Monday, August 31, 2015

Page 69: The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath

The Page 69 Test is not mine. It has been around since 2007, asking authors to compare page 69 against the meat of the actual story it is a part of. I loved the whole idea of it and so I'm stealing it specifically to showcase small press titles - novels, novellas, short story collections, the works! So until the founder of The Page 69 Test calls a cease and desist, let's do this thing....

In this installment of Page 69, 
we put Kimberly Knutsen's The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath to the test.

OK, Kimberly, set up page 69 for us.

Katie and Wilson are perpetual grad students, married with small children.  Wilson loves Katie, but he often feels as if he’s been jumped into a gang he had no intention of joining.  Katie loves Wilson—in brief, flickering moments—but she is also obsessed with her neighbor Steven. 

Prior to this scene, Katie has coaxed Wilson into the wilderness for a night walk in a nature preserve—it is the dead of winter in Michigan.  They argue while standing at a bog looking for swans (Katie’s idea).  Katie confesses she is lonely and wants to find “her tribe.”  Wilson scoffs.  They fight.  Wilson says, “I am your tribe, whether you like it or not,” and Katie runs off into the woods, leaving him to fend for himself. 

On page 69, the lovers have made it home safely and are lying in bed, Katie suffocating in Wilson’s angry silence.  She remembers a time she joined a “goddess” group for one night.  There was kissing.  A woman spoke reverently of her “pouch.”  Katie wasn’t buying it.

What is The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath about?

The novel is set in the frozen wasteland of Midwestern academia. Wilson A. Lavender, father of three, instructor of women’s studies and self-proclaimed genius, is beginning to think he knows nothing about women.  He spends much of his time in his office, not working on his dissertation, a creative piece titled The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath.  A sober alcoholic, he also spends much of his time not drinking—until he hooks up with his office mate, Alice Cherry, an undercover stripper who introduces him to “the buffer”—the solution to his woes.

Wilson’s wife, Katie, is an anxious hippie, a genuine earth mother, and a recent PhD with no plans other than to read People magazine, eat chocolate, and seduce her young neighbor, a community college student who’s built a bar in his garage.  Katie is intelligent, funny, and disturbed by a violent childhood.  Her husband’s “tortured genius” exhausts and amuses her.

The Lavender’s stagnant world is roiled when Katie’s pregnant sister, January, moves in.  January is obsessed with her lost love, 80s rocker Stevie Flame, and is on a quest to reconnect with her glittery, big-haired past.  A free spirit to the point of using other people’s toothbrushes without asking, she drives Wilson crazy.

Do you think this page gives our readers an accurate sense of what The Lost Journals of Sylvia Plath is about? Does it align itself with the book’s overall theme? 

It does.  Much like the poet Sylvia Plath (whose “lost journals” Wilson is re-creating), Katie’s psyche is fractured, due to trauma she experienced as a child.  She is unable to find connection with other adults, even though it’s the thing she wants most.  Also, she is obsessed with her body.  And Wilson is a moody motherfucker.  (Is that a theme?)  But beneath and around and above all the characters’ soul-sucking angst is life: horrible and breathtaking and glorious.


“Oh God please don’t let there be kissing,” Katie had prayed, her entire body stiffening.

“Pass it on!” the pouched goddess had crowed as Katie stood, panicked, in the sacred circle, in the cold basement of the YMCA, surrounded by thirteen intense, fragile, kissing strangers.

“No physical affection,” she’d wanted to cry out, but could only grimace tensely and forget how to breathe. The other women had no problem; they were laughing, having fun. A few were weeping, smiles shining through their tears.

Katie hated every second of it. She didn’t want to be touched by anyone but her kids, her dog, Steven, and maybe Wilson, if she was in the mood.

And she hadn’t bought the pouch business. She’d looked at the offending goddess, at her bravely exposed belly and starry deluded eyes, and thought to herself, Babies don’t do that, Twinkies do. She never went back.

She would start an exercise program first thing in the morning. Getting up at five a.m. and running daily would be perfect. She’d be fit and friendly, like a good dog, and everyone would love her. Steven would love her. He’d renounce Lucy, and they could have wild sex every afternoon in his fragrant, bubbling bedroom. But first she’d have to find a babysitter, which, as every mother knew, was next to impossible, so . . .

The trick to running was the getting up at dawn. She glanced at the clock. It was almost midnight. If she fell asleep instantly, she’d get five hours of sleep, about half of what she needed. It wouldn’t be pretty. She’d be thin, maybe, but she’d also be sleep-deprived and manic, a scary mom on the fast track to a nervous breakdown.

If she and Wilson could only get along, life would be so much easier. After the walk—after he’d washed Lovely, cleaned his ears, fluffed him with the hair dryer, brushed his few intact teeth, and threw his collar in the wash—Katie had begged his forgiveness. When he didn’t answer, she pointed out that all he’d had to do was follow. And Lovely was fine. He’d never been lost in the first place. He had excellent homing devices and had met up with her halfway to the car, having instinctively known, the way a child does, that the fighting had begun and the fun was over.

Thinking about it, she was now much more angry than contrite. Wilson still wasn’t sleeping. He lay beside her in a kind of furious limbo, and she had the urge to pinch him and ask him to sleep on the couch. How could she rest beside his toxic mood? It was debilitating. He knew you weren’t supposed to go to bed angry. It was rule number one, they’d learned, at the first of the few therapy sessions they'd attended before deciding that the


Kimberly Knutsen is professor of English at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she holds a PhD in English from Western Michigan University and an MA from New Mexico State University. Her short stories have appeared in Cimarron Review and Hawai῾i Review.

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