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Should Fiction Writers Have a Beat?

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Critics commonly divide Andrea Barrett’s career into two periods: pre–Ship Fever and post–Ship Fever. With that short-story collection, which won the 1996 National Book Award, she simultaneously broke out of midlist obscurity—her early works were not well read—and found her beat. As surely as Woody Allen writes about anxious intellectuals and John le Carré writes about spies, Barrett now writes about scientists: Naturalists, botanists, surveyors, biologists, and doctors, some renowned and some obscure, tinkering away at small colleges or in their backyards.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with repetition, although there’s an inherent danger: tedium. The shtick-y writer must ward off the judgment that each new book is just like the last book. Unless of course that’s the point, as it is with certain series. Sue Grafton’s Alphabet Mysteries, say.

Barrett avoids this hazard in Archangel, her latest collection, with a shift in emphasis: many of the scientists in Archangel subscribe to incorrect ideas. It’s not as though her past characters were always right, or that they never failed. Here, though, Barrett accentuates wrongness.

In “The Ether of Space,” it’s 1920 and scientists are coming around in droves to Einstein’s theory of relativity. Sir Oliver Lodge, the well-known physicist, is a notable holdout. He dismisses relativity, claiming there’s insufficient proof. Ironically, he also believes in the immortality of the human soul. “Science will eventually prove the existence, all around us, of former humans,” he says at a public lecture. “Wrong, so wrong,” thinks Phoebe, a science writer in the audience. Likewise, in “The Island,” a naturalist refuses to accept Darwin. And in “The Particles,” a young geneticist gets in trouble with his peers for relying on a shoddy fruit-fly experiment to support vaguely Lamarckian notions of inheritance.

Barrett doesn’t expect the reader to scoff at these mistakes. Like the British historian E.P. Thompson, who condemned the “enormous condescension of posterity”—our tendency to treat past Luddites, late-adopters, and the like as, basically, idiots—Barrett humanizes the perpetuators of erroneous concepts. Archangel works as a sort of addendum to Barrett’s decades-long project to depict science in human scale: Behind every small step forward there’s an individual with hopes, dreams, etc.; and there’s an individual behind every false step, too.

Again, it’s not that Barrett never ventured into this terrain before. She’s simply more preoccupied with exposing the pathos of the losing side. Compare her treatment of wrongness in Archangel’s “The Island” with a previous story, “Rare Bird,” from Ship Fever.

In “Rare Bird,” Sarah Anne, an amateur scientist, sets out to demonstrate that swallows do not hibernate under water during the winter months, as was commonly held in her day (the eighteenth century). She and a friend submerge two swallows in a tub to see whether they sleep or die. They die, of course, and Sarah Anne feels “fiercely thrilled. They’ve done an experiment; they’ve disproved an hypothesis.” The reader’s well aware that Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy, stood by the hibernation theory. Yet Barrett asks us to rejoice in Sarah Anne’s accomplishment rather than worry about Linnaeus. He remains off stage.

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Agassiz falls in the estimation of Henrietta, a young teacher, in "The Island."

In “The Island,” the disproven party isn’t safely stowed away. Henrietta Atkins, a young teacher, enrolls in a natural history course in the summer of 1873 with Louis Agassiz, the famous naturalist and creationist. (He’s called “the professor” in the story but the association is clear.) At first Henrietta is in awe of Agassiz, but when a fellow student introduces her to Darwin’s ideas, Agassiz falls in her estimation. There’s some pleasure for the reader in watching Henrietta grasp the concept of natural selection. But we also feel sorry for Agassiz, whom Henrietta finds increasingly pathetic, “tired and old.” We hear from Agassiz directly, too:

Half or more of [the students] here, he suspected, believed in Darwin’s theories even while respecting his own abilities as a naturalist and a teacher. 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.

Like an aging rock-star or a politician denied reelection, his presence is both an embarrassment and a reproach to the people who knew him when.

While Barrett does, then, manage to impart new accents to familiar material she’s still prone to some old, bad habits. She’s always had a tendency to spell out connections that are perfectly obvious, and she continues to do so here. In the title story, Eudora, an X-ray technician, notices a “jagged, slivery shape” in a soldier’s right thigh—not shrapnel, but a tiny shard of human bone. After the soldier explains that it must belong to a dead friend, blown to bits right next to him during a bombing, Eudora informs him that the shard is probably from a humerus, or maybe a femur or tibia. “A cold one, aren’t you?” says the soldier. The point is clear: Eudora can literally see through people but she’s an emotional dunce. Then Barrett treats us to a long paragraph making that already-neat contrast totally blatant. “The part of her that had once intuited feelings and responded appropriately had grown as coarse-grained as film meant for use at night.”

Barrett’s prose is also lazy in spots, as when she relies on exclamation points to convey feeling. In “The Investigators,” a 12-year-old boy gets a bike: “He learned how to ride it in an hour, and then—suddenly he could reach so many places!” Later in the story the boy sees an eclipse: “So this was an eclipse!” In trying to show the world from a child’s perspective she slides into picture-book-ese. Even Barrett’s adult characters think in bangs. In “The Ether of Space,” Phoebe reads a letter recounting an eventful scientific conference and says to herself: “An actual report, finally, from an actual witness: how pleasing, to glimpse a scrap of reality!”

Those who take to Barrett often stress that while she writes about science, she’s not really a science-writer because her stories are so emotion-driven. In a review of Servants of the Map for The Chicago Tribune, Dan Cryer argued that “to call Barrett our poet laureate of science is perfectly apropros, as long as we recognize that her specialty is the heart.” These assessments ignore that Barrett’s choice of topic accounts at least in part for her success. It’s not Barrett’s insights into the psychology of naturalists and physicists that make her stand out; it’s her custom of writing about naturalists and physicists. If each new work is similar to the one before, and if each has similar flaws, taken together they still feel distinct in a humanities-centric market.

Juliet Lapidos is an editor at The New York Times. Follow her @julietlapidos.