Flounders and Tigers

This talk was given as the keynote address to the annual retreat of the University of Michigan Department of Human Genetics.

Thank you for inviting me here.  It’s a terrific privilege to be asked to take part in this kind of event, although as a novelist among geneticists I feel rather like a flounder among tigers.  But I do want to thank Dr. Liz Petty for asking me here, or for getting me into this, and Dr. Jeff Long for his help along the way.  It is an honor to be here.

And of course it is nice to be once again under one of the many auspices of the University of Michigan; I did indeed receive my Master’s of Fine Arts from Michigan in 1996 and met my wife in Ann Arbor – she was getting her MFA in poetry while I got mine in fiction.  So I am happily bound to the place and to its people forever, and in particular I suspect about one-eleventh of my brain is still occupied by stored recordings of the many, many identical versions of Hail to the Victors – or, as I came to call it, Hail to the Fucking Victors – to which I was subjected during my twenty-four months or so living on White Street in Ann Arbor.  I kept waiting for the marching band to get it right.  They did not, and I suspect they have not yet.

If all authors want to be rock stars, and we do, it is because we are saddled with gigantic egos, and also gigantic inferiority complexes.  Whatever we declare about ourselves in public, privately we know we’re just sitting at a desk typing while the truly impressive people are out there flying planes or reorganizing monetary policy, or carving people up surgically but not killing them, or, as is the case with the current company, taking a vial of someone’s blood and deciphering the secret phrases within to determine a truth told in a language only a few exalted practitioners can hope to understand.  It is humbling to consider this.  I have been asked here because I have written a novel about a geneticist.  This is the equivalent of a flouder writing a book about a tiger and all his tiger friends.  Meow, said the flounder.

The central character of Long for This World is Henry Moss, a research geneticist in Seattle, my home town, who works on something I call Hickman syndrome but which is essentially Hutchinson-Guilford progeria.  As the book opens, Henry’s only local Hickman patient, the 14-year-old William Durbin, is on the brink of death.

Dr. Henry Moss encounters an asymptomatic boy, Thomas Benhamouda, who, while he has the Hickman gene, does not have Hickman.  Thomas is seventeen and in perfect health.  Henry soon discovers that Thomas has a secondary mutation which has not only protected Thomas from Hickman but which has, as far as anyone can tell, stopped his body’s aging processes entirely.  Henry then has to decide whether to use the product of this secondary mutation to attempt to save the dying William Durbin.  If he does, he will run afoul of his IRB, which we all know we don’t want to do, and the rules of his profession in a permanent and serious way; but if he doesn’t, William will certainly die.  Henry himself has children: a daughter, Sandra, seventeen, and more to the point he has a son, Darren, who, like William Durbin, is fourteen.  So Henry knows exactly what is at stake for William Durbin’s parents.

All this is happening during the dotcom boom in Seattle, amid the circuslike, pesto-intense, artisan-balsamic-vinegar-heavy, recycled-lumber-floorboards insanity of that time, with easy money to be had seemingly everywhere, and overall a sense of giddy possibility, and Henry is further tempted by the chance that he might be able get rich like his neighbors — to make what he uneasily thinks of as a killing.

One of the questions I get frequently is: So, why did you write this novel?

Usually what the questioner really means is, why the hell did you write this novel?

What would drive anybody to engage this sad, sad story?  A fourteen-year-old boy with a fatal genetic disorder?  This is what you write about?  What the hell is wrong with you?  Haven’t you heard of fun?  What’s your problem?  Writing about genetics!

What is my problem?

Margaret Atwood has a book called Oryx and Crake, which came out about the same time my own book did, and it describes the career of a mad genius geneticist — I’m sure you all know one, if you aren’t one yourself – the novel is sometime in the not-too-distant future, at a time when the elite intellectual classes are trained and unlike today live within the walls of carefully manicured compounds, living beautiful lives and having beautiful conversations with their own exceptional peers; they raise genetically altered chickens that have no heads and are bulbous and eerie, like lava lamps made out of meat, while outside the walls the less fortunate masses seethe and fester.  This can lead to no good end.  Which is, of course, the point.  The chickens fall prey to an infestation of tiny genetically engineered wasps, for one thing, and then things just get worse and worse, and as the walls crumble Atwood just goes ahead and kills everybody — wipes out the population of the world with a genetically engineered plague.  Why not.  The lesson?  An old one.  Tamper with nature, you die.  And what’s more fun for a novelist than killing everybody in the world anyway?  You can’t get away with that in real life, at least not yet, but if you’re a novelist, go ahead, take aim.  Genetics here serves as a lens for sharpening the focus in a mildly nutty book about social questions.  Genetic manipulation as a subject was intriguing writers even before genetics really came into being; Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World comes to mind, and even H.G. Wells’ seminal science-fiction novel, The Time Machine, carries us forward into a world in which people have been bred into two distinct races, the Morlocks and the Eloi, locked in their sick symbiosis, and there too we see the world without threatening the world within, and finally overcoming it.  Nature is water, the works of man the dam, and every dam will one day burst.

So genetics has been around as a subject for a long time, but now that we have DNA to write about, it’s almost irresistible.  I think so, anyway.  It’s really the perfect metaphor, so much so that if it wasn’t there, we’d have to invent it.  It’s Talmudic in its dense, allusive, intercrossed mystery; like an old set of laws, it’s laden with ancient codicils rendered obsolete by later innovations; it reproduces, with a misguided zeal that’s medieval in its mindlessness, all the old errors one wishes to be rid of, errors of both transcription and intent; it is the old wisdom of the tribe, passed from one generation to the next; it maintains the grand old machinery of the Animal Kingdom: breathing; ingestion, excretion, reproduction, decay.  And aside from its metaphorical appeal it informs every novel about a family, about a mother and a daughter, a pair of brothers, a father and a son.   It is, almost literally, the human story writ microscopically, the cherished family album we all carry around with us everywhere we go.

So genetics.  Yes, all right, acceptable topic.

But why progeria?  Why a dying 14-year old?  Why a geneticist as a protagonist?

Only now, more than a year after the book appeared in stores in the summer of 2003, do I think I have something like a real answer.

I think this novel started with a gunfight on the streets of San Francisco.

Now, as some of you may know, my father, Peter Byers, is, like Henry Moss, also a research geneticist in Seattle.  My father’s research — and you can possibly inform me more fully on this question — has to do with collagen and connective tissue disorders and includes inquiry into osteogenesis imperfecta, Ehlers-Danhlos, and Marfan’s syndrome.

So naturally there was some raw material there waiting to be tapped.  Some of the impulse behind the novel arises, I will confess, from autobiographical sources.  I promise I will not get personal here, I really do; still, part of the novel is told from the point of view of Darren, Dr. Moss’ 14-year-old son, who bears some resemblance to me at fourteen, and indeed, to me now.

Now, Darren has to manage his burgeoning sense of the universe with the acknowledgement that his personal experience of it is going to be finite.  He will die.  He knows this for sure because he has first accidentally, and then on purpose, become friends with William Durbin, his father’s dying patient.

I was never as outgoing as Darren, or as thoughtful, or resourceful, or as self-assured.  Never as brave.   And I never became friends with any of my father’s patients; but his patients were there in our lives, in an incidental fashion, and some of them I met; but it is the novelist’s right to work on reality in whatever way he likes, and I have taken advantage of this.

For those of you who are wondering what it’s like to be the child of a geneticist, I am here to tell you: it is enlightening; it is also inspiring.

Enlightening.  The odd bits and pieces of the laboratory that made their way home – the red pens, the eminently chewable pipette tips, or whatever those little plastic caps were; the dogeared Current Contents, the slick white weekly majesty of the New England Journal of Medicine, the mysterious gray blobby photographs of chromosomes in the pages of Gene, the inscrutable clotted insistence of the pages of Science, the needlelike presence in the mind of The Lancet; the phone calls at the dinner table from patients or from various hospitals around the country, taken out of hearing into the next room; and, now and then, the news arriving that a patient had died: that an aorta had failed, that a body had given in to its own frailties; and the sense, at those times, that life was precious, and fragile, and that in its nearly infinite complexity it was one of the true wonders of the universe; all of this produced the sensation that the effortless breathing perfection of all of us as we sat there – all of us able to eat unaided, able to digest our food, able to metabolize what we ate, able to deploy all the intricate and interwoven mechanisms that sustained us – that this perfection was something to not to be forgotten, indeed, that it was something to be cherished.

But it was also inspiring.  That my father, and later my stepmother, Virginia Sybert, could walk out the door every morning and do their difficult, often heartbreaking work – and return to the house essentially normal, and with a measure of generosity and optimism left over for their family – this seemed an act of daily courage.  In high school, I worked afternoons in my father’s lab, responding to reprint requests or photocopying articles from the depths of the library – this was in the dark ages before the Internet – so I was able to witness the workings of the lab from up close, and to observe, in the idle, uncomprehending manner of a nonscientist, the bland make-do surface of daily laboratory life, the not-so-new-anymore machines, the labels hastily written in black marker on blue tape, the coffeemaker always on and smelling sort of bad, and the long corridors of similar labs down the E wing of the Health Sciences building, and every laboratory interconnected with others around the country and around the world, and the sense that all that effort had been organized by good people in the service of research that might, one day, end a certain variety of human suffering.

And even when you corrected this vision, when you added in the required measures of human pettiness and striving – although I hasten to add these are things I never saw — even then, still, what else, indeed, was worth doing?  What else, in other words, was worth writing about?

So: inspiring.

In fact my father was indispensible to the writing of this book; he pointed out where I had gone wrong and suggested things I might do beyond what I had done, and he was wise enough to see that in fact I wasn’t writing about him, because I wasn’t.  Even if I didn’t know what it was about at the time.

Because now I think this novel is really about a gunfight.

On Halloween night, 1997, my soon-to-be wife and I – we were living in the Mission district of San Francisco at the time – walked a couple miles to the Castro Distict for their annual Halloween parade.  It was, as you would expect, mobbed.  We were, and remain, somewhat shy people, so we didn’t dress up or anything, but we loved San Francisco, and anyway it didn’t matter that we hadn’t dressed, probably a good thing we hadn’t tried, because we would have looked very lame – the costumes were spectacular, near-naked men covered in purple glitter and wearing translucent purple wings (it took us a minute to get it, they were supposed to be fairies); unshaven men in blond ponytails and cheerleader outfits; gay clowns; gay ghosts; gay Bill Clintons; gay cowboys – lots of gay cowboys — the usual mad variety of human exuberance you get in a good city like that.

Around midnight we began our walk home.

To get home, we had to traverse a fairly dangerous neighborhood – one with a lot of gangs.  Six or seven blocks from our house we took a turn off the main street, Mission Street, and began up a hill toward our apartment.

As we headed up the hill we passed a group of children – really, they were children, five or six of them – standing on the corner.  It was well after midnight now, and here they were, these unlikely children, standing in the cooling San Francisco night.  But it was Halloween, and we had just come from the parade in the Castro, where we had quickly come to be surprised by nothing.  So we kept walking.  Up the hill, into the darkness of the small, quiet streets above.

After a moment four or five children came running past us.  The youngest, a girl, could not have been more than nine years old.  Running like hell.  Everyone but the oldest boy went dashing past.  He remained there on the corner below.

Then a white car turned onto the dark street.   An engine roaring.  Rubber shrieking on the pavement.  And the beginning of a strange sound, a flat pat pat pat.  The boy was still upright on the corner – not more than fourteen – standing with his arm out, pistol tipped to the side.  Shooting.  The car accelerated past him.  A hand extended from the window, shooting back.  Pat pat pat. The boy followed the path of the car with his pistol, continuing to shoot.

My wife hit the ground, flat on the sidewalk.  I ran a few feet away and crouched behind a porch pillar.

The bullets were now sparking on the pavement.  Thunking into the parked cars along the street.  The white car reached us, roared past.  The boy ran up the street after it, full of the insane bravery of a lost youth.  Came up the hill, still shooting.  The car careened around a corner, out of sight.  The shooter, fourteen, slim, pretty, stood unmarked by his terrible life, in the middle of the dark street, gun still leveled.  Then let it drop.

Then he turned.  Saw us there in the shadows.  And lifted the gun again.

You wonder what you’ll think at those moments.  The plane begins its dive, and what goes through your mind?  What went through my mind was – that laboratory.  Those afternoons.  The careful industry.  That sense of a large, benign, human purpose at work in the world.  And the thought: all that will be wastedAll those memories will vanish.  And no one will ever know that’s what I was thinking when I died.

Of course we learn what we value when we are at risk of losing everything.  When faced with the burning building, the approaching flood, what do we save?   When we learn of the terminal diagnosis, who is the first person we call?

So I saw in that moment what I valued most: that time spent with my father, alongside him, assisting, however minutely, in the pursuit of something that felt like truth.  Those populous corridors, those patient machines, those careful, attentive people.  That usefulness and courage.  My last thought.

“Run,” the boy said.

Which, of course, we did.  And we survived. And the elements of this night sank into me: two 14-year-old boys.  Death in the air.  The terror, the sadness, of waste.  The fear of loss.  The hilarious pageantry of a prosperous San Francisco not an hour away.  These things sank into me and were sealed up in the way such things get sealed up, and yet they were preserved in the super-cold depths of my psyche, in the way century-old timbers at the bottom of Lake Michigan can be preserved – and then, two years later, I began writing a novel about a prosperous, exuberant Seattle, full of joy and self-congratulation, and a beloved laboratory, and an atmosphere of impending peril, and two fourteen-year-old boys, Darren Moss and William Durbin, each facing the other across an unbridgeable chasm, filled with a different kind of death.  And that, I think, is something like the truth about where this novel came from, and why I wrote it.  I felt the loss of the world and could not stand it, and wrote a book in which the beautiful world is both lost and recovered.  No one died that night.  When you’re fourteen, you’re apparently a very bad shot.  But something was lost, and something else learned.

It has taken me a long time to come to this.  When you are deep in the joists and subfloors of a novel and putting up the lighting and plumbing and plaster you can’t think much about what you’re doing on the larger scale.  Sentences are too hard to write.  Paragraphs are too unwieldy.  Chapters weigh tons apiece.  It is simply too hard to see everything at once.  You have to get some distance to see things clearly.  Work for a while, then step back to see the shape you’ve arrived at.  Go in and fix it.  Then step back again, until you’re done.  And still the thing keeps changing, because you do.  Five years from now, or ten, or twenty, I will be another version of myself, and I imagine I’ll discover other, deeper stories behind the one I’ve just told you.  I will keep approaching a truth, and it will keep presenting itself to me in an approximate form, and it will keep on receding.

And in this way, finally, my project and your projects are not that different.  From a place of uncertainty, we both approach something more like certainty.  From the messy materials of life we put together a version of something like truth, something that works for now, and which will stand for a time, a roadside marker, signifying that we have arrived at the end of a certain thought; and then we strike out again for the next marker, one more thought closer to truth, and now and then someone will erect a pillar that can be seen for miles, a Jane Eyre or a Moby Dick or a special theory of relativity; but even these will, in time, begin to erode and, over the centuries, to lose their ability to show us where we have been; they too will become only approximations; but we both go on, the tigers and the flounders, agreeing to meet at truth; and when we both arrive from our particular directions we will find that the truth has been there and gone, but that the air has the taste of it; and we will go after it again in our own ways, because that is all there is to do, because what else, after all, is worth doing?