February 2005

Colleen Mondor

features

Unjustly Forgotten: Theater of the Stars by N.M. Kelby

In the monstrous stack of books I received for Christmas was a hardcover I requested months before, Theater of the Stars by N.M. Kelby. I can not remember where I read the blurb that attracted me to this book, but its subtitle, “a novel of physics and memory” was intriguing enough to make me want to take a longer look. I decided to give it a go over New Year’s and instead of spending several days happily, absently, occasionally reading I ended up staying up all night and reading it straight through. This has happened to me before, but not in a long long time. I was sufficiently impressed with the way Kelby mixed such disparate plot elements as WWII France, Morocco, Los Alamos, the Curie family, Enrico Fermi, M-Theory, astronomy and love to look her up on the internet and send along the sort of complimentary note that all good writers deserve. She responded with a thoughtful note of her own and a correspondence ensued where I asked many questions and she kindly gave deeply heartfelt answers. I was most curious about how a book of this nature is created, not from the nuts and bolts of writing habits but rather the creative leaps and jumps that carry it from one dramatic turn to the next.

Theater of the Stars was not an easy sort of book to write, in that it contains an enormous amount of historical information that had to remain true to the people and places it depicted. While the main characters are all fictional, they interact with real people and real events and thus Kelby required a massive amount of research to keep the book in line. In the author’s words, writing it sometimes “made my head hurt.” The payoff is all for the reader of course, because it is a seamless adventure into the world of darkest science while also remaining at its heart a simple and familiar story of lost hearts, and saddened souls. It is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read, yet somehow remains overlooked by the public. Understanding Kelby’s process makes Theater all that much more fascinating, and gives the story a richer depth than I thought even it could ever reach. Its precarious existence has prompted me to tell everyone I know about it, in the hopes that it can be fully appreciated before it is gone.

First and foremost, Theater is about Lucienne and her mother Helene. They suffer the most typical of mother/daughter relationships; a lifetime of misunderstandings and things unsaid has left them utterly unfamiliar with each other. Lucienne is the main narrator and struggles a great deal to understand and accept her complex and difficult mother. Helene’s story is primarily told in flashback, mostly to the period surrounding the Second World War and her burgeoning career as an atomic scientist in the lab of Frederic and Irene Joliot-Curie. As Lucienne searches in the modern day to find clues to her mother’s past, Helene’s parallel story reveals in bits and pieces just what happened to send her on the secretive and disturbing path that climaxes in the book’s first chapters. A major part of that path is the escape she made from Occupied France in the early stages of WWII and her association with the Nobel Prize winning Joliot-Curies. It is an interesting position to place a female character in and one of the first points I asked Nicole to expand upon.

“It was while researching In the Company of Angels, my first book,” she wrote, “that I came across the fact that Madame Curie, Irene [her daughter] and Frederic had figured prominently in the process of making the bomb… if the war hadn’t broken out exactly when it did France would have been the first super power and they’d be eating American fries...” Information on the Curies is largely public, but Kelby’s use of the more esoteric facts enriches the historical foundation she has built her novel on. For example, an encounter between Irene and Vincent, another critical fictional character, is predicated on a mutual affection for Rudyard Kipling. Their initial conversation is based entirely upon Irene’s acknowledged affection for popular fiction. While this is a relatively small instance of historical accuracy, it is the type of continuous attention to detail that does not derail the plot but still makes Theater rise above the standard historical novel.

The detail is particularly thick in the scenes at Los Alamos, where Helene travels to after her escape through North Africa. The geography is completely nailed down here, the buildings, the layout, and beyond that, the social structure that permeated the odd collaboration between military and civilian worlds. “There were regulations against sex for unmarried couples,” reads the text, “Women could be jailed. Men, fined. It seemed as if the District intended to re-create the boarding school life of Ashley Pond’s Ranch School. There were activities like cleaning contests -- ‘Men Versus Women; May the Best Housekeepers Win!'” And later she writes, “'Grandpa Joe’ was Enrico Fermi. In Los Alamos everybody had another name. A code name that changed at whim. Real names were forbidden. The word ‘physicist’ was never used.”
And these were the people we trusted to end the war; people organizing interior design competitions among scientists!

Nicole conducted most of her Los Alamos research the conventional way, through books. They included an oral history of women in the Manhattan Project, Their Day in the Sun by Caroline Herzenberg and Tuxedo Park by Jennet Conant. “I always intended to make Los Alamos loom large,” she states, “the idea that the bomb and people have the same basic nuclear structure, as Oppenheimer is quick to point out… well, how could I not be profoundly moved by that?” It is Oppenheimer’s earlier theory, about dying stars that create “dense spinning bodies that no light can escape from” that intrigues the fictional Helene the most. Her interest is made plain in the following passage:

“If the stars are made of atoms and we are made of atoms then it could be possible to trace a person’s atomic signature.”
Sal laughed. “So what you’re saying is that after I kick, you’ll be able to find me orbiting Pluto?”
“The key is to determine if each person has a unique atomic signature.”
“And if they do? The Universe is a pretty big place. You could look your entire life for someone and never find him.”
“But it would be worth the effort,” Helene said.

It is at that moment that the book’s true message becomes apparent. It is about a quest, about the search each character must make for truth, for peace, for love. This is a message that Nicole Kelby is all too familiar with, and also uniquely qualified to conduct. Helene’s escape from Paris was familiar ground for the author, whose family was from Dakar. “My mother escaped Paris during the invasion using the same route in the book,” she wrote. “Actually my mother was shot during the war, and never really spoke of it. So it was a secret. That’s why I think my first two books were about WWII... I was just trying to understand... I think that’s what writers do with their work… they try to make sense of the world as they see it.”

So while Lucienne and Helene are works of fiction, the mysteries that live between the mother and daughter are not unknown to the author. In fact the book is infused with parts of Nicole Kelby, questions she has perhaps about her own mother’s past, but more significantly, questions she has about the universe itself.

In trying to understand her world, to find the truth that she demands, Kelby has followed a personal course of study in those subjects that always interested her. She sought to understand physics, what she terms “a rather dreamy science” out of her desire to know that “mysterious language” and thus discovered the M-Theory, “the Mother of all Theory” which plays such an important part in Theater. To find answers she obtained grants and went to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Boston and also gained contacts with NASA. She “tracked down” science writer Marcia Bartusiak author of Through a Universe Darkly and someone who has asked her own questions about the composition of the universe and existence of "dark matter." It has always been a calculated journey for Nicole, a trip to learn more about both the past and the future. That same path is walked by the fictional Lucienne as she finds her research into the nature of black holes upended by the sudden revelation of Helene’s darker mysteries, puzzles that seem far greater than the universe could ever construct.

“Despite all the science,” writes Nicole, “this book is about something more primal… perhaps something immeasurable by numbers and logic… it is a book about that wild and unwieldy thing we call love… it is a book about the landscape of the heart.”

That should be the last sentence of this article, it should end with an utterly poetic pronouncement from an author who loves her work, someone who writes “I know I am a fool in the world, and through my work I celebrate my foolish heart.” But the tragedy of Theater of the Stars is that while it is a smartly written and researched novel about big ideas and the most intimate of human interactions, it has been overshadowed and abandoned in the marketplace. It is not a book that its publisher, Theia (an imprint of Hyperion), has known what to do with. It contains some references to 9/11, nothing shocking or surprising or even terribly dramatic, but it was enough to apparently raise concerns. “The book became buried despite great reviews,” writes Kelby, and that was that. No support, no marketing or PR and the book becomes buried. She believes it will probably be taken out of print and with no paperback date in view, she seems to be correct. The irony is that more than anything else this is a book about peace in the context of war, which is generally when the most stirring accounts of peace are realized. It will however, barring a miracle, “soon fade away from the landscape.” And while Nicole Kelby’s career will continue right along, she has a short story, “Jubilation, FL” due out in One Story in March and a new novel, Whale Season accepted at Shaye Areheart (a division of Random House), this does not diminish the loss of Theater.

“I live my life under this theory that we are all the same, one heart, one soul… that is really my area of interest. I named the book Theater of the Stars because wars are fought in theaters… and because I’m also fairly convinced that as Carl Sagan said, ‘we are all star stuff,' and we fight our battles on many levels.” This is a book that affects on so many levels, that leaves its readers wondering, and more importantly, driven to seek that which they do not know. It won’t let you forget it; it refuses to let you forget and its author at least can be satisfied with that. She has to be satisfied with that.

Nicole Kelby has crafted an amazing piece of literature from the most unique combinations of questions and answers, science and love, mothers and daughters, men and women. The book is still out there, for now. It’s still waiting for someone else to discover its secrets, and be lifted entirely by its offer of limitless possibilities. “Stars and dust and souls,” writes Nicole Kelby, and what more could you want from a great writer than that? What more could she possibly give?

Theater of the Stars by Nicole Kelby
Hyperion Books
ISBN 0786868589
274 pages