment that the family is the center of the universe broadened to imply that nothing outside the family is worth anything. If you are from one of these families, you believe this, and you always will."

In the next paragraph, the reader meets the thief, and then the story begins.
Dara Horn received her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard University in 2006, studying Hebrew and Yiddish. In 2007 Dara Horn was chosen by Granta magazine as one of the Best Young American Novelists. She has taught courses in Jewish literature and Israeli history at Harvard and at Sarah Lawrence College, and has lectured at universities and cultural institutions throughout the United States and Canada.

Visit Dara Horn's website and read the first chapter of The World to Come.

--Marshal Zeringue