Who else mixes science, history, and literary art so well?: Rick Larios on Andrea Barrett’s The Air We Breathe


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The Air We Breathe, Andrea Barrett, WW Norton

This is Andrea Barrett’s eighth work of fiction, her fourth since she attracted the shared attention of a wide audience and major award-givers with Ship Fever (National Book Award). Like the previous three works, two collections of short fiction and a novel, The Air We Breathe investigates the comingling of history, science, and human relationships. Like them it is also about dislocation, immigrants self-exiled or driven to escape, voyagers and their parted families, and, in this case, the exile of illness, quarantined for societal safety and personal cure—but apart and in need of a new community. Set in the fictional town of Tamarack Lake, New York, where the local industry is treating tuberculosis patients, some in cure cottages for those with money, and others in a public sanatorium for those without money. The time is 1916-1917, war in Europe hangs its shadow darkly across life in the states. Chemistry dominates as a theme: as an emerging science, as an explanation for disease and its trajectory from contagion to cure or death, as an explanation of how individuals interact with one another.

The book is presented as an after the fact witnessing, a first person plural narrative, by a self-selected and, except by inference, anonymous group of the sanatorium’s patients and staff. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, this mysterious first person plural storyteller. At first you find yourself wondering just who is included in the narrative we, who isn’t, and how do they know what they know? But you do figure it out and quickly realize that the narrative group does not include any of the book’s four main characters: Leo Marburg, an immigrant from Odessa who is a patient at the sanatorium, Miles Fairchild, a privileged, lonely factory owner who is a patient at Mrs. Martin’s cure cottage, Naomi Martin, Mrs. Martin’s disgruntled and talented daughter, and Eudora MacEachern, Naomi’s best friend and a ward maid at the sanatorium.

The hospital treats its patients with an inflexible discipline: “Coughing can be controlled,” the hospital Rule Book states. At meals they are greeted with Daily Thoughts: “Food is life. Eat three times as much as you think you need: once for the fever, once for the germs, and the final time for yourself.” It’s an upper case, lower case world and the patients are the lower case. They are exhorted to avoid any kind of emotion, any kind of effort that might unsettle their cures. “Resting,” goes another Daily Thought, “is done with the mind as well as the body. Getting well depends on YOU!”

Into this delicately balanced world, where rebellion is a whispered conversation or something to read snuck into your bed, come Miles Fairchild and Naomi Martin. Miles thinks it will be a great idea to bring a lecture series to the sanatorium, a way of replicating an improvement mentality in the hospital as he had done at his cement factory. He will begin by lecturing about his hobby, excavating dinosaur bones, a topic he manages to make very dull despite his enthusiasm. When the audience fails to respond he assumes it’s because they don’t know enough so he backtracks to tell them even more. The assembled audience of patients loses numbers but a core group emerges because things are that isolating at the sanatorium and because there is the promise of others taking the lead. And they do, turning it into a circle discussion where patients share interests—from Einstein to Stravinsky, from apple farming to film projection.

Naomi had flirted with Miles to get his attention and a position as his driver, a job that daily gets her out of her mother’s cure cottage and maybe eventually out of Tamarack Lake. Soon, though, she falls for Leo Marburg, imagining an unspoken, reciprocated passion. Miles meanwhile falls for her and can’t understand her sudden resistance or recognize her barely contained loathing. These two are the unwitting agents of disruption, a viral presence that attacks the health of the tiny community of the sanatorium. “How fast does chaos arrive?” asks the narrators as events spin out of control. The answer is instantly and, as the group’s reconstruction makes clear, on the long legs of time with its striding sequence of cause and effect.

In telling the story the chroniclers are seeking both to understand and to atone. In the wake of the fire, they failed Leo and “contributed to destroying our own world.” But nothing is fully destroyed. They re-group through the effort of composing their history. Earlier Leo reads this from a chemistry textbook, “Thus matter does not disappear and is not created, but only undergoes various physical and chemical transformations…it is everlasting.” There is an echo here of Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, that man will not only endure but prevail. Only it’s matter that prevails and generations of human society. The novel’s endpapers contain family trees that look backward and forward, linking characters from The Air We Breathe with ancestors from Barrett’s most recent fiction and descendents who will likely appear in stories to come. Who we are, how we are and what we might become is all in the present moment mix of our bio-chemical churn. One might, as the narrators do, “call this hope; it’s always disturbing.”

The Air We Breathe is not as successful as the best of Barrett’s most recent work. It is hard to accept that Leo conjures as much loyalty as he does on such slender interactions with Eudora, Dr. Petrie and Irene Piasecka, an x-ray technician who is one of the book’s best secondary characters. Strong circumstantial evidence piles up against him so you wonder that more did not waver in their support of him. Both Miles and Naomi seem to lose dimension as the novel progresses, rather than gain it, approaching caricature when they didn’t begin that way.

I can’t say these are minor flaws, but Barrett’s gifts are major and enough on exhibit to make this a rewarding reading experience. Her writing is elegant and precise. She has the ability to bring a time and place to life without the present leaking through the scenery. She writes with the craftsman’s respectful confidence that no more than necessary is all that’s required. Finally, she is willing to tackle big subjects on compressed playing fields, not forcing meaning or moment to the artificially epic. Instead she has built a body of substantial work, particularly her last four works of fiction, that stand on their own and work as a kind of literary mosaic that does approach the truly epic when taken together. Who else mixes science, history, and literary art so well? What other contemporary author, besides Peter Matthiessen, has done as well consistently mining a particular vein of our national story? Andrea Barrett continues her fresh look at the immigrant experience and it is our good fortune that there is more to come.

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Rick Larios lives, works, and reads in New York City. In an earlier life he had book reviews published in The Grand Rapids Press and Newsday. He has been an elementary school teacher, an editor for Holt Rinehart and Winston and Weekly Reader, and for the past 15 years has worked EdisonLearning.

2 responses to “Who else mixes science, history, and literary art so well?: Rick Larios on Andrea Barrett’s The Air We Breathe

  1. Here I am again with a second comment. I’m shocked that The Air We Breathe was almost completely ignored by two key components of the mainstream press in 2007. One reason may have been the similarity of Andrea Barrett’s novel with Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Both Barrett and Mann focus on sanatoriums for TB patients during the WWI era. In the shadow of Mann’s masterly philosophical tome, The Air We Breathe may come off looking pallid—like a bad parody. Compared to Mann’s quintessential ingénue, Hans Castorp, Barrett’s character Leo looks “flat” and uninteresting. In Barrett’s novel there are no equivalents of Mann’s battling philosophers, Settembrini and Naphta, let alone the preternaturally shy embodiment of charisma and Dionysus, Mynheer Peeperkorn. There is no compelling romantic equivalent of Mann’s Madame Chauchat.

    The more I think of it, though, the more I think the reason for Barrett’s novel’s not getting the reception it deserved has to do with the haphazard state of criticism in America today, particularly when it comes to “literary novels.” Surely, The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books were aware of The Air We Breathe. Surely comparisons with Thomas Mann may have been pursued in reviews that might even have argued in Barrett’s favor.

    Nope. Andrea Barrett, one of our best fiction writers, was passed over by our two major reviewing outlets because of reasons we’ll never know. Which made it all the more important for Daniel Casey, Gently Read Literature, and Rick Larios to come to Barrett’s rescue!

  2. This is a smartly balanced review. One minor quibble: Rick Larios doesn’t pay enough attention to Miles Fairchild’s transformation from a sympathetic dullard, a man of sorrow who has lost a dear friend, Lawrence–into a man who has lost his ladylove and become an arch-patriot, a fanatic sicko. So much of the impact of Barrett’s novel, for me, depends on the wider ramifications of this transformation, which Larios sees as resulting in Miles’s becoming a caricature. Otherwise, I admire this piece. Larios obviously cares a great deal about Barrett’s fiction, as do I, especially “The Voyage of the Narwhal.”