Andrea Barrett has established her own little demesne in the world of fiction, one pervaded by science and metaphors drawn from its concepts. Here, she has cultivated a multigenerational, intertwined strain of characters, shoots of which have popped up from story to story since "The Voyage of the Narwhal."
Evolutionary biology has been an informing presence behind these narratives, and it is again in Archangel, Barrett's new collection of stories, all five of which concern the tribulations of toilers and aspirants in the field of science.
In the first, "The Investigators," we find a twelve-year-old Constantine Boyd in 1908, sent from Detroit to work for the summer on an uncle's farm in western New York State, where he develops a lasting interest in doctoring animals. Here he meets Henrietta Atkins, a high school teacher in her mid-fifties who, with his uncle, is conducting experiments with cave fish, the object of which is to determine how they lost their eyes in the course of their evolution. Excited by this research and the enthusiasm for scientific and technological investigation he finds in the community, Constantine would like to stay on, but that course is blocked. Indeed, stymied ambition and confounded development play a large part in these tales, reflecting (perhaps) the waste that is nature's own way of going about its business. We encounter Constantine again, eleven years later, in the last story, "Archangel" – where we also discover Eudora MacEachern from Barrett's last novel, "The Air We Breathe" – and find that his intention to become a vet has been thwarted by the Great War and the subsequent military campaign in Russia. We leave him up in the air – literally – but the student of Andrea Barrett's work will not be surprised to find him at large again.
Taken in order as they come to us in the book, the stories touch down hither and yon chronologically. And so, a couple of stories later, we find Henrietta thirty-five years earlier, in "The Island." She is now a young woman embarked on a summer's course in marine biology under the tutelage of a pseudonymous Louis Agassiz. Failing in health, the great natural historian is in his last year of life, still insisting, though now with an old man's poignant intransigence, that species are immutable, ideal emanations from God's mind, and that nature reflects divine design and purpose. Henrietta is handed a copy of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" by a fellow student; she reads it and is stunned, disenchanted, and eventually inspired. Darwin's vision of nature breaks on her as a form of epiphany as she sits in a rowboat surrounded by buckets of sea creatures, "lumps of protoplasm."
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.
"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.