The belly, yeah, thickening up, the love-handles running flabby, the stretch-marks like trenches from some abandoned war. But what did they expect, she was fifty-fucking-one, had twins for Chrissakes …I’ve always liked the Pixies’ style, that quiet-LOUD-quiet dynamic they had, and THE BIG O is organised along those lines: fast-slooooow-fast-fast. Page 99 (the start and finish of which is given above) comes in the middle of one of the slow chapters, in which the ostensibly refined Madge contemplates her recently pierced navel while smoking a joint in a parking lot.
The kick for Madge wasn’t so much the mellow buzz, the chilling out. No, what Madge enjoyed best was that she, Margaret Dolan, mother of twins, was smoking grass, weed, pot, call it whatever. All the movies she’d ever seen, the hippies rolling up in a haze of smoke, Madge’d wondered, okay, it looks fun but how’s it feel?
The chapter concludes with Madge, soon to be divorced, deciding she’s ready for some life-changing action. What Madge can’t know, but the reader already does, is that her life is about to change irrevocably – Madge’s ex-husband, Frank, has arranged for her to be kidnapped, and intends absconding with the ransom his insurance company will pay out.
The majority of THE BIG O is pacy and dialogue-driven, so page 99 isn’t very representative of the whole. On the other hand, Madge is emblematic of most of the characters, all of whom are trying to break out of their lives of quiet desperation without realising that they’re caught up in a broader narrative that will, despite their best efforts, thwart their ambitions and deflect them away from their hoped-for destination.
This in turn feeds into the novel’s overarching theme, that of life as black farce which requires constant adaptation and reinvention, especially in the most daunting of circumstances. I suppose it’s because I generally tend to feel that the inability of people, myself included, to accept or even recognise their limitations is in equal measures funny, moving and inspiring.
In that sense, page 99 is probably as pure a synthesis of what I was hoping to achieve as any other page in THE BIG O. If I’d known I’d be taking this test, though, I’d have included a few explosions.