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.

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

  1. I began reading this story and soon realized that I had read either it, or one quite like it, elsewhere, some time ago. Same situations, same genetics conference, etc. Hmmm. Am I imagining this?

  2. Karen, I know I’m way late on this. But what are your thought on the excess back story? This piece was 80% back story. Supposedly a huge no-no. But yet, it’s what I remember most.

    I’m slowly starting to realize there are no rules in writing short stories.

    And also, as you read short stories, have you noticed that writers are including more and more back story into their short stories?


    • Hi Dwayne, nice to see you.

      I’m afraid the general trend of how much backstory is included is probably not something I’d notice. I’d only notice for individual stories, really, and then only if it bothered me. And where’s the boundary between backstory, and a story bracketed by an opening and closing scene – as in Tim Horvath’s terrific “The Understory” from his collection, Understories (which you might enjoy, I thought it was terrific) – when the closing scene finishes out the backstory?

      As far as I can tell, the “rules” of writing short stories are: write good stories. If they’re good, you can get away with anything. If they’re not, try again. That comes down to the question of, What is Good? Who knows – it seems to be what any writer or reader (or editor) says it is.

      Maybe some day I’ll have a better answer. Until then, I just read, and talk about what works for me and what doesn’t. 😉

      • Thanks Karen. I hear where you’re coming from. And thanks for that rich response. I can say, without a doubt, I don’t care what rules Andrea Barrett may have broken, or how much back story she had in “The Particles,” what I know is that I was transported.

        Interestingly, while I didn’t exactly “enjoy” the story, and even that’s irrelevant to a point, I was transported, I had an experience. This is the biggest breakthrough I’ve had in my reading of contemporary short stories.

        Just read Deborah Eisenberg’s short story “Your Duck is My Duck.” I didn’t particularly “LIKE” that story either, but I was invested in the fate of the protagonist and I understood the moral conflict the protagonist was tackling. And several days later, the story is still with me.

        So good to speak with you. (Will be tackling Munro this weekend, wish me luck.)


      • Somewhere I just saw someone say, “Reading maturity is being able to appreciate a story without liking it.” I’m not there yet, but it’s happened a few times.

        I had to be taught to appreciate Munro, for example – Charles May’s blog was very helpful.

      • I’ve got his book I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies slated in for this summer instead of the PEN collection (if I can ever stop signing up for more MOOCs than I can handle…). See, there’s an example – I frequently disagree with his overall evaluations, but I highly value his analysis.

  3. You kept calling Sam’s mentor “Alex.” It was Axel. It doesn’t really change the fitness of your analysis, but I wonder how you did this. Not only do you have quotes with the right name in them, but if you really read to the end of this interminable snore-fest like I did, you’d have read the damn name 18,237 times.

    Strange. I’ve been lurking on this site for a while, and you and I usually seem to have similar taste. I hated this story. As an unpublished but trying writer, I always struggle to find journals to submit to that accept up to a 5,000 word story, and this story gets away with a lot of what I thought was unjustified excess.

    • Hi Jake – How I mixed up the name is easy to explain: I’m an idiot. I plead wanton outbursts of metathesis. But I’m glad it allowed you a clever segue to your complaint about the story.

      My tastes are capricious: sometimes it’s form, sometimes content, sometimes the phase of the moon (though I’ve never actually plotted it). I tend to like stories that involve science, particularly the kind of blend of science and emotion that Barrett pulled out in this and “The Ether of Space.” And sometimes, what I enjoyed last week, I don’t care for today, and vice versa.

      I gave up being a “trying writer” a long time ago, so good on you for sticking with it. And good luck!

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