PIECES OF PAYNE by Albert Goldbarth


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Sophisticated albeit highly elliptical account of a young woman struggling with an unhappy past in the face of present illness.

Award-winning poet and essayist Goldbarth (Many Circles, 2001, etc.) has always appealed to those with rarefied tastes, since his narratives, which are invariably obscure and rambling, require a good deal of work on the reader’s part. Here, we’re told (eventually) the story of Eliza Phillips, a young astronomer who may or may not have breast cancer. The narrator is one “Professor Goldbarth,” who (like the author) teaches English at a college in Wichita, Kansas. He meets Eliza in one of his classes, and, although not a historian, she is very much haunted by the past—both generally (she studies the account of English novelist Fanny Burney’s 1811 mastectomy) and personally (her father, Randolph Phillips, was a celebrated surgeon who specialized in breast cancer). A great deal of the story is taken up by meditations, fragmentary notes, and musings on art, literature, and philosophy. We learn of the strange career of the Victorian painter Albert Pinkham Ryder (a friend of Kahlil Gibran’s), for example, and of the unusual similarities between the lives of Eliza and one Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin (a 19th-century botanist who read Shakespeare and married a Russian astronomer). Eliza’s life unfolds slowly in flashback (her parents’ divorce, her own unhappy marriage to a Russian astronomer, her interest in quantum physics), but Goldbarth seems more concerned with quoting people like John Cowper Powys or compiling alphabetical lists of breast nicknames (from “apples” to “zingers”) than in creating a more conventional narrative. There is a helpful chapter of acknowledgements at the end that allows the author to list the sources (from Pliny the Elder to the National Examiner) that inspired many of his musings.

Borges meets David Foster Wallace: Many interesting patches, but otherwise little more than an unengaging meander.

Pub Date: April 1st, 2003
ISBN: 1-55597-378-7
Page count: 196pp
Publisher: Graywolf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2003


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