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For Goodness’ Sake

Servants of the Map is an inspired title for Andrea Barrett’s painstakingly written book, a gathering of five thematically interwoven stories and a novella linked by theme and characters to her preceding Ship Fever (1996), itself a gathering of interwoven stories and a novella. Both collections deftly explore “the love of science and the science of love—and the struggle to reconcile the two,” as Barrett has said, and both contain vividly imagined historic situations. (In the novella “Ship Fever,” the typhus epidemic and Canadian quarantine of 1847, following in the wake of the Irish potato famine; in “The Cure,” the novella that concludes Servants of the Map and continues the adventures of an Irish survivor of “Ship Fever,” the establishment of tuberculosis “rest-cure homes” in the Adirondack Mountains in the early years of the twentieth century.)

In both collections, men and women behave with uncommon selflessness and intelligence, as “servants” of one kind or another: fictional naturalists, explorer-mapmakers, chemists, biologists, ornithologists, geneticists, geographical botanists, physicians, nurses, teachers. Barrett’s favored era is the mid-nineteenth century, when virtually everyone is given to nature walking and collecting, even young children; it’s a time of exploration and discovery when, among the wealthy and acquisitive, “glass cases filled with tropical creatures arranged by genus or poised in tableaux were wildly fashionable,” and an ambitious young man could make a name for himself by striking out for the Amazon and paying the expenses of his trip by gathering birds, small mammals, land-shells, and “all the orders of insects.”

It’s an exhilarating era when remote parts of the earth are being mapped, ever-new subspecies of animals, plants, and insects are being discovered, and new sciences like genetics are being developed. Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, Asa Gray’s Lessons in Botany and Vegetable Physiology, and Joseph Hooker’s Himalayan Journals are being avidly read. In Barrett’s fiction men and women write lengthy, elegantly composed letters to each other, sometimes in lieu of seeing each other for years. Lovers are steadfast in devotion, long-lost brothers and sisters are haunted by dreams of reunion. A Christian schoolmaster devotes his intellectual life striving to “reconcile the truths of Scripture with those of geology.”

A young husband and father risks his life in the service of the British Trigonometrical Survey of India in the Himalayas, by degrees discarding his map-making vocation for the exotic pleasures of geographical bounty (“Servants of the Map”); a young naturalist/collector explores such remote and dangerous places as the Amazon, Borneo, and Sumatra, in his hope of achieving renown as his friendly rival Alfred Wallace did, but is fated to labor in Wallace’s shadow (“Birds With No Feet,” Ship Fever); a married couple, after early lives of privation, establish the first Academy for the Deaf in the United States, in Ohio in the 1820s (“Two Rivers,” Servants of the Map).

In an age of postmodern irony and distrust of science, there is an appealing young-adult earnestness in Andrea Barrett’s nineteenth-century seekers that renders them both naive and heroic. Unlike A.S. Byatt, whose tour de force “Morpho Eugenia” (1992) combines the author’s romantic interest in Victorian science and social mores with laser-eye irony,1 and unlike Joanna Scott, whose Neo-Gothic tales of antiquarian science, medicine, and taxidermy yield mordantly fascinating psychopathological portraits,2 Andrea Barrett is straightforward in her presentation of exemplary men and women; she would seem to have no intention, for instance, in a story like “Servants of the Map,” of indicting them as flunkies of the British Empire in its colonizing of the dark-skinned races of the globe for purely financial purposes. Barrett’s seekers after truth are apolitical: Caleb, the fossil-hunter of “Two Rivers,” looks for fossils in a pre–Civil War America strangely untouched by the crucial issues of the day; Caleb’s concerns aren’t otherworldly so much as this-worldly in the most literal sense, the earth at his feet. The young man’s vision is analogical and shaped by admiring wonder, like his father’s:

If we could fly, we would see from the clouds the clear waters of the Allegheny flowing down from the north, the muddy waters of the Monongahela flowing up from the south, two rivers merging into the Ohio at our house and forming a great Y. By that enormous letter we are meant to understand…

The passage breaks off, but the admonition is clear: human beings are meant to understand the world that surrounds them. For those intrepid servants of the map whose lives are shaped by their quests, there isn’t the energy or imagination to perceive how their activities as individuals might be morally compromised by the conditions of their employment. Andrea Barrett portrays them as pioneers in the service of pure knowledge, risking their lives and personal happiness for the advancement of scientific knowledge.

In the fifty-page story that opens Barrett’s new collection, the subtly realized “Servants of the Map,” a young surveyor in the employ of the Crown’s Grand Trigonometrical Survey of India writes to his wife back in England, in 1863:

What draws me to [Hooker, Darwin, Gray] and their writings is not simply their ideas but the way they defend each other so vigorously and are so firmly bound. Hooker, standing up for Darwin at Oxford and defending his dear friend passionately. Gray, in America, championing Darwin in a series of public debates and converting the world of American science one resistant mind at a time. Our group here is very different. Although the work gets done—the work always gets done, the maps accumulate—I have found little but division and quarrels and bad behavior.

You may find my handwriting difficult to decipher; I have suffered much from snow-blindness. And a kind of generalized mountain sickness as well. We are so high [21,000 feet], almost all the time; the smallest effort brings on fatigue and nausea and the most piercing of headaches. I sleep only with difficulty; it is cold at night, and damp. Our fires will not stay lit. But every day brings new additions to our map, and new sketches of the topography; you will be proud of me, I am becoming quite the draughtsman.

Absent from his wife and young family for many months, Max Vigne begins to lose his emotional connection to them; when he receives his wife’s letters, they strike him as addressed to a man who no longer exists, if he ever did. He fantasizes writing to his wife, “Who am I? Who am I meant to be? I imagine a different life for myself, but how can I know, how can anyone know, if this is a foolish dream, or a sensible goal? Have I any scientific talent at all?”

Max’s dream is to be a geographical botanist in the mode of Joseph Hooker who might “spend his life in the search for an answer—’Why do rhododendrons grow in Sikkim and not here?’” By the story’s end, Max Vigne has decided not to return home with the others in his crew, but he can’t yet tell his wife. “Servants of the Map” is a poignant story, brilliantly evoked in its high-altitude setting and in the paradoxes of experience in extremis:

It’s an odd thing, though, that there is not much pleasure in the actual recording. Although I am aware, distantly, that I often move through scenes of great beauty, I can’t feel that as I climb; all is lost in giddiness and headache and the pain of moving my limbs and drawing breath. But a few days after I descend to a lower altitude, when my body has begun to repair itself—then I look at the notes I made during my hours of misery and find great pleasure in them. It is odd, isn’t it? That all one’s pleasures here are retrospective; in the moment itself, there is only the moment, and the pain.

Not until the concluding tale of Servants of the Map, “The Cure,” do we learn that Max Vigne has become an explorer and collector who “attaches himself to expeditions…any kind of expedition you can imagine. There’s always a need for someone who can collect and classify plants.” Clara Vigne, the left-behind wife and mother, speaks of her absent husband with barely disguised impatience and hurt, but never accuses him of having abandoned her to raise their young daughters by herself. Far from feeling outrage on Clara’s behalf, as a contemporary observer might, seeing that the woman’s naive good nature has been exploited, an acquaintance admires her stoicism: “It’s a kind of courage. The way she waits, and takes care of his life for him. I admire that.”

Clearly we are meant to admire Clara too, and we are meant to admire the explorer-collector Max, for the impersonal quest for truth takes precedence over the merely personal, as the sacrifice of one’s life in providing emergency medical help for victims of the typhus epidemic in “Ship Fever,” for instance, is heroic. Nora Kynd, a typhus survivor who becomes a nurse and helps establish a rest-cure home in the Adirondacks, is a woman for whom the description “plucky” might have been coined:

You’d live here,” Elizabeth said. “With us. I’ll manage the business end, and do the cooking, and hire whatever other help we need; and you’ll supervise the health of the invalids.”

Nora’s face lit up and her eyes glowed; she seized Elizabeth’s hands in both of hers and said, “Really?” As if Elizabeth, in offering her hard work and a daily acquaintance with sickness and death, were giving her an enormous present. As if, Elizabeth thinks now, it hadn’t been Nora who had given her everything. For seven years they worked together, building a reputation that extended far beyond the village. For seven years…they shared the care of the boarders, the surprises of their lives, and, occasionally, their deaths. When Nora finally sickened—“It is my heart,” she said, with peculiar pleasure. “My heart, not tuberculosis”—she chose to spend her last days in her room at the house.

If there is a problem with such indomitably good characters it isn’t that they are too good to be true but that, in prose fiction, “goodness” is as much a liability as extreme empathy would be in contact sports: we come to feel impatience with Barrett’s characters who seem rather more representative or allegorical than real, like historic figures who have been lovingly crafted and costumed in a museum display. Their language, both spoken and written, has an air of the poetically self-conscious:

What makes you happy?” Mr. Wells asked. We were out in the garden again. This is a question no one has ever asked me….

To be out here at night,” I told him. “On a clear cold night when the dew is heavy, to walk on the grass between the marigolds and the Brussels sprouts and feel my skirts grow heavy with the moisture. Or to go further, into the hayfield, where the mist hangs above the ground, rising nearly to my waist….”

Their stories have an air of stasis about them, often narrated in a breathless present tense in which every lived moment exudes mystery and wonder:

But here is her house. Here is her house. Not a duty, but her living self. It is as if, she thinks, as she moves toward Martin and Andrew and all the others up the walk and the clean brick steps, her hand reaching of its own accord for the polished brass knob in the four-paneled door, as if, in the order and precarious harmony of this house and those it shelters she might, for all that gets lost in this life, at last have found a cure.

The seventy-two-page “The Cure” is designed to conclude Servants of the Map on a strongly idealistic note, but the narrative moves so slowly, shifting back and forth in time with so relentlessly sacerdotal an air, that the reader is inclined to wish for a tuberculosis epidemic to speed things up, as typhus had done in “Ship Fever.”

Barrett’s several contemporary stories, “The Marburg Sisters” in Ship Fever and “The Forest” and “The Mysteries of Ubiquitin” in Servants of the Map, which continue the adventures of the Marburg sisters, move much more swiftly and dramatically than her period fiction, though they deal in part with science, and the Marburg sisters are self-consciously brainy descendants of Max Vigne:

You’re in college?”

[Bianca] tossed her hair impatiently. “Not now. My sister and I were dreadful little prodigies—in college at sixteen, out at nineteen, right into graduate school. Rose already has her Ph.D….”

When we first encounter Bianca and Rose Marburg in Ship Fever, in a long, disjointed story that reads like an aborted but promising autobiographical novel, the sisters are adults still in mourning for their mother Suky, who died when they were in grammar school, leaving them not fatherless exactly but emotionally rudderless—wild girls “in a place that seemed like wilderness” in upstate New York on Keuka Lake. Suky, in the mode of Nora Kynd, is one of those exemplary human beings who touch others magically, and whose deaths are felt as irrevocable losses. As we might expect, the Marburgs are a scientifically-minded family: Suky has dabbled in botany, her specialty mosses; Grandpa Leo, who has established a successful winery in Hammondsport, New York, is an amateur chemist, like the sisters’ father. As a child of nine the precocious Rose had wanted to be an entomologist, having fallen in love with a charming family friend named Peter, a biologist who enlisted her in his nocturnal beetle-collecting. In flashback, the beetle-hunting scene is tenderly and romantically portrayed:

Fabre called the species of Nicorphorus native to France ‘transcendent alchemists,’” Peter said. “For the way they convert death into life.” He let Rose hold the beetles briefly before he placed them in his vial. “You always find them in couples—a male and a female, digging together to provide the family larder. They push away the dirt below their quarry until the corpse buries itself. And all the time they do that they secrete chemicals that preserve the body and keep other insects from eating it. Then they copulate—may I say that word in front of you?—and the female lays her eggs nearby. When the larvae hatch they have all the food they need. Aren’t they pretty?”

Though the scene occurs in 1964, there’s a Victorian courtliness to Peter’s speech. Like the mythically empowered butterflies and ants of A.S. Byatt’s “Morpho Eugenia,” Barrett’s beetles exude a symbolic significance meant to suggest human actions.

The Marburg sisters, as young children, are keenly aware of their mother’s reverence for her collector-grandfather Max Vigne, whose letters to her deceased mother Suky cherishes; the girls are made conscious at an early age of sharing a special destiny, though the destiny isn’t clear, and after Suky’s abrupt, accidental death, well into adulthood they seek her advice in alcohol- and drug-addled rituals instigated by Bianca. The less stable sister, Bianca, drops out of graduate study in biochemistry to lead an unmoored hippie-style life in the 1970s while Rose, the elder and more competitive, immerses herself in molecular biology and becomes enormously successful at a young age:

I look at a protein called ubiquitin…. It has that name because it’s so abundant, and found in all kinds of cells—in people, beetles, yeasts, everything. And it’s almost identical in every species…. What it does…in your cells, in any cell, proteins are continuously synthesized and then degraded back into their component amino acids. The degradation is just as important as the synthesis in regulating cellular metabolism. Ubiquitin molecules bind to other proteins and mark them for degradation. Without that marking and breaking down, nothing in the cell can work. I try to sort out the details of the protein-degradation process.”

As in a romance, Rose’s first love, Peter, reenters her life, much older, of course, in his fifties, while Rose is thirty-one—“the youngest Senior Fellow at the Institute.” In a painful reversal of fortune, Peter has remained an old-fashioned “whole-animal” biologist while Rose has excelled in the hot new chemistry-based biology that brings not only prizes and recognition but large research budgets. Not meaning to be condescending, Rose asks Peter: “Is it still beetles with you?” Unluckily for Peter, it is. Their love affair is a sentimental gesture on Rose’s part, but clearly doomed: “Each day seemed to increase the disparity in their professional situations, and neither could help knowing that Rose’s star was rising fast while Peter was struggling just to stay in place.” It’s a brilliant choice for Barrett to bring the lover-biologists together at a time in the history of science when a new biology, disdainful of individual organisms, concentrating rather on the molecular, and cut-throat competitive as any capitalist enterprise, has swept all before it. The science of our era, Barrett suggests, is populated by careerists who take little pleasure in science any longer, as their starry-eyed nineteenth-century predecessors did.

Barrett’s previously published fiction has been less ambitious than Ship Fever and Servants of the Map, and less mannered in style. Her third novel, The Middle Kingdom (1991), though artfully designed to jump backward in time, is characterized by fairly ordinary language in a familiar nascent-feminist mode. Visiting in China, an American woman named Grace feels a sudden sisterly rapport with a Chinese woman doctor, and begins complaining to the woman of her seemingly insufferable husband:

What was the harm in telling her? I thought about the way he wouldn’t eat unless the food sat correctly on his plate—peas here, potatoes there; no drips, no drops, no smears. How he couldn’t sleep without the top sheet tucked in all around him; how he liked his women as neat as his mother. Smooth, groomed, no visible pores or swellings, no fat—my God, my fat! How he dressed after the manner of Einstein…. And how uncomfortable he was here in China, how much he disliked the steamy, crowded buses, the old clothes, the crowded sidewalks… the smells, the dirt, the noise…. I thought about that astigmatism of his, that twist which made him see the worst in anything, and about his ability to make others see the same way, as if he’d etched their corneas with acid rain.

The object of such scorn is an American academic, a lake ecologist, who has brought his wife with him to the 1986 Beijing International Conference on the effects of acid rain, and will be stunned to learn, in his callow egotism, that he will be returning home without her. Grace, the complainant, is a virtual archetype—or stereotype—of pre-awakened Wife:

I felt like a cross between a goddess and a whale—a goddess for my long, straight, pale-blond hair, which was streaming down my back in wild disorder, and a whale for my astonishing size. I’d gained thirty pounds in the past nine months and hadn’t been so heavy since I was sixteen. My arms quivered when I moved, and in that room of short, slight men I felt as conspicuous as if I’d sprouted another head.

Those sections of The Middle Kingdom set in Beijing—the city with the worst acid rain in the world—are the most interesting, though Grace with her weight problem and nagging self-absorption is a distracting lens through which to view a foreign, complex, politically troubled culture. Barrett’s abiding interest in science holds the disjointed novel together: “There are two laws of ecology. The first is that everything is related to everything else. The second is that these relationships are complicated as hell.”

Like Alice Munro, Barrett writes stories so richly imbricated with detail, so intensely focused upon introspective characters moving back and forth through significant periods of time, that they read like distilled novels rather than conventional short stories. In both writers pacing is extremely leisurely, sometimes to the degree that original narrative momentum is in danger of being lost. Both writers combine fiction with an elastic, essay-like form that can accommodate large dollops of information, including sometimes passages from letters and other documents. Alice Munro is finally more intrigued by the quirkiness of individual lives, while Andrea Barrett is more intrigued by the interrelatedness of all things; Munro’s writing yields unexpected surprises, Barrett’s is rather more premeditated, prescribed. Though described as a short-story collection, Servants of the Map is more accurately seen as an eccentrically shaped novel in which nearly everyone is discovered to be related in some way to everyone else, as in an immense tapestry of a genealogical chart. Not “servants of the map” but the vast, mysterious map itself is of enduring interest: the culture of science, the communal expansion of human consciousness in the ongoing drama of what’s called evolution. If Barrett’s ambitious subject sometimes eludes her as a writer of prose fiction, her aim is commendable.

  1. 1

    One of two novellas published as Angels and Insects (Random House, 1993), “Morpho Eugenia” (a species of exotic Amazon butterfly), is a virtuoso performance by Byatt. In it she explores “the blind violence of passion” in such social creatures as ants and Homo sapiens, in an ingeniously imagined anthill of a Victorian country estate.

  2. 2

    Various Antidotes: Stories (Henry Holt, 1994) and The Manikin (Henry Holt, 1996). Like Byatt, Scott is a virtuoso writer in whose imagination the materials of research are wholly transformed. The settings of Various Antidotes range from seventeenth-century Amsterdam and eighteenth-century Paris to upstate New York on the Mohawk River; The Manikin is an elaborately constructed postmodernist Gothic tale set in an eccentric taxidermist’s mansion. Scott’s characters are both bizarre and quite ordinary-seeming, often addressing us, like the aged, hallucinating Dorothea Dix, in brilliantly sustained monologues.

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