Tuesday, April 18, 2017

I thought again of Dickens - Hope Jahren's science memoir Lab Girl

Through a mix of Twitter flattery and reverse psychology, influential biologist Hope Jahren tricked me into reading her memoir Lab Girl (2016).  It is an unusually good book.  (Other authors, please do not try this again – each spell works only once).

Jahren and her longtime lab manager Bill collect large samples of material – soil, moss, fossils – and run them through a mass spectrometer or some such machine.  Thus, the lab, her own lab, a series of labs that she and Bill have built from scratch and scraps.  The series of labs are one of the frames on which Jahren builds the book.

Another frame is a series of short chapters about tree biology.  All of the tree science is in these little chapters, but the trees are also clear-cut for metaphor.  Pulped for metaphor.  Jahren is as a rule good with metaphor – “The students spilled out of the van like an undone bag of marbles” (114) – but the tree chapters do something well beyond the single image.  Some of the extended metaphors are more obvious than others, but I am looking at the fascinating 2.3, about the symbiotic relationship between trees and certain fungi – “the best – and really only – friends that trees ever had” (104) – where her friend Bill is (also) the fungus.  “Why are they together, the tree and the fungus?”  It’s a dang allegory.

This is like that.  But I have written before about how scientists need metaphor as much as anyone in literature.

In Chapter 1.4, Jahren writes about her first science-like job, preparing intravenous medicine in a hospital pharmacy, a job that is not exactly David Copperfield’s child labor in the bottle-washing factory but with the empty bottles, labels and seals is like it, enough like it that Jahren interlards the chapter with direct quotations from the Dickens novel.

Lydia was magnificent at her workstation, possibly because she’d been doing this sixty hours a week for almost twenty years.  Watching her sort, clean, and inject was like watching a ballerina defy gravity.  I watched her hands fly and thought… in an easy amateur way, and without any book (he seemed to me to know everything by heart), from chapter seven.  (44)

Lydia is a great character, one of those Dickensian creations that are called caricatures by readers who have limited acquaintance with the variety of humanity.   Here is another David Copperfield quotation, upon visiting the hospital psych ward:

What originally struck me as cryptic in chapter fifty-nine was now mundane: they are turned inward, to feed upon their own hearts, and their own hearts are very bad feeling.  (49)

Not only is the chapter full of David Copperfield quotations, but they all contain the word “heart.”  Jahren says she was working on a paper for her English class, making this a truly heroic feat of undergraduate recycling.  I suppose this could look like a gimmick; to me, it looked like a triumph.  The chapter could stand on its own as a short story.

The book is much funnier than I have suggested.  See the chapter with the trip to Monkey Jungle, a Florida tourist “attraction”:

Three Java Macaques that had been straining their brains over some problem that they could neither solve nor abandon propelled themselves toward us, supposing that we somehow represented an answer.  A white-handed gibbon was draped limply across our walkway, either asleep or dead or someplace in between…  A single howler monkey sat high on a branch in the back, wailing out the entire Book of Job in his native tongue while periodically raising his arms in an age-old supplication for an explanation as to why the righteous must suffer.  (116-7, the ellipses conceal a Beckett reference)

But the Dickens chapter was the only part of this fine book that I really wanted to write about, surprise surprise.

I stole the title of the post from a later chapter, p. 61.

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