Friday, October 19, 2007

Maud Casey's "Genealogy"

Maud Casey lives in Washington, D.C. and teaches in the MFA program at the University of Maryland. She is the author of two novels, The Shape of Things to Come and Genealogy, and a short story collection, Drastic. Her stories have appeared in Beloit Fiction Journal, Confrontation, The Gettysburg Review, The Georgia Review, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Sonora Review, and The Threepenny Review.

She applied the "Page 99 Test" to Genealogy and reported the following, beginning with the text from the page:
called him, and later he would hear the hint of relief, as if she was glad it wasn’t true that Marguerite’s first word was her brother’s name and not mama or papa. But Marguerite had spoken, Ryan knew it. She spoke his name. Soon after, she said “bzz” for fly and “caw, caw” for bird in front of their parents. But she only said “Ry” in front of him so no one ever believed him, and when Marguerite learned to say “mama” and “papa” before she ever said “Ry” in front of Sam and Bernard, Ryan learned for the first time to be content for a thing in and of itself and not in the sharing of it.

Then one day Marguerite stopped talking altogether. “She’ll talk again soon,” Sam reassured him when Ryan told her, alarmed. “You have to be patient.” Her parental tone, one she seemed to slip over her voice like a costume, made Ryan so angry he went into his room and punched a small dent in the wall. Bernard came down and tried to read him that young boy who wanted to learn what fear was bullshit, but only succeeded in making Ryan hide his head farther under the pillows. “Well,” Bernard said, laughing so that Ryan burrowed deeper under the pillows, “there’s a fellow who will give his father some trouble.”

Ryan watches as Hyuen connects the tubes to the incisions in the dead man’s neck and the gallons of embalming fluid begin to find their way into his artery. The language Hyuen is teaching Ryan is somehow comforting, even “ripping the corpse.” But Ryan’s favorite so far is the honey running through Alexander the Great’s veins. He imagines honey in his own veins, slow and thick and sweet.

“You don’t look so good,” Hyuen says, his voice cutting through the honey.

“Hangover,” Ryan says, and it’s mostly true.

Ryan dreads getting home later and shooing the fruit flies from his face, holding his nose to keep the dead-meat smell at bay. The pumpkin has nearly rotted through; the gray concrete laid almost bare.

When he calls for his messages from the pay phone in the hall, there are two hang-ups on his machine, and when the third message

I once read an essay by Alice Munro in which she claimed she could start reading a story from any page. Stories are not like roads, she said. They are like houses, built around the whispery, unnameable essence at its core (I think she called it the “soul” of the story; Flannery O’Connor would call it the “mystery”). So what room have I
wandered into on page 99? This is a terrifying test — what if it sucks? You hope you’ll pick it up and there will be a lovely room, beautifully appointed, and maybe a hallway filled with lots of beautiful light that will lead the reader to the next room and make sense of the room that came before. Yikes. That’s a lot of pressure. My first reaction, upon reading this page, was relief that it was not gibberish. My next was a sense of unfamiliarity — this isn’t a page I’ve ever read from at a reading. At first it seemed inconsequential, but as it turns out, it’s a page where a lot of the ships passing in the night collide, or at least pass each other on their way to eventually colliding. The title of the novel, Genealogy, refers to this falling-apart Hennart family and its hopeless genes, but it also refers to the very particular language they speak as a family, and gestures (I hope) to the inherited language of all families — jokes, gestures, stories, verbal tics.

There are a lot of references to language here. It actually makes the book seem coherent! The first word(s) of Marguerite, the mentally ill daughter who has run away from home — her brother’s name was her first word, but then her mother, so jealous of her daughter’s adoration of her brother, couldn’t bear to believe it. There’s a reference to the scary fairy tale — “The Story of the Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was” — that the father, Bernard, also on the lam when the book begins, tells his son. There’s the language of the morgue, of embalming, a new language for Ryan, the son who has also fled the family (the only person who hasn’t left the state when the book opens is Samantha, the mother, and she drops dead in the first chapter).

So that’s the room we’ve entered on p. 99: a portrait of this talk-y family via Ryan’s memory as he listens to his new friend, Hyuen, describe the factoid about Alexander the Great being embalmed with honey. And there is, in fact, a hallway into another room, too, though it’s a little dim and menacing, not filled with luminous light: the hang-ups on Ryan’s answering machine will turn out to be Thompson, the carpenter with whom the mother has been having an affair, calling to inform him his mother has died. Thompson arrived on the scene to redo the bathroom in accordance with the dictates of a 19th c. article by Dr. Edward Strecker, “The Continuous Bath In Mental Disease,” because Samantha — before Marguerite took off — was trying to heal her through baths, having eschewed pharmaceuticals. And that, in a convoluted nutshell, is page 99.

Learn more about Genealogy and its author at Maud Casey's website.

--Marshal Zeringue