A surreal novel about a promising young academic trying to change his life.
Taylor’s funny, meticulously controlled fiction debut opens with 30-year-old hotshot physicist David Oster finding himself fed up with teaching physics to undergraduates (“It was pitiful when a physicist tried to tell eighteen-year-olds how a ball rolls off a table”) and eager to trade his California Institute of Technology postdoc for something different, something involving pure research. He manages to wrangle an appointment at the prestigious, deep-pocketed Larson Kinne Institute for Applied Physics at Western Washington State University. Once there, he embraces the change, despite the eccentric reputation of the institute’s enigmatic founder and namesake. David is mainly worried about breaking the news to his three girlfriends—classicist Valerie, flight attendant Cosmo, and linguist Helena, with her “weary Modigliani kind of face.” All three seem to take their breakups fairly well, and soon, David encounters the institute’s manic, free-wheeling inhabitants. His new colleagues, especially the splendidly Rabelaisian researcher Viktor Pelliau, steadily draw him into a range of loopy adventures, and David’s natural proclivities for offbeat, problematic romances land him in some amusing relationships. Taylor so skillfully blends David Lodge–style academic farce with Thomas Pynchon–style weird science (mostly of the aquatic variety) that it’s impossible to spot the dividing line between the two. In David Oster, she crafts a perfect, hapless Everyman who faces academic jockeying, lovelorn antics and even an attempted murder with beleaguered charm and an endless supply of snarky one-liners and sardonic observations. The interdisciplinary rivalries at Kinne are particularly well-done, typified by an offhand reference to “whale guys” as “the movie stars of science, appearing on TV with all the creatures they study and to whom they give cute names, but unpopular with real scientists because they are so rich and happy.” The book’s plotlines eventually spiral to pleasingly offbeat conclusions.
An unpredictable, winningly bizarre academic satire.