Properties of Light
by Rebecca Goldstein (Houghton Mifflin, $23)
Nothing is so heated as the politics of academia; only romance approaches its fervor. With her fifth novel, Properties of Light, Rebecca Goldstein combines these feisty arenas in a gothic tale that explores the powerful tension between our desire to know and our desire to love.
At the heart of Goldstein's cast is Justin Childs, a 23-year-old mathematics prodigy obsessed with helping his idol, physicist Samuel Mallach, prove what current astrophysicists indelicately call "The Theory of Everything." Mallach, we learn, put forth the roots of his theory 30 years ago, but the physics community ignored it. In the years that followed, Mallach's rival, Dietrich Spencer, earned promotions and accolades, while Mallach was forgotten. Enter Justin, ambitious, hungry, and capable of wielding the high-level mathematics to push Mallach's theory from obscurity into Stockholm's limelight.
Shortly after Justin and Mallach seal their pact to work together, Justin begins a torrid affair with the professor's fiercely devoted daughter. At first the ardor of their engagement spills over into Justin's work, and he performs as never before. Ultimately, the entanglement backfires. The more Justin gets to know Dana, the harder it becomes for him to support Mallach's single-minded quest for glory. Aligning himself with Mallach suits Justin's ambition, but not his morals. To break with Mallach, however, puts him on the side of Spencer, who may earn a Nobel for second-rate work.
Goldstein, who has taught philosophy at Barnard and won a coveted MacArthur "genius" grant, can sound a tad brainy, and in this novel her knowledge often outstrips her craft. Unless you've recently left a quantum mechanics seminar, you probably won't appreciate the nuances of her discussions on the "four-dimensional manifold of space-time" or "unified field theory." Worse yet, after burying us with such sophisticated rhetoric, Goldstein uses this language to frame the emotional lives of her characters. When Dana and Justin make love, it sounds like a laboratory experiment: "[A]s she took hold of the fingers of my hand," Justin intones breathlessly, "she traced them with her long index finger, the up and down of the wavelets of my hand . . . mmm, she whispered, fingers of light."
While Goldstein keeps us reading by throwing in one neat plot twist after the next, she is less inventive with her characters. Even though she has a brain, Dana remains a hollow woman, defined by her relations to the men in her life rather than by any internal drive. Justin, too, seems empty; his quest for knowledge seems arrogant and shallow. Only Mallach himself emerges as vitally human. It is through his suffering that we understand what scientists often sacrifice to their work, and how bleak is the dejection they feel when those sacrifices do not pay off.
by Brian Pera (St. Martin's Press, $22.95)
"Queer fiction" applies equally to classics like Jean Genet's The Thief's Journal, in which the main character openly identifies himself as gay, and Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, whose plot relies on a homosexual subtext. A recent addition to the gay canon, Brian Pera's debut novel revolves around the adventures of Earl, an unsophisticated gay 22-year-old Nebraskan with a penchant for running away. An unlikely contemporary hero, Earl constantly vacillates between action and desire, combining qualities of both Genet's thief and Huck.
Kicked out of his house by his mother following his father's death, Earl embarks on a cross-country odyssey in an attempt to fill the emotional void created by his loveless adolescence. Earl self-destructively gravitates to johns who exchange liquor for sex even when he is invited to settle in a Park Avenue penthouse. Always searching for connections in the wrong places, he impulsively treks to Colorado Springs because of his obsession-at-first-sight with a man he knows nothing about.
While Earl's decisions make little rational sense, Pera's appealing use of language, by contrast, does. Portraying sex in two very different instances, Pera adeptly infuses the emotions particular to each interaction. Describing a rape, he writes with a cold detachment, "somebody going at it back there . . . tearing at me in my sleep." During an innocent love affair, he alludes to physical intimacy as simply "pushing the beds together."
Earl recounts these episodes in brief installments that jump from one time and place to another and back again, as in his description of a heroin high: "Just one steady blur of nothing much, just flickers of things."
Pera chooses to write a nonlinear account of Earl's journey, with sections that parallel each other thematically. We experience the anguish of a defeated Earl in detox on a train from New York to Omaha, and on the same page, although weeks earlier, his bus pulls into Buford, Arkansas. Pera refuses to let us settle in any one location before being uprooted, and, like Earl, we're thrown into a half-familiar scene without knowing what rules to play by. After recounting his travels, Earl remains incapable of choosing a healthy next step, and readers expecting an epiphany will miss Pera's point: The journey is more important than the destination.