Friday, February 21, 2014

Andrea Barrett's "The Ether of Space" in ARCHANGEL: Fiction Vs. Nonfiction

If short story collections often play second fiddle to novels, then pity the poor novel, which must play second fiddle to nonfiction.  A quick check of books sales make it quite evident that more people buy nonfiction than fiction books.  And the recent adoption in many states of the so-called Common Core, which insists on students reading more nonfiction and less fiction, seems to reinforce the widespread assumption that no real knowledge can come from reading something someone has made up.

I would argue that the common cause of the Common Core attitude toward fiction is due to a general misunderstanding about how to read "literary" fiction--which the short story is more apt to illustrate than the novel—and a general underestimation of the human value of reading literary fiction.

A recent study by David Comer Kid and Emanuele Castano in Science (vol. 342-18 Oct. 2013), which got a bit of publicity in the popular press, concludes that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests that reflect folks' ability to understand other people's mental and emotional states than those who read nonfiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all.

I plan to talk more about this study next month, using the stories of Alice Munro, as examples of literary stories, in order to make some suggestions as to why reading "literary" stories might improve one's ability to identify and understand the subjective states of others, while reading popular stories and nonfiction--not so much..

The general preference for nonfiction might suggest that if writers of fiction create stories that make use of or communicate the kinds of ideas that we often encounter in nonfiction, e.g. science, history, sociology, readers might find those stories more appealing. Is it any wonder that some short story artists, finding themselves at least three seats down the row in the string section playing third fiddle, might make themselves more popular by incorporating nonfiction in their stories. Jim Shepard is one of the best-known such writers.  In answer to an interviewer’s question about whether “historical short stories” provide readers the pleasure of both fiction and nonfiction, Shepard replied:

They do feed the hunger that readers have for nonfiction in fiction. When I first started reading literary fiction, I was struck by how much I was learning – not only about the human heart, which is traditionally what literature is supposed to be about, but also about how the world worked and the way the world was. So when I read Ernest Hemingway’s [short story] “Big Two-Hearted River,” I felt I was learning not only about Nick Adams’s interior but also about fly fishing.”

I have already talked about this issue in an earlier post on Shepard and his colleague Andrea Barrett, expressing my reluctance to believe that one of the real values of "Big, Two-Hearted River" is to learn about how to catch fish, even as I expressed my admiration for the stories of Andrea Barrett. Barrett, who has published some well-received novels, as well as three collections of short stories. Her most recent collection, Archangel has made the shortlist for the Story Prize this year, and once again, as in her two earlier collections, she integrates history and science into her fiction.

Uncertain about a chosen career, Andrea Barrett was in and out of graduate school in the late 1970's and early 1980's, doing advanced study first in zoology and then in medieval and reformation history.  She held a number of  jobs--receptionist, billing clerk, customer server representative, greenhouse technician, clerk, secretary, and research assistant; in the late 1980's, she did free-lance medical editing, book reviewing, and teaching.   She has said she learned a great deal of biology and medicine from several of these jobs, which she has used in her fiction. 

Barrett has said that she shifted from science to writing because she realized while in graduate school that what she had was a passion for the passion of science; she says that it took her many years to realize that what she mistook for her own obsession with science was, in fact, other people's obsessions. Andrea Barrett once told an interviewer that after doing graduate work, she began to see a way to weave science and history together with her love of fiction.  The resulting elegant tapestry was her collection Ship Fever and Other Stories, a surprise winner of the National Book Award in 1996.

Although the stories in Ship Fever focus on characters caught up in pursuits in the natural sciences, Barrett seems equally interested is in the vulnerable human element behind the scientific impulse.  Many of the stories are historical fictions in the classic sense: they involve real people from the past, often very famous scientists such as Gregor Mendel and Carl Linnaeus, and they present the past as it impinges upon and informs the present.  All of Barrett's stories use scientific fact and historical events to throw light on basic human impulses and conflicts.

The title story of her second collection, Servants of the Map, is a carefully constructed novella about a nineteenth-century surveyor who is part of an exploration party to the Himalayas. In a series of letters to his wife Clara back in England, Max Vigne discovers the power of writing to construct reality and thus the ability to go beyond mapping and recording to actually “seeing,” thereby creating a map not only of the physical world but of the human mind.

Barrett’s conviction of the basic similarities between science, history and storytelling is based on her conviction that all three construct narratives—whether they are called scientific theories, historical accounts, or fiction--to reveal connections, relationships, the interdependence of all things; all are human efforts to understand, or perhaps construct, what makes life meaningful.

As she did in Servants of the Map, Barrett has created some links between stories in her new collection Archangel.  A young boy named Constantine or Stan, who appears in the first story "The Investigators," later shows up in the final story as a World War I soldier.  And a middle-aged woman named Henrietta Atkins, who influences Stan in "The Investigators" later appears as a young woman in "The Island." Finally, a young boy named Sam, who appears in "The Ether of Space," later shows up as a central character in the story "The Particles."  I am no real fan of such inter-story connections, for I think they are often promoted as quasi-novels, shifting focus from the integrity of individual stories to novelistic connections. Thankfully, Barrett does not push this linked-story device; each story stands fully on its own.

Rather than summarize the five stories—which deal with such facts of history and science as Darwinism, genetics, manned air flight, and x-ray technology—I will talk a bit about my favorite story in the collection, "The Ether of Space."  Most reviewers favor "The Particles" (chosen for this year's O. Henry Award Stories), which deals with genetics, or "The Island," which deals with the still-controversial issue of Darwinism vs. creationism, as propounded by naturalist Louis Agassiz.  I suspect that those two stories are reviewer favorites precisely because they focus more on what they like to call "hot-button" issues involving genetics, race, and religion than on individual human complexity and universal human themes. Stories that seem to focus primarily on current social issues are more appealing to readers who prefer nonfiction, for they deal with issues that nonfiction often makes its own.

I like "The Ether of Space" best primarily because it does not deal with a current "hot-button" social issue, but because I think it deals with the more general philosophic conflict between what human beings can know and what they yearn for, i.e., between what is and what is desired.

The story is set in 1920.  An American astrophysicist named Owen is intrigued by theories of Sir Oliver Lodge, who affirms the reality of the ether as a means by which the living can communicate with the dead.  The other central character is Phoebe, a writer of popular science books, whose husband Michael, an astronomer, died ten years previous.  The conflict within her is between her scientific acceptance of Einstein's theories and her human desire to believe the opposing  theories of Lodge.  She and Owen correspond by mail, and she challenges his tentative acceptance of Lodge's theories.

Phoebe goes to a lecture Lodge gives on "The Reality of the Unseen,"  in which he argues that there are things known to be real, even though no one can see them, for example atoms, radio waves, radar, etc. He also talks about the reality of mental events, such as thoughts and feelings, and from these analogies, he posits that the human personality exists after death in a form invisible, but which makes communication after death possible.  He says the dead are only separated from us by a "veil of sense" and that the senses have been developed through necessity for the physical survival of the fittest.  He argues that the space that separates us, one from the other, is not empty, that indeed we connected by it and communicate through it.  Lodge is interested in "imponderables," "things that work secretly and have to be apprehended mentally," such as electricity and magnetism.  Since Phoebe knows that Einstein is only "possibly" right, Lodge is "possibly" not wrong—at least about the ether, although she thinks he is utterly wrong about spirits of the dead that exist in the ether.

A reporter in  a newspaper article about Lodge calls him a "typical Victorian," in the tradition of Darwin and Huxley, who still reads his Wordsworth and Tennyson and who "appreciates the poet's wonderment in those days at the marvels of science."

Lodge argues that the ether is the most substantial thing in the universe and that we have failed to discern it for so long precisely because it is so universal.  He offers the example that if we were fish surrounded by water, with no sense of anything but water, water would be the last thing we would discover. He argues that although we cannot apprehend the ether as we do matter by touching or smelling it, we move through it without any friction whatsoever.  He claims that a body can only act on another body through a medium of communication. "Always look for the medium of communication," says Lodge. "You cannot act at a distance without some means of communication; and yet you can certainly act where you are not, as when by a letter or telegram you bring a friend home."  He insists the ether of space is, in the material world, the "fundamental substantial reality," claiming that the whole problem with Einstein's relativity theory is that it rejects the ether as our standard of reference and replaces it by the observer, that is, instead of claiming the potential connection of all human kind, asserts the isolation of the individual and all reality as relative.

Phoebe struggles with the implications of Lodge's theories: "The ether was a home for ethereal beings, the medium by which soul spoke to soul; perhaps God lived there: perhaps it was God himself."  What torments her is the possibility that if Lodge is right, her husband has been within her reach all the time and she could have been talking to him.

Owen writes her and asks if she has fallen into the old trap "of trying to make, from the symbols we use to reason about reality, pictures we can view in our minds?"  He reminds her that we make "models" because they help us think.  She thinks that although she has lost Michael and is at a loss with Sam, "on the page she could make an object that was shapely, and orderly, and on occasion helpful to others."  (This is what Barrett's story tries to do--create an orderly, patterned fiction that help us think about what it means to be a human being in the world).

The heart of the story comes near the end when Phoebe reads what her son Sam has written about his father Michael and the theories of Lodge: "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."  As Phoebe  listens to her father playing Bach while she and Sam and her mother read, she knows that "space between her and her family wasn't empty at all but held light and music, feelings and thoughts, and a bond that could be stretched without breaking." And indeed, whether she denies Lodge's theories about the ether, she recognizes something that connections all human beings—the music of Bach, for example, something that Carl Jung called  Synchronicity—an underlying pattern or connection between things.

Lodge, who still reads his Wordsworth and Tennyson, theorizes a reality that might best be described as "aesthetic," a theory that may not correspond to external physical reality, but that holds together in a beautiful "wish," like a myth or a metaphor.  It may be "wrong," but it may reveal more about human complexity than what is "right." As William H. Gass says, the core of creativity lies in metaphor, in model-making.

Walker Percy talks about this in his  essay "Metaphor as Mistake" in The Message in the Bottle.
He opens with an example about a coin-operated juke box manufactured by Seeburg Co., which, in the South, was often called "seabird." He says this reveals a feature of metaphor that has always troubled philosophers—that it is wrong; that it asserts of one thing that it is something else.  But Percy argues that in conceiving of the juke box under the "wrong" symbol "seabird," rather than the "correct" description "Seeburg," we know the object better, "conceive it in a more plenary fashion, have more immediate access to it, than under its descriptive title."

Percy also gives the example of a boy who calls a "blue darter hawk" by the mistaken name "blue dollar hawk" because the bird's flight suggests some "incommunicable something," which Gerard Manley Hopkins called "inscape." He says the situation of the boy is like that which philosopher Ernst Cassier calls the "mythico-religious Urphenomenon," in which primitive man comes upon something so distinctive that it seems to have a presence, which gives rise to the "momentary deity," a sense of the unformulated presence of the thing; "the metaphor arises from the symbolic act in which the emotional cry of the beholder becomes the vehicle by which the thing is conceived, the name of the thing."

Or as Andrea Barrett's character Sam says, the questions we ask about the world and the experiments we design to answer them are connected to our feelings.   Several chapters in my book, I Am Your Brother: Short Story Studies deal with Cassirer's theories and how they illuminate the means by great short stories make possible human understanding and empathy with other human beings.

I plan to talk more about what is called Theory of Mind and how reading literary fiction improves understanding other's mental states during March and April, as I prepare for a keynote presentation I will be making in May at the Canadian Literature Symposium in Ottawa on Alice Munro.  You can take a look at the program at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review. Just wanted to ask you about the extensive back story in "The Particles."

Don't get me wrong, I thought the story was wonderful on many levels, characters expertly drawn, and the moral conflict was very interesting.

But at times, it felt like I was reading a novel, instead of a short story.

So did you think the back story took away from the piece? I'd be interested to get your thoughts on this.