Sunday, January 7, 2007

Best Books (I Read) 2006--Part 2

The other book on my list is by Allegra Goodman, Intuition. It got some initial good press when it came out and then disappeared. Goodman doesn't have a flashy back story like Marisha Pessl (whose book I have on my nightstand in waiting), nor did it reflect in any discernible way the post 9/11 reactions of NY (though Messud's book is also in that same nightstand stack). So, this may be why Intuition never bobbled to the top . . . and, oh yeah, it's about paranoia and deception among research scientists but doesn't involve dinosaurs, cloning, or sex-crazed serial killers.

All that said, I started Intuition at the beginning of a flight across country and finished it the first night of my trip. Lacan once referred to the university as participating in the master/slave discourse, and I can think of no better evocation of this statement as Goodman's novel. The incestuous, internecine politics of academic life--both personally and professionally--are captured perfectly in what boils down to a complex novel of manners. In this case, the manners are the expectations of behavior and etiquette amongst cancer research scientists up and down the intellectual food chain as they scramble to move out of bench work and into the well-funded life of the mind, as hungry for recognition and admiration as they are for any real scientific discovery.

There is a moment in the book that flew into me like a bolt in its ability to convey how very easy it is to inject venom into such a fragile structure: when Jacob upends the entire Phillpot Institute house of cards by sharing a simple observation with Robin about her ex-boyfriend's surprisingly successful results, "They're almost too good to be true." The manner in which he weights this statement, understands exactly how it will be received, and the events it is likely to trigger--and the way in which his own action is triggered by a combustible combination of personal and professional jealousy toward his wife--is magnificient. I had never read anything by Goodman before, and as soon as I finished this, I bought Kaaterskill Falls, which was equally wonderful. Both books create a realm for the reader that she enters as an omniscient observer, entirely powerless to prevent what she knows will unfold--no matter the personal cost. Intution is, in the very best sense, an old fashioned novel filled with exquisite writing, heartbreakingly flawed characters, and a world that should matter to us much more than it does.

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