Loads of Learned Lumber

Friday, November 28, 2008

Allegra Goodman, _Intuition_

THIS WAS THE most recent volume to read for the book club my spouse and I belong to, and I might not have picked it up otherwise, but it did come well recommended; it was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Maureen Corrigan of NPR is quoted on the back cover of the paper edition to the effect that "those who dismiss contemporary fiction" need to be bonked upside the head with Intuition so as to "knock some sense and humility into them."

I certainly agree with Corrigan that those who dismiss contemporary fiction need bonking upside the head, but I don't think I would do with Intuition. Goodman certainly does a convincing job evoking the world of a biological research lab. The characters are all plausible, with deftly sketched back stories and believably mixed motives.  The writing is consistently graceful, with a few strikingly memorable bits, like this description of Ithaca: "But then, even Cornell sounded lovely to his ears, the campus split with gorges, boulders sheathed in ice, and all the fields knee-deep in snow." Nice.

And the novel has thematic reach, too -- it turns on the contrast between the pains researchers take to eliminate as rigorously as possible all subjectivity from their experiments, and the inevitable complications of temperaments, ambitions, funding, and personalities swirling among the people doing those experiments. 

Well and good.  But to borrow Ron Silliman's phrase for a certain kind of poetry, this is a School of Quietude novel. I love Austen, I love Forster, but should people born after World War II be writing Austen and Forster novels?  True, there will be an audience for them.  True, they will sometimes be honored as New York Times Notable Books.  But is this the sort of thing we ought to be hoping for from contemporary fiction?  My answer is -- no.

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