September 2013

James Orbesen


Archangel by Andrea Barrett

There's a fine line between talking to and talking at a reader. It's often a hard line to distinguish (where does a speech step too far and become a sermon?), but plenty of authors attempt to navigate this tightest of ropes. Why? To communicate. It happens again and again in so-called novels of ideas. The author has a grasp on something transcendent and illuminating. In her eagerness to disseminate said idea, the work turns away from the usual novelistic purview of interiority, complication, and point of view, and into a stern schoolmaster or pundit telling the reader what's what.

Andrea Barrett, winner of the National Book Award and author of the new collection Archangel, attempts not only to tell a story but also to communicate with the reader. Comprised of several longer short stories, Archangel is a dispersed narrative that features characters, some fictional and others not, cropping up again and again in different places and in different circumstances. Stretching from a lonely island off the East Coast, to a torpedoed freighter in the North Atlantic, to the scattered American bivouacs around the Russian city of Archangelsk, Archangel has scope.

It's a world of dark passions and human failings, where

these minutes lying utterly still in the black, stuffy silent room might cause the most unpredictable reactions. In the dark, she'd seen men weep silently, cry hysterically, sit up so suddenly they'd knocked her screen stand askew. Some told stories about the awful things they'd seen and done; some would start cursing and be unable to stop; a few, gentle enough in the ruby light, would after a few minutes in the dark start whispering obscenities and grab at her thighs and her crotch. One had seized her hand and pulled it between his legs, then bitten her when she tried to pull away.

Such is the life of an X-ray technician embedded with an abortive American effort to squash Bolshevism in its infancy on the frozen tundra of northern Russia. However, the real thrust of Barrett's novel-in-stories is the ongoing scientific revolutions that define her characters' lives.

Archangel is as much about its characters as it's about the underlying science. Astronomers, tinkerers, geneticists, all these fields, and more, make an appearance. This is where the difference between talking to and talking at becomes crucial.

Barrett never lectures. Instead, she allows her extensive knowledge and research to emerge organically. Her work is a blending of the technical and the novelistic. Statements, such as "None of them knew, as he did, how the theories seized on with such enthusiasm by one generation might be discarded scornfully by the next," have far more effect than they should, since a distinctly human voice is saying it.

An aging and doddering naturalist who attributes the miracles around him to the mind of a Creator, not to Darwin's evolution, is a character ripe for parody. Instead, the reader comes to understand that holding on to familiar ideas is often the only way to survive in the face of terrifying, incomprehensible change. When faced with fading eyesight, a cerebral hemorrhage, professional languor, and desertion by former students, wouldn't you be inclined to dig in your heels? Sadly, the lesson becomes that science often advances one funeral at a time.

The reader is privy to the opening of new worlds, just as the characters take their first steps into fresh new fields of inquiry. Yet, while the characters' attention may be turned outward, toward progress and science, the reader looks inward, at them, and is rewarded with rich inner worlds as brilliant as the famous May 29, 1919, eclipse that confirmed Einstein's theories, an event crucial to the book.

Such interplay between interior and exterior is on full display in "The Ether of Space." Phoebe, a widow and frustrated writer, is trapped between Einstein's relativity and classical notions of heavenly bodies. As she writes scientific articles for publication, she wrestles with the ghost of her dead husband, an astronomer. She witnesses the fictionalized version of Sir Oliver Lodge deliver a lecture on ether, an invisible substance that acted as a medium for all sorts of invisible waves. The venerable scientist takes his theories further, speculating that the ether makes not just the transmission of light waves possible but, also, transmissions from the dead.

Post-World War I, belief in the spirit world became commonplace. This is Phoebe's milieu. Rationally, she rejects such fantasies. Her dead husband is gone. No science can bring him back. Indeed, Lodge espouses pseudoscience, baseless theories cloaked in the language of science. Nevertheless, a part of her believes Lodge might be on to something. So enticing is this idea that it almost takes hold of her son, also a witness to the lecture, who writes an essay in school about his experience:

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.

Repeatedly, Barrett explores this tension. It's a tension as old as time: the expanses of our knowledge rub against the limits of our selves. That it's been tried and tested doesn't matter. This is still a very prevalent issue. Few recent reads have been able to distill such vitality into such a heavy subject. Barrett make her subject come alive because she lets it breath and refrains from talking at the reader, abstaining from using her characters as loudspeakers instead of simply speakers.

Part of what enables this is that her writing is so evocative:

Nine o'clock and freezing cold, the moon two days past new, the stars giving no sign that they were not as they'd once seemed. The sound of her father's viola waved down from the top of the house, bits of Bach easing through the old glass in the attic windows, spreading from her mother's garden, where in June the peonies flourished as if fertilized by the sound, through the tiny backyard to the neighbors on all sides.

Just look, just feel, everything she's packed in there. For a novel-in-stories largely about science, the work hums from start to finish. The prose wraps you up and transports you alongside the characters, marveling, as they do, at the world around them. The reader gets to learn alongside these paper people.

Because of this, Archangel becomes a wonderful example of an author who knows how to communicate to an audience. Never does she fall off the tightrope into parochialism. She understands that our understanding of science is embodied in ourselves. Though we might pale in comparison to the precision and majesty of the natural world, only through our own prejudices, passions, and pride do we shed light on what we know, what we don't, and all the gray space between.

Archangel by Andrea Barrett
W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 978-0393240009
256 pages