‘Open the book to page ninety-nine and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.’ So said Ford Madox Ford. Whether that applies to any of his own books I don’t know (my
shelves seem to be a Ford-free zone — anyone?). But at least one blog applies the test to various tomes, so I thought I’d scan some of my
past reading and see whether the rule holds true.
Page 99 of Nick Hornby’s About A Boy is a
conversation between the two main characters (adult Will and schoolboy Marcus), which features a brilliant example of Hornby getting you straight inside Marcus’s head:
‘Do people give you a hard time?’
Marcus looked at him. How did he know that? Things must be worse than he thought, if people knew that even before he had said anything.
Meanwhile in The Smoking Diaries Simon Gray
muses about Weldon Kees, ‘a bitter poet, almost, now and then, but never quite celebrated — my own story exactly’, a passage which sums up what I felt about the book as a whole:
Gray’s self-obsession could have been endearing if he hadn’t overdone it by an annoying twenty per cent.
Michael Palin’s Diaries 1969-79 continues the
trend of ‘the whole’ being ‘revealed’ — one entry is about intra-BBC angst about some ‘naughty material’ in Python episodes, the other a research visit to
the Harrods chocolate factory where ‘a matronly cockney lady’ applies markings to the top of the chocolates with a finger that’s recently been up her nose. Page 99 of Ben
Mezrich’s superb Bringing Down the
House typifies the ‘reads like a novel’ way in which he recounts six maths students taking Las Vegas casinos for millions: ‘He jammed his hand into his pocket, pulled out
ten thousand dollars in cash, and plopped it down on the felt.’ In a book that really is fiction, The Lake of Darkness, we see Ruth Rendell’s power
of description: ‘She undressed rather slowly and concentratedly, like a young child.’
Of course it could be that I’m back-projecting my memories of these books, ‘seeing’ the whole in an extract only because I know what the whole is. But I don’t think so. Page
99 of a novel I loved, Joseph Connolly’s Stuff,
doesn’t have a single memorable line on it, while in Ian MacDonald’s seismically-overrated Revolution in the Head (sorry, all those
Beatles fans who loved it — I’m one of you normally, but not this time) there are actually a couple of mildly interesting facts and none of the pretentious
socio-politico-cultural-zeitgeist up-his-own-arsery with which MacDonald plasters just about every other page in the book.
How do your favourite books (and your least-favourite ones, for that matter) respond to the Page 99 Test? I learned about it, incidentally, from Silvia Crompton, an editor at Random House. She uses
the test herself ‘when I’m not sure whether or not to buy a book. For reading, that is – not publishing.’ (Reassuring that such high standards are still upheld.)
Finally, a Page 99 quiz for you. The following are extracts from that page in three well-known British novels – which three?
1) To Elizabeth it appeared, that had her family made an agreement to expose themselves as much as they could during the evening, it would have been impossible for them to
play their parts with more spirit, or finer success. (1813)
2) She paused. ‘So will you please take good care of us?’
‘I’ll do my best,’ said ****. ‘The first thing is for us both to get some sleep. Let’s have a drink and some chicken sandwiches and then we’ll get the porter
to put our beds down. You mustn’t be embarrassed,’ he added, seeing her eyes recoil. ‘We’re in this together. We have to spend twenty-four hours in a double bedroom
together, and it’s no good being squeamish.’ (1958)
3) And Grandmother has pictures in her head, too, but her pictures are all confused, like someone has muddled the film up and she can’t tell what happened in what
order, so she thinks that dead people are still alive and she doesn’t know whether something happened in real life or whether it happened on television. (2003)
The answers will be revealed on Monday.
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