This week: "Out of My Head," "Weighing the Soul: Scientific Discovery from the Brilliant to the Bizarre" and "Seconds of Pleasure"
“Out of My Head”
Readers who enjoyed Didier van Cauwelaert’s hilarious, prize-winning “One Way” (2003 in English) will enjoy seeing yet more tricks in his repertoire in his new novel, “Out of My Head.” The French author focuses on how a person holds onto his sense of identity. Is identity what you remember? Or who you know, or who acknowledges you? What makes you inimitably you?
Martin Harris, the American narrator of this slow-blooming thriller, wakes from a coma in Paris to find that his wife is living with another man who has Martin Harris’ passport and research position. Fascinatingly, the impostor is not a physical double, but he has Martin Harris’ life down. The protagonist was in a car accident shortly after arriving in Paris for a new research job and has no papers and no one who knows him from the impostor. The French police and the American consulate treat him like he is crazy, so he hires a private investigator to help him get back his life and status as a visiting professor of botany from Yale.
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Martin has perfect recall of details from 30 years ago, and yet he notices an instinct for killing and a piano-playing ability that he doesn’t recognize in himself. He begins to doubt all his memories, especially after he hears the very same memories coming from his impostor:
“It’s horrible. Hearing my life coming out of this guy’s mouth. The feeling that everything I know, everything I experience has been projected out of my head, decanted into someone smarter, more open, newer, the way you decant wine into a carafe, and at the bottom of the bottle there’s only a murky deposit.”
The narrative takes a wild turn and the surprise ending cascades down in a hurry for such a short book, but the groundwork has been laid for a riveting denouement.
Van Cauwelaert’s characters are intriguing, and his development of their reactions to circumstances clever. The ending will make the phrase “I’m no longer myself” — something Martin had felt soon after coming out of the coma — amusingly resonant.
Reviewed by Wingate Packard
“Weighing the Soul: Scientific Discovery from the Brilliant to the Bizarre”
To galvanize someone is to impel or provoke them to action. The word originates from Luigi Galvani, an 18th-century Italian physiologist and anatomist who made a dead frog’s legs kick by applying electricity to the dissected beast. His methods, later displayed by his nephew, inspired Mary Shelley to similarly animate her infamous creation, Frankenstein.
Galvani attributed the frog’s motions to “animal electricity,” which he believed flowed through a living body and which remained in the body after death. His theories were later rejected, but his insights did eventually lead to a better understanding of how animals such as eels can produce electricity, which later led to the development of the modern pacemaker.
In his new book, “Weighing the Soul,” Dr. Len Fisher, who made a name for himself by winning the 1999 Ig Nobel Prize in Physics for calculating the best method for dunking a biscuit in tea or coffee, sets out to show how bizarre concepts sometimes lead to important discoveries. (No great leaps have occurred with Fisher’s own work, but you can read about it in his first book, aptly named “How to Dunk a Doughnut.”) The eight chapters focus on topics ranging from how much the soul weighs (about equal to a slice of bread) to why blunt-headed lightning rods work better than pointed ones.
Although his writing is occasionally slow-paced and dense, Fisher does an effective job at illustrating the strange paths that science takes. His incorporation of odd and telling facts actually shines best in his notes. He does show how good ideas can be lost through jealousy and indifference and how personality, persistence and persuasion can lead to success or failure. They are not new lessons, just lessons that we shouldn’t forget.
Reviewed by David B. Williams
“Seconds of Pleasure”
Neil LaBute is an acclaimed playwright and movie director best known for his very dark dramas. When “In the Company of Men” premiered in movie art houses seven years ago, the writer-director’s exploration of the brutal, testosterone-fueled betrayals of a corporate salaryman was fresh and compelling, a potent mixture of Mamet machismo and fin de siècle cubicle anthropology.
LaBute’s debut short-story collection, “Seconds of Pleasure,” treads much of the same thematic ground, returning once again to the company of men. Twenty stories, many of them very brief, explore the antics of what Jane Goodall calls “the big males”: men driven by powerful primal urges and a profound commitment to the importance of the hierarchy in all human relations.
The stories are cut from a deadening, ugly cloth: Again and again we meet male characters who are driven by the need to control, humiliate and conquer other men and women, emotionally and often sexually.
The book is a blunt object, and after even a few pages, the sting of LaBute’s trademark candor gives way to a bruised feeling. There isn’t a story here that can’t be read in five minutes, but it’s very difficult to wade through more than one at a time. I resented the book long before the halfway point.
“Seconds of Pleasure” is dedicated to Elvis Costello, and takes its title from a Costello song. There is a line in that song — “you treat me like a piece of human furniture” — that resonates all too clearly with the mood this collection creates.
At first, there is something startling and unnerving in these pieces about betrayal, sexual conquest, male posturing and even murder. But ultimately the characters, in their repetitive, monotonous ugliness and cruelty, have all the emotional appeal of chairs moved around a showroom.
Reviewed by Mary Brennan