Monday, September 25, 2006

Pg. 69: "Cast of Shadows"

Kevin Guilfoile's debut novel Cast of Shadows has snagged some very impressive praise.

"The chief ingredients of Kevin Guilfoile's creepy new thriller are the same ones Michael Crichton has used to fashion a hugely successful and lucrative career as a popular novelist...," wrote Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times. "What's striking about "Cast of Shadows" is that Mr. Guilfoile, in his first outing as a novelist, does all this with a lot more panache than Mr. Crichton has demonstrated in many years."

Writing in Salon, Laura Miller called the novel "a masterpiece of intelligent plotting, in which almost everything the characters do is perfectly reasonable...but all of it pushes them inevitably toward disaster.... In fact, only the reader ever learns the whole story and the terrible ironies it contains."

I asked the author to apply the "page 69 test" to his novel. Here's his reply:

I think page 69--or any page for that matter--should be representative of a novel. As a writer you shouldn't have to apologize for any page-length part of your manuscript. If you're not ready to stand behind it, then you should be ready to rewrite it. Unfortunately, being representative is not the same as being interesting. Taken out of context, some parts of your novel are going to fare better than others.

Cast of Shadows is a philosophical thriller about a fertility expert in Chicago who decides to clone his daughter's unknown assailant and then waits for him to grow up so he can see what the killer looked like. Dr. Davis Moore operates a clinic specializing in reproductive human cloning for couples who are worried about passing hereditary diseases and defects to their children. An unsuspecting couple arrives in his office at just the right (or wrong) time, and Moore decides to substitute DNA left at his daughter's crime scene for that of the anonymous donor. After Justin Finn is born Dr. Moore secretly follows the child's progress as he grows up.

On page 69, Justin's pediatrician has discovered that the boy's DNA doesn't match the donor's and Davis has to make her an accomplice if he wants to stop her from exposing him. I tried to keep the prose understated and in this chapter (and throughout the book) I hope the tension will be supplied by the reader, who can recognize the high stakes even when the characters sometimes cannot. Although page 69 includes an admiring physical description of a beautiful pediatrician (in novels what other kinds are there?), I don't know a bookstore browser with nothing invested in these characters (or their circumstances) would recognize the subtext here.

But as long as we're applying arbitrary tests, I pulled the UK paperback off the shelf (in Britain Cast of Shadows is called Wicker) and in that volume there are a couple grafs on page 69 that establish the novel's philosophical and emotional playing field rather concisely. The scene is Justin Finn's first birthday and Davis Moore has contrived an excuse to stop by the Finn home, which is preparing for a party.

Standing at the edge of the carpet, Davis studied the boy. He had watched him several times from his car, following Martha discreetly when she took Justin to Costco or the park. He looked like any other kid then, and like any other kid now, his red overalls stenciled with birthday pudding handprints. Justin lifted a giraffe to his forehead and made a curious grown-up face. When his mom laughed, he did it again.

Davis tried to imagine AK's killer at one year--a different house, a different mom, a different time, a different toy--making a face exactly like this. He thought about AK at this age, already having acquired the big green eyes and high cheekbones she would keep through adolescence. Her laugh on the old videos was a close relation to her teenage giggle, and her polite stubbornness was hardwired in the womb. Now he tried, but couldn't extrapolate a killer from those pudgy little hands and thin, blond hair.

Click here to read an excerpt from Cast of Shadows. Click here to listen to an audio excerpt.
Many thanks to Kevin for the input.
Click here for a Q & A with Kevin. The first question and answer:

Q: What was the genesis of this project? Did the complicated ethics involved in cloning strike you as good material for a thriller, or was the inclusion of cloning an afterthought? Did any newsmaking events inspire the premise?

A: A few years ago I saw one of the prosecutors in the OJ Simpson trial on television and I turned to my wife and said, “wouldn’t it be something if Christopher Darden had secretly cloned Nicole Simpson’s killer and fifteen years later he brought out this teenaged boy and said, ‘Does this little guy remind you of anyone?’” I started thinking about it as a concept for a novel and Cast of Shadows evolved from there.

In addition to the novel, Kevin has amassed a great deal of engaging writing, much of it blessedly available online. Click here to dive into his archives.
For more about Cast of Shadows and Kevin Guilfoile, click here and here.