The Center of Things

Jenny McPhee
Doubleday ($22.95)

by Rumaan Alam

Who's more suited to a life of movie stardom than the children of movie stars? Reared in the glow of public affection and flash bulbs, they're poised from birth to parlay their unique luster, whether culturally endowed or genetically inherited, into a career on screen. Thus Anjelica Huston and Carrie Fisher, Sofia Coppola and Angelina Jolie, Scott Caan and Gwyneth Paltrow, the Redgraves and Barrymores. The scions of artists sometimes become artists, as in the case of Kiki Smith; the progeny of poets sometimes become poets, as in the case of Frieda Hughes (daughter of Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath); the offspring of musicians sometimes turn to music, as did Jakob Dylan and Sean Lennon. But who among us doesn't doubt the mettle of these second generation artists? Who isn't convinced that were it not for that famous surname and the whole coterie of agents, producers and curators indebted to those parents, their poems, paintings, films and the songs would never see the light of day?

That said, it may come as a surprise to some that The Center of Things, a first novel by Jenny McPhee—daughter of the legendary essayist John McPhee and sister to the equally literary Martha and Laura—is an intelligent and rewarding read. It's neither a transparent, garishly autobiographical novel about the daughter of a writer nor an insipid quasi-literary tale of sex and the single girl. Rather, it's a witty book that uses physics as a metaphor for the chaos of life and love. Critics generally go easy on first time novelists, but most writers would crumble under the scrutiny that being born of such a well-known parent inevitably invites. McPhee weathers it quite nicely, even surviving comparisons to her father's oeuvre.

 Marie Brown, the endearingly eccentric protagonist of The Center of Things, is too tall and too intelligent. She's a hard working researcher and reporter at the Gotham City Star, a lurid evening tabloid. She's deaf in one ear. She's 39. She's chronically early for appointments, and chalks this trait up to a fear of abandonment. McPhee wastes no time filling in Marie's outline, feeding us this information early in the book to diffuse the sense that this is another single-girl-in-the-big-city book.

What really sets Marie apart from her contemporaries is her academic background, an unusual trait in a female character, and almost without precedent in as breezy and fun a book as this one. Fifteen years earlier, while a graduate student, she took a seminar on the relationship between quantum mechanics and reality. Working toward her degree in the philosophy of science, Marie became captivated by quantum theory, the idea that the act of observing elementary particles influences their behavior. Her work on this paper, her struggle to grasp this unknowable subject, is her priority in life.

Of course, the novel itself is, ultimately, a text on this abstract, complex idea. It probably wouldn't bother most readers if McPhee got her facts straight, but she handles the terms and concepts of physics with all the confidence of an expert. She writes as lucidly on this subject as her father writes on geology or any of the arcane subjects generally uninteresting to the uninitiated that he makes come alive on paper, his great gift. Truly, his daughter has inherited that ability, or her father has instilled it in her.

The catalyst for the whirlwind plot of The Center of Things is the glamorous film siren Nora Mars, as enigmatic a presence as Pynchon's V., known only to us readers through the epigrams from her films with which McPhee has liberally (perhaps too liberally) peppered the narrative. As the novel opens, Mars is lying in a coma. It's an auspicious moment for Marie's career. Mars was one of her great childhood heroines; the aforementioned epigrams are a central part of Marie's youth, comprising a game she played with her brother Michael, from whom she is estranged as an adult, in which they swapped dialogue from Mars' filmography.

Part of Marie's duties at the Star is keeping the advance obituary file, but when Nora Mars falls ill, Marie convinces her waspy, cartoonish editor Miles Brewster, the character least developed in the book's small cast, to let her write the obituary itself. It's a big step up from her usual duties, which include ghost writing for her less talented, lout of a boyfriend named Ned Brilliant, a dashing reporter at the paper. Though driven by a love for Mars and all that movie stars represent, Marie eventually uncovers the tawdry story behind her idol's life.

Marie meets with Mars' young ex-husband Rex Mars (Nora, in a delightful touch, required all of her myriad husbands to take her last name), and learns that his relationship to the actress might be far more complicated than most people know. A visit to Nora's sister turns up similarly irresistible material. Marie the tabloid reporter has struck gold, and the hitherto unknown truth about Nora Mars' life is Marie's ticket to stardom. The famous, we see, are the elementary particles in the universe of Marie and her tabloid job. And Marie, the scientist-cum-observer, alters the results of her observation as she writes, becoming involved in the whole brouhaha.

So what's the reality of Mars' life? It doesn't ruin any of the plot's surprises to say that it's a chaotic, squalid tale of embittered siblings and foiled loves. In fact, it's not unlike Marie's life. Marie's estrangement from her brother Michael is deeply felt. Though the reason for the rift between them is actually a bit predictable (I won't give it away here, don't fear), the characters are fully enough realized to lift the estrangement above the conventional and make it poignant. And in keeping with the metaphor McPhee has established—that the behavior of particles is influenced by their observation—Marie has an active role in the Mars family scandal and learns a few things about her own family troubles.

Though her love life is less operatic than Nora Mars', Marie's precarious romantic position is also part of the equation. Her affair with Brilliant has gone sour, though they are still colleagues and eventually competitors. But her true romantic partner is the delightfully bizarre Marco, a "freelance intellectual" she meets during one of her many trips to the Library of Science, Industry and Business, where she goes to tackle the Sisyphean task of finishing her dissertation. Again, McPhee employs the metaphors of physics to chart everything that is happening around Marie, skillfully exploring the theories of chaos that sound so intimidating to the uninitiated.

The Center of Things has a strange resolution. McPhee's strategy recalls the experiments of Lorrie Moore's underrated novel Anagrams: there seem to exist simultaneously several different plots, all of them at odds with one another. This novel, which starts out seeming like a dressed-up beach read, turns out to be about more than romantic intrigue, more even than theoretical physics. It's not a bad conceit, but the end of the book demands a close reading, and readers may feel they're missing something. But it's an admirable feat; the author achieves the momentum of a thriller with the material of something altogether more whimsical.

Rain Taxi Online Edition, Fall 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001