The Powers That Bleed

Riverhead Books; 208 pages; $21.95

Properties of Light:
A Novel of Love, Betrayal, and Quantum Physics

Houghton Mifflin; 256 pages; $23

It would be hard to think of two books that look less alike than Jane Mendelsohn’s teenage-vampire fable and Rebecca Goldstein’s physicists-in-love story, but don’t be fooled by appearances. Both are serious works by serious authors; both have (as they say in high-school English) “unreliable” narrators; and, most strikingly and surprisingly, both make use of the supernatural for serious literary purposes. Only one of them really works, but no matter: I’ve always loved tales from the beyond, and if this is a direction that serious literary fiction is taking right now, I’m all for it.

Of the two, Mendelsohn’s book uses the supernatural more boldly, baldly inserting bloodthirsty vampires into a Manhattan tale of adolescent angst. Her heroine, a painfully sensitive, culturally hip teenager who calls herself Beckett, could be the love child of Holden Caulfield and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. First, Beckett’s widowed dad moves her to a posh new uptown school populated by mean girls with the Aaron Spelling Productions-like names Sunday, Morgan, and Myrrh. Then, just to put a little more Bildung in this symbol-laden Bildungsroman, she gets her first period. Worst of all, her well-heeled magazine-writer father – talk about supernatural! – has just married the school nurse, a redheaded vampiress named Pamela who doesn’t want Beckett to lose her virginity to the hunky yet sensitive Tobey because, as we all learned on Metromedia 5’s Creature Features years ago, vampires of all sexes prefer the blood of virgins – or should I say “wirgins.”

In principle, there’s nothing wrong with blood-soaked gothic as a serious fictional form: The supernatural, and especially vampirism, have often served as useful metaphors for cultural (often sexual) crises and anxieties. When Beckett describes Pamela’s vampire coven as “a society that sucks the life force out of individuals, especially children,” you realize that Mendelsohn (no relation) wanted to use the uncanny elements – the vampirism, the obsession with blood and virginity – as a way to comment on anxieties about sexuality and femininity and society. Beckett and her friends are desperate to find some meaning in their anomie-soaked youths, but all they have for sustenance is the media: “I need to see things as a movie in order to see the truth,” she sighs at one point. (Appropriately enough, the book is filled with knowing allusions to everything from Rosemary’s Baby to The Wizard of Oz.) You’re never really certain, in fact, whether there are vampires shadowing Beckett or it’s all just a paranoid delusion inspired by Buffy.

The real problem here isn’t the Undead; it’s the Unreadable. I can’t for the life of me figure out what’s happened to Mendelsohn’s writing since her 1996 debut novel. A surprise best-seller, I Was Amelia Earhart had a dreamy spareness that perfectly suited its subject, a woman who was at once romantically mythical and eminently practical. It deserved the good reviews it got. But the virtues of the first novel have curdled into mortal vices: spareness into thinness, dreaminess into a showy artiness. The new book’s regressive Judy Blume-ish preoccupations (“I’m the ugly girl, the smart girl, the boyish girl, the loser”) are weirdly at odds with its overcooked, late-stage-Anne Rice-isms. (“I could smell the strange smell of her blood. It smelled like dead flowers and wine and burning meat.”) “Why was I running?” Beckett muses as the novel opens. “I was running from images …” Given the inept images here, you can hardly blame her.

The novel’s pretensions are all the more irritating because there are many touches here of the sort that made the first novel so good. Not least of these are gratifying moments of real, unforced writing. Mendelsohn has a great feel for the sights and sounds of high-school life, and when she doesn’t push too hard she comes up with similes that have subtle emotional as well as visual suggestiveness: At a memorial service for some of Pamela’s victims, the ties worn by awkward high-school boys “swung like leashes”; the voices of a clique of “in” girls “rise like smoke rings.”

But despite some “meta” attempts to make you aware of the author’s concerns and intentions – apropos of our not knowing how real any of this is, there’s a pointed discussion in one of Beckett’s English classes about those “unreliable narrators” – the various elements here, the narrative and the symbolic, the high-school stuff and the vampire stuff, never convincingly come together in this unpersuasive hybrid of My So-Called Life and Dark Shadows. “Sometimes,” Beckett observes in her best Claire Danes manner, “I think about my life, and movies, and this beautiful stupid country we live in, and I think that I don’t know which is which. But I’m trying to tell the difference. I’m trying to see through all that phony emotion into the heart of things …” When an author has to connect the dots for you in this way, you know she’s in trouble. There’s an unreliable narrator in Innocence, all right, but it isn’t Beckett.

there’s nothing supernatural about physics – the word, after all, comes from the Greek for “natural” – but Rebecca Goldstein’s slow-burning and difficult yet ultimately quite beautiful new novel about love among physicists also turns to the “other” world in order to comment on this one. It’s a bit of a surprise. Goldstein, who did a Ph.D. at Princeton in philosophy of science and who got a MacArthur fellowship in 1996, made her name in 1983 with The Mind-Body Problem, a hilarious roman à clef about a certain famous “genius” in the philosophy department at Princeton. But all of her novels, really, grapple in intellectually serious ways with the conflicts symbolized by that notorious “problem”: conflicts between the head and the heart, science and literature, objectivity and subjectivity – hell, even simple things like work and pleasure.

Properties of Light grapples too, but there’s a breathtakingly surprising metaphysical twist. The narrator, Justin Childs, is a young physicist so fervent about material reality, and so suspicious of subjectivity, that even metaphor makes him nervous. (An expert on the behavior of light, he doesn’t understand why anyone would compare Mozart’s music to the play of light on water: “I know something of the physics of the play of light on water and can make no sense of the analogy.”) Justin scoffs at the spiritual side of things – at the idea, for instance, that people have souls – but as the narrative progresses, you see that the joke’s on him. At a Princeton-ish university, he falls under the spell of Samuel Mallach, a once-famous physicist who would have been Einstein’s successor had he not gone mad after his wife’s death, and Mallach’s seductive daughter Dana, also a physicist. But this duo’s approach to science is, to say the least, different from Justin’s: For them, science is intuitive rather than purely rational; for them, “the very best physics is very good poetry”; for them, all things have souls. (“Mallach” is Hebrew for “angel.”)

What’s so satisfying about this novel is the way in which it frames the story of Justin’s transforming involvement with the father and the daughter in a way that constantly refers to the tensions between physics and poetry. Indeed, his attachment to both father and daughter is itself at once emotional and intellectual. In Samuel he finds a surrogate father, and in Dana a lover. Together, the three of them work on the Holy Grail of contemporary physics, a theory of the unified field – that is, an integration of quantum physics and Einstein’s theory of relativity. (For Childs, the former is subjective and the latter is objective.) Properties of Light itself achieves some startling integrations, not least the way in which it, like Einsteinian time, moves heedlessly between past and present.

My only worry is this: Between the elaborate fussiness that perhaps too often characterizes Childs’s language, especially in the opening section (he says things like “the sudden flare of gnosis” and uses words like enmagicked and entragicked), and the straight-out-of-the-bottle disquisitions about quantum physics and the like, some readers will give up on Properties of Light too soon. But Goldstein’s interweaving of the poetic and the scientific, her integration of chunks of theory into an urgent narrative, become smoother as the novel progresses. (You could say that this book acts as both a particle and a wave.) The lectures about the nature of light and time and matter are, you realize, vital to her illumination of human nature. Which reveals itself in climactic revelations of what drove Mallach mad, of how Childs unwittingly contributes to his mentor’s ruin, and indeed of the narrator’s true identity. I can’t think of a “novel of ideas” I’ve read recently that makes it so difficult to separate the novel from the ideas.

That splendid difficulty is evident in the climactic answer that Rebecca Goldstein offers to Justin’s question – can scientists believe in souls? – an answer produced by means of a narrative device so daring, and so surprising, that when I realized what she was up to I burst into tears. But do you really need to be the son and brother of scientists, as I am, to weep over a novel that, like its three heroes, so successfully creates a perfect harmony of seeming opposites: the hard sciences and the soft humanities, body and soul – even life and death? A book, that is, that embodies the dream of a unified field?

The Powers That Bleed