Monday, April 23, 2007

Ben Greenman's "A Circle Is a Balloon and Compass Both"

Ben Greenman is an editor at The New Yorker. His short fiction has appeared in the Paris Review, Zoetrope: All Story, McSweeney’s, Opium Magazine, the Mississippi Review, and elsewhere.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, A Circle Is a Balloon and Compass Both, and reported the following:
Well, my new book, A Circle Is a Balloon and Compass Both, is a book of stories, so opening to page 99 is like parachuting out of a plane and not knowing whether the locals are representative specimens of the national character or not. As a matter of fact, Page 99 is not very similar to the rest of the book. It's a section of a story called "How Little We Know About Cast Polymers, and About Life," which is about a man who assassinates another man in an airport during a time in history when America is preoccupied with the Terri Schiavo case. The story itself touches on the larger themes of the book — black humor, sex, sadness, imposture (the man is pretending to be a cast-polymer salesman) — but it's also a bit of an oddity, since it's one of the few pieces that's not a straightforward love story. Other stories deal with a man who is in love with a friend, a woman who is not in love with the man she is sleeping with, and a woman who can't admit her love for a man. This one is about a murder in an airport. There's love, but you have to get down on your knees to look for it.

Then there's the matter of Page 99 itself, which is a particularly talky moment in the story. The assassin is sitting at a gate at the airport, waiting for the man he will kill, and he's listening to two men nearby discuss Terri Schiavo (who is referred to as the Hospice Pathetic). It's basically just a transcript of a conversation I had with a conservative friend of mine who wasn't convinced that she was in a persistent vegetative state, or that she had made her wishes clear to her husband. "Well, you know," one man says, "even knowing about the bias ahead of time, I was quite disappointed with how they covered the case." He is referring to the liberal bias of the media. A back-and-forth follows. Again, this is a darker story than some of the others, and more yoked to the headlines. But we have friendship tested, the larger world keeping the contents of a relationship under pressure, an emotional (if not, in this case, romantic) thesis and antithesis, and the hope for a synthesis.
Visit Ben Greenman's website and hear him read "Black, Gray, Green, Red, Blue: A Letter From a Famous Painter on the Moon" from A Circle Is a Balloon and Compass Both.

--Marshal Zeringue