In The Realm Of Tech
By Todd Natti
A few years ago I worked at the Massachusetts Institute of technology as a temporary employee. While not a glamorous job (who loves filing?), it allowed me time to get a general feel of the place, whether in exploring the campus, interacting with other employees and professors, etc. Overall it left a mark on me that whenever a text from a faculty member or a book about the university is released, I take notice. This very occurrence happened twice at the start of this year, with the release of Mr. g by Alan Lightman and The Technologists by Matthew Pearl.
Lightman, the first MIT professor to receive a joint appointment in the sciences and humanities, has written a stunning book in Mr. g. The brief novel, very much in the vein of Italo Calvino (Cosmicomics kept popping into my head during my reading), recounts the story of Mr. g and his creation of the universe. The book actually begins with this very note: “As I remember, I had just woken up from a nap when I decided to create the universe.”
What follows is a novel full of stylistic beauty (the chapter names alone got to me, how can one read titles like “The Quantification of Reality” and “Goodness in Every Atom” and not smile a little?) and creative vigor. This isn’t because Lightman has touched base on something wholly original (see my Calvino comment above) but because he goes about it in a fashion that blends the borders between science and spirituality. As the title character says: “My universe would have logic and rationality and organizational principles, but it would also have spirituality and mystery.”
Mr. g isn’t left alone to ponder the universes (yes, there are more than one, through he focuses on—what appears to be—ours for the most part), he is accompanied by his Aunt Penelope, Uncle Deva, and the mysterious Stranger that questions his every decision. It is the Stranger, Belhor, with his various accomplices, all named Baphomet, that cause the most problems for Mr. g, though not the novel as a whole. When g is faced with the question of thought and mind, the stranger tells him “the mind is its own place. None of us, and especially you, should underestimate the complexity and subtlety of a mind, once formed.”
Nor should readers underestimate the complexity and subtlety of Mr. g, which may not answer any question it arises, but revels in discussion. But there needn’t necessarily be answers, because they would be something different to each distinct reader. Mr g is a whole different animal of a novel than Matthew Pearl’s The Technologists, which brings up a lot of questions and then struggles to answer each and every one.
Set in 1868 as the first class from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is about to graduate, The Technologists (Pearl’s fourth novel and his best since his debut, The Dante Club) deals with the notion of a world rapidly changing under the impending arrival of the modern era. This is an area Pearl has touched on before, with three of his four novels taking place in Boston in the latter half of the 19th century. Only here when characters spout that technology will be the death of Boston, it feels heavy handed. Instead of further investing me in the plot, I found myself wondering what technology actually meant to me—especially as an editor for a magazine that relies so heavily on it. But as with the novel, I found no answer, only more questions.
The main problem with The Technologists is that no matter how much research Pearl has done, he fails to bestow the same amount of life into the novel that he did with his debut book. The characters in The Technologists feel like stock characters, even the ones that are based on real-life historical figures. UnlikeThe Dante Club, which brought Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Boston literati to life to seek out a nefarious murderer, the appearance of MIT legends like William Barton Rogers and Ellen Swallow Richards feel more like Pearl checking off items on a list. In fact, I’ll suggest not looking up who is real and who isn’t, because it makes it very easy to deduce the identity of the devious Experimenter running amok in Boston.
The disasters that the Experimenter brings about (whether ships in Boston Harbor crashing into each other in the opening pages, the glass on State Street simply melting, or the other havoc ridden moments later in the novel) don’t hold weight beyond the moments they are happening. While the action-laden moments are some of the books best moments, Pearl doesn’t seemingly know what to do with them after they occur, with characters not being in awe of technology (if we can call it that, I’m not sure if I picked up a solid explanation for why the events actually happened when all was said and done) destroying the city of Boston.
One thing I will praise Pearl for is his building of a world. Characters from previous novels pop up in unexpected places and it is nice to see that Pearl’s novels (apart from The Poe Shadow) all take place in the same fictional Boston. It’s nice when an author starts building a world where all their works occur. Only now Pearl needs to work on bringing that world to life a little more, focusing less on the thriller aspect of his historical novels, or perhaps simply giving his texts a little more thought beyond the meticulous research, like Mr. g creating the universe, bit by bit, so everything is just right.
Title: The Technologists
Author: Matthew Pearl
Pub: Random House
Author: Alan Lightman