Disclaimer: 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....
Set up page 69 for us.
One of the novel’s many tensions is between the narrator, Richard Garner, and his family, and that’s on full display on page 69. It’s 1891, and Garner, a Washington, DC, teacher and self-taught primatologist, is determined to go to Africa to observe chimpanzees in the wild. His plan is to build a cage in the rainforest and live inside it for several months as he studies the apes. In particular, he wants to study their “speech” after capturing it with a phonograph. He thinks this will have major implications for the theory of evolution. On page 69, Garner’s admiring an illustration of himself in an article on his planned research trip. In the illustration, he’s in his cage, which is surrounded by gorillas and elephants. His wife, Maggie, isn’t fond of his plan and would prefer he study apes in zoos, but Garner simply won’t hear it.
What Man in a Cage is about
Man in a Cage is based on a true story. Garner’s mostly been forgotten, but he was well known in his lifetime for his primate research. A lot of people didn’t take him seriously, though. There’s a little of him in Hugh Lofting’s Dr. Dolittle and H. A. Rey’s Man in the Yellow Hat from the Curious George books. Man in a Cage treats him with a lot more seriousness. Colonization, racism, and environmental stewardship are some of the themes that coalesce in the story of Garner’s first trip to Africa.
Do you think this page gives our readers an accurate sense of what the novel is about? Does it align itself with the novel’s theme?
Yes, I think it passes the test. And there’s another theme—one that transcends the novel’s particular time and place—that comes out on page 69: ambition. Once Garner decides to study primate language, he can’t be talked out of it. His ambition is so strong that it often overpowers his reason. There are plenty of characters who stand in Garner’s way—other scientists, missionaries, big-game hunters—but Garner’s stubbornness might be his worst enemy.
Man in a Cage
“You don’t really intend to go through with this, do you? Please tell me it’s all just talk.”
“It’s not just talk, Dear. I fully intend to go through with this.”
The illustrator, besides portraying me recording the capuchins in Central Park, had ventured to draw me sitting inside a cage of steel bars pointing a phonograph toward a gorilla twice my size, while another approached from the rear of the cage. In the distance, an elephant raised its trunk, thrusting his tusks like great spears.
“Go anywhere you like to look at monkeys in zoos, take as long as you need—but Africa? You’d be away for such a long time—and it sounds terribly dangerous.”
“Where I plan to go is a French colony. A place to holiday, for heaven’s sake. I’ll take you there sometime.”
“A holiday in the jungle?”
“As for when I’m in the jungle, I’ll be protected by the cage I’m going to build.”
“But you’ll have to get there and build it first. You could get yourself killed. I’m tempted to pray that your friends at the Smithsonian will keep their purse strings tight. I’m sorry—but that’s just how I feel.”
“I am afraid it’s too late for that.”
Patrick Nevins is an associate professor of English and the author of Man in a Cage, which was published in August by Malarkey Books. His short fiction appears in Crab Creek Review and other journals. He can be found online at www.patricknevins.com.