Experimenting With the Truth

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Reviewed by Geraldine Brooks
Sunday, February 26, 2006

INTUITION

A Novel

Allegra Goodman

Dial. 344 pp. $25

I once spent shabbat with an Orthodox family in Jerusalem's Kiryat Mattersdorf, a neighborhood where, on Friday evenings, a siren marks the beginning of a 24-hour pause in every human act of creation. Against that looming deadline, my unflappable hostess prepared dinner for 19 -- a tough order in any situation, but even more so when the cook is abiding by the rules of kashrut. Everyone knows that pork isn't kosher, but until that Friday I wasn't aware that "things that swarm" also are off the menu. To make sure that no tiny swarming insect found its way into the meal, she peeled apart and inspected every layer of two dozen onions.

Allegra Goodman's new novel, Intuition , revived that memory. Not because Goodman is a famous Jewish-American writer, whose National Book Award finalist Kaaterskill Falls probed deep into a closed world much like Kiryat Mattersdorf. Not because Goodman herself is Orthodox. (She has described herself as "a fairly observant Jew, but a very observant writer.") What brought the memory back to me was the patient handling of the onions, their careful dissection, the attentive scrutiny of layer after layer until the very center had been reached and nothing more could be done.

This is the way Goodman handles her characters in Intuition . Every character here -- even the relatively minor ones, even the relatives of minor ones -- is endowed by their creator with the fullest complements of flaws, tics, vices, strengths, virtues and moments of nobility. Just when we think we know her self-promoting, hard-charging oncologist Sandy Glass, just when we are smirking contemptuously at him, Goodman peels back another layer and invites us to peer harder. We find ourselves looking at a loyal chevalier whose capacity for devotion to a colleague wipes the smirk off our face. It works in reverse with another character, Jacob, husband to Glass's exacting scientific partner, Marion Mendelssohn. Jacob has put his own brilliance at the service of his wife's career and seems the model of modest self-sacrifice. Yet he's gradually revealed as a secret manipulator who, with a few careful words, will set in motion the events that threaten his wife's reputation and the existence of her research lab. But it is not a simple matter of "people are not what they seem." Goodman doesn't stop. Sandy Glass has many more layers, and so does Jacob Mendelssohn. So does everybody. To be honest, it's tiring. But it's also ultimately rewarding.

Intuition comes at what seems to be a very good time for character-driven fiction. The last year has yielded Nicole Krauss's moving A History of Love , Zadie Smith's exuberant On Beauty , Ian McEwan's textured Saturday . Like Intuition , all of these books seem linked by a generous willingness to describe and explore human affections -- filial, spousal, collegial -- with a kind of modern sensibility that manages to sidestep any hint of the sentimental.

Intuition is so character-driven that the plot occasionally sinks beneath the press of its personalities. Yet Goodman's subject, scientific fraud, is timely and intriguing. Marion Mendelssohn and Sandy Glass are co-directors of a cancer research lab in Cambridge, Mass. When one of their young post-docs, Cliff, appears to make a breakthrough, Glass pressures Mendelssohn into rushing the results to print. But Cliff's colleague and sometime girlfriend Robin begins to suspect something is wrong. Her search for answers sometimes seems irrational and perverted, prompted by jealousy; at other times, she appears to be the only brave and scrupulous one in the lab. And before she knows it, her simple demand for the right to question has turned into a witch hunt, all under the baying of a grandstanding congressman.

Goodman builds quite a bit of tension here: Is Cliff the innocent victim of unscrupulous publicity seekers, is he guilty of sloppy scientific method, or is he a deliberate fraud? The details of what really happened, when finally revealed, are so sketchy that it seems as if Goodman is intent on preserving a measure of ambiguity for him. But as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that her real mission is bigger and riskier. Goodman has formed these people and sent them out into her imaginary world to act. Now she looks on -- sometimes in pleasure, sometimes in sorrow, always with mercy -- as their free will pushes them into and out of the light. In Kaaterskill Falls , the old-world skeptic, Andras, believes that "if there is a God, he scatters his creation and lets lives fall where they may." Andras could be describing Goodman.

Lest this sound too earnest, Goodman presides over her universe with a light and sometimes funny touch. Sandy Glass can't stand his daughter's boyfriend: "He would not listen to a single word about Charlotte's athletic, ambitious college swain. Jeff from Dunster House. Jeff from the Crimson . Jeff the squash player. Jeff Yudelstein. That ridiculous name! Not just an ordinary Jewish name, but an overstuffed knish of an appellation. Yudelstein was halfway between a yodel and strudel."

Goodman, who lives in Cambridge, near Yudelstein's Harvard, is intimately familiar with both the physical setting (ashy winter snowbanks, shoe-destroying spring slush) and the scientific milieu of Intuition . Her mother was a geneticist, her sister is an oncologist, her husband is a theoretical computer scientist. There are wonderful details about the subculture of the lab: the way a graduate student might have to wait her turn to file a dissertation because the team is concentrating on "pushing another student out the door"; the embarrassment a post-doc feels sporting a tan after a day off, when pallor is the proud flag of the dedicated researcher. Goodman knows how the closed community of the lab, with its rules and rituals, its ascetic demands, its devotion to a higher purpose, parallels the closed religious communities that she has written about so successfully in the past. Six hundred and thirteen mitzvot (commandments), a dozen inviolable lab protocols -- both worlds are bound all around with rules, the breaking of which leads inexorably to sin, or something like it, and brings down upon the transgressor the status of outcast.

In the end, though, Goodman's scientists come to realize that it is in the uncalibrated realm of human relationships that greatness may be germinated or crushed. Just as their cell lines will only grow in the right medium, the lab's young post-docs also need a specific medium in which to flourish. Goodman's scientists, at last, come to affirm the tentative proposition advanced by vinegary old Philip Larkin: "Our almost-instinct almost true: What will survive of us is love." ยท

Geraldine Brooks, the author of "March" and "Year of Wonders," is currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies at Harvard University.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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