In the Field by Rachel Pastan

Literary fiction about science remains an exception. When C.P. Snow voiced concern in 1959 about “Two Cultures” in reference to the growing gap between science and the arts, it created a stir. Nowadays, no one would debate the notion. It has hardened into fact.

Often, when literary fiction tries to engage with science, it tends toward speculative writing. For instance, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go or Ian McEwan’s Solar or any of a number of Richard Powers’ novels. They show a hypothetical present or future and ask: “What if?

Rachel Pastan’s thoughtful new novel In the Field (Delphinium, 352 pages) explores a different kind of question. It looks back on past scientific achievement and asks: “What was?” Pastan is alert to how social history shapes the acquisition of knowledge. What we learn, not just of love and family and grief (to name a few literary fiction favorites) but also of biology and cytogenetics, for instance, is not fruit simply sitting there, waiting to be plucked. It is experiential. It will involve, as Pastan’s protagonist remarks late in the novel, “Luck, contingency, persistence. Endurance. Or call it stubbornness!”

Loosely based on the life of Barbara McClintock, a geneticist who won the Nobel Prize in 1983, In the Field spans sixty years of the life of Kate Croft, a Brooklyn-born scientist whose contributions to her specialty are often ignored or hijacked by her peers. It recounts her formative years as an undergraduate at Cornell; the grunt work of graduate school, laboring under an obtuse supervisor; the institutional roadblocks for a woman and the cut-throat practices of male colleagues on the prowl for career advancement. The challenge of producing good research exists in a complicated network of social interaction.

“Life is a contest,” Paul said, stretching out his long legs and throwing back his head to gaze up at the stars.

“Don’t be glib,” Kate told him.

“What do you think it is, then?”

“A web,” she answered. “An infinitely large fabric in which everything is intertwined. And lucky people like us get to spend our lives poking and prodding at the seams, trying to understand how it all fits together.”

Paul laughed […]. “That’s a very romantic notion.”

“It’s not romantic in the least!”

 

Paul is a graduate student like Kate, one of a youthful circle whose members will cross paths many times “in the field.” The novel’s title is an effective pun, referring to the discipline of genetics research and also, literally, to the fields of maize that Kate carefully tends and minutely observes, seed by seed, plant by plant, for scientific data. Much of the dramatic tension of the book arises from the contrast between these fields, between career imperatives and the ongoing pursuit of science. Another key member of this circle is Kate’s friend, Thatch.

Thatch got out of his chair and strode over to stare into the fire. “Do you know what I think life is?” he said. “It’s the struggle of decency against corruption. That’s what I was taught when I was a child, and it’s what I still believe.” He picked up the bucket and heaved the water onto the flames. The wet coals hissed.

These various descriptions—social, empirical, moral—collide over the course of the novel, sometimes in unexpected ways. Pastan wisely avoids a schematic telling and allows her characters to drift. The novel is at its most satisfying in dramatizing the cumulative effect of friendship and rivalry over time, particularly in regard to Kate and Thatch. Kate, though a character of superior intelligence, is not oversmart about relationships with others or in understanding her own sexuality. There’s a learning curve, with trials and stumbles. As in science, “Eureka” moments exist, but they are rare and are informed by earlier failures.

People outside the university sphere, such as her family back in Brooklyn or her lover Sarah, also contribute to her learning. Subplots involving Thatch’s wife Cynthia or Kate’s brother Charlie could have been developed more, to my taste, but on the whole, In the Field succeeds in telling a remarkable story about life as a process of discovery. Even after winning the Nobel Prize, in belated recognition of her scientific efforts, Kate cannot embrace it as a final vindication of her experience. The truth could never be so simple. When dealing with the media, she’s aware that “partly she was playing the role they had cast her in—the eccentric old lady scientist, possibly gone slightly daft.”

By the end of the novel, the “What if?” or “What was?” premises mentioned at the beginning of this review no longer apply, or are incompletely descriptive. Because, with hindsight, Pastan is also asking “What if?” Not about a putative future (e.g., “What if one day we achieved a cold fusion reaction, and then…?”) but rather, about a squandered past (i.e., “What if more women like Kate Croft had managed to surmount the obstacles in their paths, and then…?”)

The contemplation of this loss is also a question for speculative fiction. It takes Virginia Woolf’s musing about Shakespeare’s sister and invites us to wonder about Galileo’s sister, and of course about her descendants, too. Characters in the novel like Cynthia and Kate’s college friend, Thea, are clearly “What if?” candidates. What if this enormous pool of women’s potential had been allowed to flourish? And then…?

We don’t know the answer, but ultimately, this novel is testimony to both achievement and tragic waste. Pastan’s sense of ambiguity, a refusal of a feel-good formula even in the moment of her heroine’s crowning triumph, makes In the Field a sophisticated, poignant novel.

Charles Holdefer, author of Don’t Look at Me, coming in 2022

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