Andrea Barrett: “The Particles” from Tin House #51, Spring 2012

Art by Julie Huang: UWOMJ Vol 78 No 3, Back Cover

Art by Julie Huang: UWOMJ Vol 78 No 3, Back Cover

In particular, a recent symposium that many in his audience had attended and that had examined this crucial question: could an injury to one generation cause an effect that was inherited by the next?

I was nervous at the beginning of this story. For one thing, it’s fairly long. For another, it begins aboard a lifeboat, and for several pages shows no sign of moving on.

I shouldn’t have feared. Andrea Barrett again – as she did in “The Ether of Space” from last Spring – beautifully demonstrates scientific principles through the emotional lives of her characters, all located properly in historical context.

The present of the story is shortly after the (historically accurate) German sinking of the British ship Athenia immediately following the invasion of Poland and the onset of World War II in September, 1939. We have Sam, 34-year-old scientist in the very new field of genetics; his college mentor Alex; and fellow mentee and seemingly favorite son Duncan. You know how there’s always that guy that’s always a step ahead of you, no matter what? Who’s always invited to lunch with the boss, and always finds ways to brag about it, yet seems determined to step on your neck to keep you from catching up? That’s Duncan.

From the books that Mr. Spacek loaned him, Sam finally gained the language to shape what he’d been feeling since he could remember: Who am I? Who do I resemble, and who not? What makes me me, what makes you you; where did we come from, who are we like? What do we inherit, and what not?

The passengers who survived the sinking (and the lifeboats – one was destroyed by a rescue ship’s propellers) are crowded on board the too-small City of Flint, which headed for Nova Scotia. They include the three principles, who have all attended (though not together) a genetics conference in Edinburgh. It didn’t go well for Sam, though we don’t know why until later in the story. And Sam just wants to talk to Alex, but he’s protected by Duncan and surrounded by other acolytes: “Why was it, he thought, that even here Duncan seemed able to keep him and Axel apart?”

If this sounds like sibling rivalry, yes, it is. And it just gets worse. While we follow Sam’s thwarted attempts to have a private conversation with his mentor, we pick up the backstory via a series of long flashbacks: how he met professor Alex and senior student Duncan when he arrived at college, the summer he spent in Woods Hole and the professional mistake he made then, his fledgling career interrupted by the Depression, his time in Russia, his current position, and the presentation he just gave in Edinburgh.

Every living individual had two parts, one patent, visible to our eyes – the me you see, the tree you touch; that was the somatoplasm – and the other latent, perceptible only by its effect on subsequent generations but continuing forever, part of the immortal stream that was the germplasm.

The prose is beautiful, and as before, lush and rich – maybe a little too lush and rich. I thought this style fit “The Ether of Space” but here it seems a bit overdone somehow. Maybe I just wanted to find out if Sam would ever get to talk to Alex, and what happened in Edinburgh (all of which comes along in due time). I’ve always questioned the whole push to “stay in scene, describe everything” and here, I think I could’ve used a little less. Not that it wasn’t great reading – the art student who was now travelling home alone, because his friend was in the lifeboat ground up by the rescue ship’s propeller, the little girl who sees Sam as a comforting figure, the crowding, all the Titanic-esque stuff (I suppose timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary while not directly referencing it) with nascent war on top of it. But I cared so much about Sam and Alex (and for the longest time I had no idea who Alex was, male or female, friend, spouse, child) that I just wanted to skip over the texture.

Maybe genes weren’t particles after all, weren’t arranged like beads on a string, but were more like spiderwebs, susceptible to the influence of events in the cytoplasm; maybe they weren’t quite as impregnable to outside influence as previously thought?

But of course, in the end texture is everything, and perhaps the reason I cared so much about the principles was the great job the supporting material did in making me care.

The final scene with Sam and Alex is truly great:

“I do the best I can,” Axel said. “You must have found yourself in similar situations with students. You know how sometimes you have to treat the one you actually feel least close to as the favorite, just so he won’t lose confidence entirely?”
“I do,” Sam said miserably. Not that he’d ever felt treated as a favorite, but he knew what Axel meant: he’d always acted more kindly toward Sam than he really felt, so that Sam wouldn’t be too crushed to go on.
“I’ve always had to do that with Duncan,” Axel said. His bandage, unpleasantly stained, had shifted farther back on his head. “I still do. I find, in certain situations. And here – what could I do? He wanted so badly to take care of me.”
“You gave him his start,” Sam said, not knowing what he meant.
“It’s a good thing I can count on you to understand,” Axel said. “You’re strong enough to go your own way. That’s part of what gets you into such trouble. And part of why your work is so interesting.”

Poor Sam, so clueless he doesn’t even realize who he is, not even now as Alex spells it out to him. And it’s because of the texture, because I know about his failed romances – including one girlfriend who ended up as Duncan’s wife (I told you it got worse) – and his fears that he is sterile and his kindness towards a little girl on the lifeboat and his memories of his father who died when he was four and the struggles he’s had professionally for bringing up scientific thoughts before they’re completely nailed down – more discussion points than solid research, which seems to be a major mistake – I’m left wondering, as Sam did, if it’s all about timing: “could an injury to one generation cause an effect that was inherited by the next?” And the answer: of course.

Andrea Barrett – “The Ether of Space” from Tin House #47 “The Mysterious” Spring 2011

Where you lived and what you knew determined what you expected to see. Once the moon was a smooth glowing orb, and then it had mountains and seas. Once Jupiter wandered alone, and then he had moons; once orbits were round and stars stayed still in space. In earlier books, she’d traced those changing perceptions. Now she was trying to write about the universe beyond the solar system. Who first thought those glowing specks were other suns, like ours? Or that some were island universes, far beyond the Milky Way?

She is Phoebe, a 41-year-old widowed mother with a young son, living with her parents, as writing books for the general readership about science does not pay enough for her to remain on her own, or to return to her original, pre-mom profession of Astronomer. It is just after World War I. Thanks to a solar eclipse that provided the means for experimentation, Einstein’s theory of gravitation is gaining ground, changing physics by eliminating the troublesome need for an ether. And an established scientist named Oliver Lodge defends the existing view of the ether as the substance that permeates space and, in fact, captures personalities after death – including that of his son, Raymond, who died in the war.

Phoebe becomes obsessed with the conflict between the two theories. She is outraged that a scientist of Lodge’s stature would talk mumbo-jumbo about an afterlife, rather than using mathematics and the scientific method to prove or disprove theories. But she can’t stop thinking about it: this ether that may contain her husband’s soul. “Lodge must be wrong, he has to be wrong. If he’s right, then Michael’s been within my reach this whole time and I could have been talking to him. I could be talking to him now.

Her son, who has been a bit distant of late, attends a lecture with her. He is enthralled, but they don’t discuss much of it. Later, she finds out he’s written a paper for English, which concludes:

I don’t understand the physics behind Einstein’s theory, and I don’t believe in the existence of a spirit world, but my introduction to Lodge’s work changed the way I think…. I don’t know whether my father exists in some ethereal form or only in my heart. What I do know is that the questions we ask about the world and the experiments we design to answer them are connected to our feelings.

It’s a beautifully written story, moving slowly and thoughtfully in a slightly lush but restrained voice that feels right for that time just before the Roaring Twenties, the time that created the Lost Generation. Sir Oliver Lodge, professor of physics and mathematics, was one of the creators of radio (it was a crowded field) and invented spark plugs among other things. And he was tethered to the dying ether by his son.