Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Pg. 69: "Tolstoy Lied"

You spy a novel with a title that proclaims your all-time favorite writer lied. What do you do?

That's the question which confronted me when I noticed Rachel Kadish's Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story. So of course I got in touch with the author and asked her to apply the "page 69 test" to her novel.

It turns out, as you may have guessed, that she's not only a huge Tolstoy fan--it's mainly the first line of Anna Karenina about which her narrator has doubts--but an enthusiast of Moby-Dick, my favorite nineteenth-century American novel.

Here's what Rachel said about page 69:
Tracy Farber, the narrator of Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story, believes that Tolstoy’s most widely quoted maxim (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”) is actually a cop-out. Why, she wonders, do we fall for this notion that only unhappiness is interesting…that if you’re not tragic you’ve become boring, undifferentiated, a sort of emotional sell-out? Why, she wonders, is it so hard for us to acknowledge that happiness can be riveting, deeply challenging, anything but dull?

Tolstoy Lied: a Love Story is a novel about a woman who tries to live both a passionate and an honest life. It’s a novel of ideas, but in a sense it’s a novel of ideas on helium. I had a lot of fun writing this book. There were some serious and controversial things I wanted to say about love, marriage, academia. But I wanted to enjoy doing so – I’ve always loved that quote ascribed to Emma Goldman: If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution. It was essential to me to laugh while writing Tracy’s story.

Page 69 is part of a scene in which Tracy’s passion for the intellectual life emerges. Her academic life—its richness, its texture, its daily battles, is a fundamental element of the book. I did a great deal of research in writing Tracy’s academic passions and those of her colleagues. Page 69 is part of the introduction to this world. (And while I made up the Tower of Babel cartoon, the conference flyer advertising “pellucid” skies is actually something I saw in a university English Department.)

What page 69 doesn’t touch is the book’s lighter moments, moments when Tracy’s vision of love and marriage ventures into the surreal…moments of sheer slapstick.

Tracy believes that happiness isn’t the absence of trouble, but rather the ability to live well alongside trouble. The book serves up plenty of trouble, but also its opposite. Page 69 communicates that this is a novel of ideas. For the helium, see the rest of the book.
Many thanks to Rachel for the insights into her novel.

Click here to read an excerpt from Tolstoy Lied.

Some praise for Tolstoy Lied from other writers:
"Utterly absorbing....This is a novel bursting with the immediacy of experience and the profundity of reflection." --Rebecca Goldstein

"Tolstoy Lied is a brilliant novel, one of the wisest books I've read about love." --Carol Gilligan

"Tolstoy Lied is a love story with heft, weight, and dazzle. Rachel Kadish has written an infectiously enjoyable novel." --Tova Mirvis
The reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "Kadish has penned a light-footed, wholly unromanticized contemporary love story that cuts to the very core of what a love story should be: not about how we find happiness, but about what it means to do so."

For more Tolstoy Lied reviews, click here.

Click here to read a Q & A with the author about the novel.

Rachel's debut novel, From a Sealed Room, earned praise from an impressive group of writers; a sample--
"A gifted writer, astonishingly adept at nuance, narration, and the politics of passion." --Toni Morrison

"Rachel Kadish has written a book that's wise beyond the years of most Americans. From the opening page, her novel brilliantly braids history, religion, family, and eros. I was moved by it, and very impressed. This is the debut of a remarkable young writer.” --Russell Banks
Click here for more reviews.

Click here to read Kadish's short story, "The Argument," in Zoetrope: All-Story.

Previous "page 69 tests":
Eric Rauchway, Blessed Among Nations
Tim Brookes, Guitar and other books
Ruth Padel, Tigers in Red Weather
William Haywood Henderson, Augusta Locke
Jed Horne, Breach of Faith
Robert Greer, The Fourth Perspective
David Plotz, The Genius Factory
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue