Monday, June 25, 2007

Katharine Weber's "Triangle"

Katharine Weber is the author of four novels: Objects in Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear, The Music Lesson, The Little Women, and Triangle. Her paternal grandmother finished buttonholes for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in 1909.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to Triangle and reported the following:
You asked:

Is Ford Madox Ford's statement "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you," accurate for your book?

Page 99 of my novel Triangle is a true fractal of the whole in striking ways, proving Ford Madox Ford's crackpot statement right, in this instance. The page is the middle of a transcribed interview from 1999, a prickly and combative conversation between Esther Gottesfeld, then age 104, the last living survivor of the Triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911, and Ruth Zion, a humorless Triangle fire scholar blinded by her own agenda. Ruth's presumptuous and flatfooted questions are only implied by the tone and content of Esther's answers.

Triangle is a novel that questions not only how we tell our stories, how we determine what history is, where we get our information, how information is preserved and how it is distorted, but also and especially how we listen to stories, how we also insist on hearing them in the ways that shape our knowledge and beliefs about history. This interview is one of a trio that have taken place in Esther's final years; the three-ness of these interview transcripts is one of many instances of threes and triangles throughout the novel. Repetition is also a crucial element, and here on this page Esther is forced by Ruth to go deeper into detail than is her preference when discussing her fiance Sam, who, along with her sister, died a hero's death in that sweatshop fire she survived on March 25th, 1911. She describes her experience of the fire in crucially varied ways in the course of the novel. Page 99 has an important iteration of some key elements of the story: it gives a sense of Esther's voice, and it offers tiny but illuminating details about Sam, how she and her sister met him on the job, how much he was paid, and how workers were intimidated at the Triangle. It's a rich and truly representative page of the novel.

Page 99 of Triangle:

clean man, always with a clean shirt, because he would go from one machine to the next machine, all the time, all through the day. He was a gentleman. That was how we met him, he was always fixing our machines, making adjustments when the belt would break or come loose, or something needed to be changed, or you broke a needle. My sister had a machine with a cockeyed wheel when we began and he had to keep fixing it so many times she told him he was making it cockeyed just so he could come over to her again.

[question] Yes, then he and I began to go for walks on our day off, that was how we became engaged. I don’t want to discuss this so much, it isn’t important to the story of the fire anyway.

[question] We had Sunday off because we were piece workers. Some of the week workers had to go on Sundays too. There was this sign in the elevator in the Triangle, it said YOU DON'T COME TO WORK SUNDAY, YOU DON’T COME TO WORK MONDAY. But we were above that, except sometimes Sam went in on Sundays, when they needed him, and he could make good money doing that. The elevator men, they made good money that way, doing extra days.

[question] I don’t remember how much they gave him.

[question] I am sure he told me about his money once we were engaged. We would be making plans for the future and telling each other everything like any engaged couple. We talked about the future and we made our plans. We were kids. But I don’t remember now so much. I am an old lady now.

[question] He had four hundred and twelve dollars in a cigar box under his bed, from his room, he had a room on Allen Street, they gave me that after the fire. The landlady saved it from anyone stealing and she gave me the cigar box. It was all he had, but some clothes.
Visit Katharine Weber's website and read an excerpt from Triangle.

--Marshal Zeringue