- Science And In-Between
University of Alabama Press
152 Pages; Print, $17.95
In a famous early example of metafiction, the narrator and namesake of Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759) draws five hopelessly squiggly lines which, he says, represent the plot of the novel thus far; meanwhile promising that he is aiming for a “line drawn as straight as I could draw it, by a writing-master’s ruler….the shortest line, says Archimedes, which can be drawn from one given point to another.” Of course Sterne, Tristram’s author, is aiming for no such thing. He knows that the novel is not the shortest line from one point to another but all the deviations in between.
Deviations and “in betweeness” are central concerns in Angela Woodward’s new novel Natural Wonders about a young woman who has been charged with editing an edition of her late husband’s lectures. The young woman, Jenny, a typist at a university, married her much older husband Jonathan after a two-month courtship. Jonathan is a professor of earth science and a specialist on the prehistory of the human jaw. There are the usual snickerings and rumors among faculty and students about an older man marrying a (much) younger woman, extending even to the cause of his death:
“In the hallway, in the morning, right after I’d left for work,” I found myself saying to his academic friends….“In bed, then, naked,” they answered, though no one said this aloud.
The novel takes the form of the manuscript Jenny is putting together, or perhaps a draft of it. She’s quick to tell us of her difficulties while compiling her late husband’s lectures; the notes she inherited from him are often incoherent or illegible or missing altogether, not to mention mixed in with fragments of pest control advice, stories of Prester John, “clippings his father mailed him, detritus from an alumni magazine, pages of book reviews,” etcetera. “It’s impossible for me to straighten all this out,” she writes at one point, early on; and so, gamely, she often doesn’t try. She continues among divergent routes, adding in anecdotes from her life, her time with Jonathan, her reading.
Jonathan’s colleagues insist to Jenny that she “knew him so well,” while Jenny is aware [End Page 18] that she barely knew him at all, barely had time to know him before his death. And yet we as readers begin to see, throughout Jenny’s work of compiling Jonathan’s notes, the ways in which they are alike. Both Jenny and Jonathan are storytellers. Jenny’s “transcription” mixes the history of science with fairy tales, creation myths, elaborate retellings of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) or The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896). At times, it is not clear who is speaking, whether it’s Jenny-in-Jenny’s voice or Jenny-in-Jonathan’s voice, whether a little bit of Jonathan is sneaking through when Jenny is ostensibly speaking for herself or vice versa.
We get the feeling that she is creating her marriage almost as much as reliving it; she is coming to an understanding of who Jonathan was, who she is, who they were together. There is love here, but it’s not the torrid affair imagined by Jonathan’s colleagues—neither Jenny nor Jonathan are particularly passionate. Here’s Jenny summing up the early days of their love: “He found me soothing, and I believed he was kind.” What grows between them, perhaps as much after Jonathan’s death as during their marriage, is a tenderness, a deep recognition: you, too, have more strata within you than can ever be brought to the surface.
“Interpretation,” says Jonathan, “is vigorously condemned by many of my colleagues. We don’t interpret, they say….We only note the facts, and draw from them limited and reasonable conclusions.…We are in no sense creative.” Jonathan’s “they say” is key. He is well aware of how much interpretation is involved in the work of science and how dangerous it can be to forget that. When...