Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Unfrozen Edwardian Lawyer

Stephen P. Kiernan, The Curiosity: A Novel

Media critic George Gerbner, late dean of the Annenberg School for Communication, noted that, the more television a person watched, the more likely that person would distrust science and scientists. Scientists are often portrayed as robotic and unengaged, with flat affect and no compunctions about using human subjects. Professor Gerbner would have had a field day with this book.

When a research vessel uncovers a man trapped inside an Arctic iceberg, Erastus Carthage of the Lazarus Project sees a chance to prove his theories of latency and scientific resurrection. Dr. Kate Philo sees a man who needs nursed back to the living world. Journalist Daniel Dixon sees dollar signs. But judge Jeremiah Rice, perfectly preserved since 1906, sees a strange world, terrible losses, and ways the human heart stays true over centuries.

We have to start this book by jettisoning everything we know about science. You watch PBS. You took Biology 101 in college. You know human tissue cannot survive freezing. Author Stephen Kiernan makes an end run around everything you know by simply inventing his own rococo science, which might make sense in a Hammer Studios B-movie. Kiernan’s faux science doesn’t pass the smell test.

It’s easy to say “ignore the science,” but not only does Kiernan spend multiple long chapters on it, he keeps reiterating it. Important plot points turn on finer points that would make Richard Dawkins blanch. This becomes especially pointed in later chapters, when revelations about scientific fallibility bring characters against their own mortality. Kiernan’s epigrams about the limits of science ring hollow when readers have been screaming “baloney!” for 400 pages.

Kiernan populates this rococo narrative with characters right out of central casting. Jaded sexist reporter Dixon does a remarkable job meeting deadlines, considering how much time he spends ogling Dr. Kate’s butt. Kate remains unmoved, however, busily trying to restore humanity to Carthage’s monomaniacal empire. Of course a woman would have that responsibility, since everyone knows chicks have feewings.

Even supporting characters never vary from their characterizations. We have the Lackey, the Stoner, the Limey, Doctor House, and an interchangeable legion of creepy Christian protesters. Maybe Kiernan wanted to make a statement about how people slot themselves into dogmatic life roles and stop asking important questions. But it feels like a fire sale at the Cliché Store.

Judge Rice’s fumbling attempts to accommodate 21st Century mores have some redeeming moments. His forays into technology permit gentle humor. He discovers a love of the Grateful Dead on iPod, and his first encounter with big-business baseball merits a chuckle. But his tone resembles a Sunday School scold, and his stilted dialog demands to be enunciated by a drunk Gary Oldman. It gets wearying.

These characters speak like they’re reading a script. A haughty scientist proclaims: “I expect us to replace God.” A religious nut literally plugs her ears rather than listen to reason. These aren’t people having conversations, these are straw men finely tuned to raise viewers’ hackles on the evening news. Every asshole has one redeeming trait in real life, but Kiernan never bothers to unpack anybody beyond the stereotypical level.

Though this is Kiernan’s first novel, it’s not his first book. He’s a journalist, having written two books on mass movements and the technological society. A journalist, folks! Somebody trained to observe minute details, unpack conflicting narratives, and tell not only his subjects’ stories, but the stories behind their stories. There’s no excuse for such ham-handed storytelling from somebody who’s had such a take-no-prisoners apprenticeship.

Kiernan handles English well. He shifts among four conflicting narrators gracefully, and paces his language so readers never stumble over his storytelling. Sadly, this only emphasizes how awkward his story is. Stereotyped characters, forced situations, five-act structure: Kiernan is clearly writing a movie. When Judge Rice learns important life lessons plagiarized from Tim McGraw songs, you can practically hear the soundtrack violins.

Moral lessons abound, about scientific overreach, the value of life, and maintaining our humanity in a technological society. And they fail to move me, because they come from characters so unvarying in their predictability that they feel like authorial sock puppets. I kept waiting for the characters to have one authentic moment, separate from the role Kiernan needed them to play.

But Kiernan isn’t telling their story, they’re telling his. Everything happens to serve Kiernan’s point. And as a result, everything feels contrived. We never have a chance to agree, because Kiernan brooks no contradictory viewpoints. Maybe he needed a scientist co-author to offset his humanity.

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