Andrea Barrett's new short story collection follows a multigenerational collection of characters, all hard at work in the field of science.
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The appeal of these stories lies in their material detail, in the flicker of metaphor, and in their incidental links, the way characters, or their scions or progenitors, appear in another frame. There is in that last aspect something that is both random and orderly, just as it is in nature and, at another level, in a human life. In life, however, we look for what is necessarily absent in evolutionary biology: That is meaning, or, put another way, a reason for living. In most fiction, that comes down to love, power, freedom, or peace, but for the main characters in these stories, what gives purpose to their lives is an urgent desire to discover the workings of nature. Their characters and personal relations are subsidiary to this and as their predicaments echo scientific concepts, their lives seem, for the most part, theoretical and posited, rather than lived.Skip to next paragraph
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"The Particles" is the book's most fully realized story; it brings individual predicament and character together with a welter of metaphors drawn from evolutionary theory – the problem of biological variation, adaptation, natural selection, and developmental timing. It begins in September 1939, with Sam Cornelius (son of Phoebe, the central figure in an earlier story, "The Ether of Space") adrift in a foundering lifeboat, a survivor of the British ship Athenia, the first vessel to be torpedoed by German U-boats. He is a geneticist in his mid-thirties returning to the U.S. from a conference in Edinburgh, where, for the second time in his life, he has aired a theory of genetic change obnoxious to prevailing conventions.
Years earlier, he had committed the solecism of arguing, on the basis of a series of experiments, that acquired traits can be inherited. As it happened, his findings were shown by a rival-turned-nemesis to be the result of inadequately controlled experimental conditions. Though Sam did acknowledge his error, he quickly discovered that, in practice, scientific discourse is not in fact a matter of freely exchanged views and hypotheses among disinterested people whose primary goal is unlocking nature's secrets. Instead, he finds a world as red in tooth and claw as the natural one, an arena of power relationships and ad hominem arguments in which jobs and funding take priority over free inquiry.
Sam's second foray into heterodoxy – heresy, really – which he has just set before his fellow geneticists at the Edinburgh conference, is far more sophisticated than the last, but it gives rise to the same scandalized opprobrium. This theory stresses timing as the key element in change, and, in fact, reflects his own life's trajectory as shown with immense subtlety by Barrett as she traces his story from boyhood to survivor. Here, at last, Barrett truly does break out of the theoretical, transforming several linked metaphors into a complex rendering of character and plot.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963.