Allegra Goodman's Science Fiction
A review for the Forward.
In her new novel, "Intuition," Allegra Goodman invokes the world of medical research with the convincing detail of an insider and an outsider's penetrating gaze. The book is a modern epic, a slimmed-down, suspenseful version of one of the 19th-century classics: a narrative about large social forces that is also a tale of unhappy lovers and broken-up research families.
The laboratory of Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelssohn is prestigious but frayed at the edges, in need of intriguing results to push forward a grant application. Cliff, a young post-doc whose previous experiments failed miserably, comes up with surprising new findings. But are they real? His newfound success is met with suspicion, and with accusations of fraud, by Robin, who is a fellow post-doc and his erstwhile girlfriend; the resulting scandal reshapes lives and careers with unforeseen consequences.
The real-life course of scientific scandal can be impossible to untangle — and often dull. Goodman's portrayal, on the other hand, is riveting, calibrating narrative revelation while preserving the ambiguities of scientific dispute. This is moral fiction without moralizing, in the tradition of Jane Austen — and, for that matter, Philip Roth.
Goodman's previous novel, "Paradise Park" (2001), followed a memorable Jewish woman in her search for spirituality. In her new book, thoughtful Jewish characters are found in a different milieu altogether: the maelstrom of scientific competition and its search for truth. Does this make "Intuition" any less a Jewish novel?
Sandy and Marion, the lead scientists of Cliff and Robin's lab, are both Jewish, but in different ways. Sandy (born Sam Glazeroff) is an assimilated Jew; it's his wife, raised Episcopalian, who remembers to light the menorah at the lab's annual Christmas party. He is the self-aggrandizing but charismatic clinician, a straight-ahead publicist for his laboratory's results and a purveyor of hope for his cancer patients. ("In the hospital," we're told, "Sandy could walk from room to room and pull out language tailored for every ethnic or socioeconomic background. Like the magician's endless chain of knotted handkerchiefs, he could evoke Italian meatballs, baseball statistics, sailing stories, even sentimental childhood memories of the High Holidays. No one could Jew a patient like Sandy Glass.")
Marion, on the other hand, is an exacting, idealistic scientist whose uncompromising skepticism in the lab matches her care in cleaning her home for Passover. "There was a stringency about the holiday that Marion enjoyed. She liked the idea of cleansing body, house, and soul. Passover preparation appealed to her as a kind of cleaning of instruments, the periodic check and renewal of materials in order to get better results."
Though Judaism is important to Marion and Sandy, it's their scientific practice that is more akin to faith. When the integrity of the scientific process is questioned, the doubts are as serious, and emotionally charged, as challenges to religious belief. In the final, climactic scenes of "Intuition," Sandy and his Jewish identity, Marion and her scientific fundamentalism, and the difficulties that beset scientific faith are brought together to dramatic and thoughtful effect.
It would be overreaching to say that science is to "Intuition" as religion was to "Paradise Park," and I am consciously emphasizing the Jewish element in this novel. Of course, Goodman is much too subtle and multifaceted a novelist to make explicit this connection between Judaism-as-religion and science-as-Jewish-pursuit. But in a novel of many strands — in which ethnicity, economics, science, love and passion are all part of the tableau — we can't ignore one of Goodman's unique strengths: Like the 19th-century masters, she carries with her a convincing particularism even as she expands her narrative territory to include ever-wider spheres of intellectual and emotional conflict. As Goodman's interests and novelistic accomplishments extend far beyond the Jewish world, she is still — or all the more so — a Jewish novelist, and one to be prized.