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Friday, September 5, 2014

Lydia Netzer: "How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky"

Author: Lydia Netzer
Plot Type: Quirky Romantic Fantasy
Publisher: St. Martin’s (8/2014)  

     Netzer is the author of Shine, Shine, Shine, which was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2012 and a People’s Pick of the Week in People Magazine.  

     The novel is set in an alternate Toledo, Ohio, in the present, with flashbacks to the 1980s. In this world, Toledo is an important scientific center, the location of the world-famous Toledo Institute of Astronomy (TIA), the nation's premier center of astronomical discovery and a beacon of scientific learning for astronomers far and wide. Here, dreamy cosmologist George Dermont mines the stars to prove the existence of God. Here, Irene Sparks, an unsentimental scientist, creates black holes in captivity.” Toledo is also a center of astrology: “The star gazers of Toledo worked toward a common disciplinary matrix of theory and application, symbols, interpretations, and tools. And this is why aspiring astrologers came to Toledo.” So…astronomy and astrology: black holes and crystal balls, scientists and psychics, super colliders and tea leaves, stars of the firmament and signs of the zodiacall coexisting in absurd asymmetry. 

    This alternate world has many examples of smaller alternate realities. For example, the heroine and her mother engage in lucid dreams in which they construct their own dream locations and interact with one another. Adding a touch of whimsy to the story, the TIA teaches astronomy in concert with astrology and encourages a cult of graduate students who call themselves the Daughters of Babylon. In a nod to computer technology, a gamer inhabits his avatar as he stalks another player. And on the biological front, friendly narwhals frolic in the waters of Lake Erie.  

               LEAD CHARACTERS              
     Dr. Irene Sparks is a logic-driven, pragmatic, deeply conflicted young woman who comes from a single-parent home headed by her alcoholic mother. Mom earns her living by giving psychic readings and other astrological divinations in the front room of their house. Irene has a doctorate in astronomy and as the story opens, she is working in a basement laboratory at Carnegie Mellon “attempting to observe a black hole by exciting the particles in the machine,” a micro-collider that she has personally designed. “It was all she had been doing and trying and thinking about for months: proving that there are black holes all around us, and we have been walking through them all our lives. It was her work, and her entire focus was there.” Irene’s black-hole project is, of course, a metaphor for her life.

     Although Irene is a repressed, scholarly astronomer, she has several quirks in her character. First, of course, is her lucid dreaming, which her mother taught her when she was a child. Then, there is her obsession with “suicide bridges,” which she locates as soon as she moves to a new city and then visits whenever her life begins to overwhelm her—always believing in her heart that someday she will jump. Although she has a live-in boyfriend, she remains “a virgin from the neck down,” always in control of sexual situations and always ready to dump any man who won’t follow her rules.

     One of the most entertaining characters in the book is Irene's boyfriend  Belion (aka Archmage of the Underdark, originally named Arturo), a game designer and coder for an on-line fantasy role-playing game. Belion is a big, hairy man-child who is obsessed with his on-line avatar presence. His friend-with-benefits relationship with Irene is pragmatic in nature. He does what she tells him to do, and he gets room and board and occasional sexual release. Currently, Belion is obsessed with tracking down an avatar named Silvergirl so that his own Archmage avatar can have sex with her in a secluded video game-cave. Silvergirl’s true identity is easy to figure out and by that point their future is predictable, but that doesn’t matter because both Belion and his Silvergirl are great, eccentric characters who add weirdness and humor to the story.

     Dr. George Dermont is a dreamer, a handsome and charismatic young man who is the star of the TIA cosmology department and who has dated most of the brunette women at the TIA. In his defense, a psychic has told him that his true love is a brown-haired astronomer, so he’s just trying to find his future bride—his twin soul. “He felt a presence, like a shadow…, a shadow not replicated but the same…If he was a star on one side of the gate, then she was a star on the other side.” 

     George’s special area of research has been revealed to him through his visions—The Gateway of God, a concept that somewhere in the universe there exists a plane of symmetry….a place where the universe bends on an axis. But George has determined that the plane is actually “a plane of asymmetry, and the relationship between the stars on one side and the stars on the other could be defined…by an equation of some complexity.” According to George’s theory, the Maumee River in Toledo is the Tigris River of Mesopotamia, and Toledo and Babylon are “phenomenological twins.” The concept of asymmetry is key to the novel’s theme, because Netzer’s characters learn that love and life and death have no symmetry at all and that true compatibility depends instead on the attraction of opposites—the yin and the yang, the magnetic attraction of opposite poles.

     Here is a brief snapshot of the deep scientific differences between the two soul mates: During a conversation in Irene’s car, Irene tells George that his asymmetry theory is impossible to know and measure. He responds, “Who cares what you can measure? If you can think about it, it could be real.” She waves her hand at him and says, “Religion, astrology, hokey schmokey over here.” Then she points to herself: “Astronomy, math, rulers over here.” 

     George and Irene were born on the same day 29 years ago. Like Irene, George is passionate about science and ambitious to advance in his field of study. And also like Irene, George has a few quirks—primarily that he sees and communicates with gods and goddesses who are invisible to everyone else. These entities appear to him everywhere—in his car, in his classroom, at formal dinners—and seem to be the cause of his horrendously painful headaches. Although he can’t tell anyone about his visions, George doesn’t really want them to go away because without them he would be entirely alone.

               SUMMARY AND REVIEW              
     If you are a reader of paranormal romances, you know that the two lead characters are always soul mates—driven together for eternity by fated forces beyond their control. But what if two human mothers decided to take fate into their own hands and engineer their children’s soul-mated futures even before they were born? And what would be the consequences if that plan went awry? That’s the premise of this inventive and darkly humorous story that wrestles with the conflicts of fatalism and free will; faith and reason; dreams and reality.

     Netzer tells her story in the third person, subjective, voice, except for Irene's lucid dreams, which are narrated in her first person voice. The scenes taking place in the present alternate between Irene and George, and the scenes taking place back in the 1980s alternate between their mothers, Bernice and Sally.

     The 1980s chapters follow the friendship of Bernice and Sally from childhood to adulthood as they both dabble in the psychic arts and plan their children’s lives. The children are born at the same moment and raised together for their first three years. Then they are separated, but continue to have some of the same unique experiences: being read a particular poem, going to the same travel destinations, listening to the music of an obscure group, and training to become astronomers. “They would train them independently to be magnets, north and south, that would click together when they met, years later, at the appointed time,” When the two finally meet as adults, they will believe that their shared experiences are a cosmic sign that fate has brought them together. Unfortunately, the mothers have a falling out when the children are quite young, but they have unleashed astrological forces that will not be denied.

     The chapters taking place at the present follow Irene as she moves back to Toledo after her mother’s death and meets George, who is suffering from blinding headaches, listening to goddesses, and working on his Gateway of God project. When they instantly feel an electric connection, George immediately believes that he has found his twin soul, but Irene fights the attraction, certain that she is not meant to find love.  

     Periodically, Irene slips into her dream world, a complicated structure that contains a Dark House with “whistling chasm” in its “sinking center.” So far, she has avoided falling into the house’s black hole, but she always fears that her next dream will be her last one. This dark-hole imagery occurs on several levels throughout the book, with the literal and figurative meanings both having great meaning to Irene’s life. In the beautifully written scene in which Irene finally consents to below-the-waist sex with George, she feels their coupling as a mathematical experience: “It’s the Tusi couple. It’s happening inside me.” Copernicus,” she gasped. “This is Copernicus.” George, meanwhile, is murmuring “Good. Can’t talk now.” and “Shhh.” It’s a great scene. (Be sure and click on the pink-link "Tusi couple" phrase above to view an animated illustration that makes clear exactly what Irene is thinking.)

     Netzer writes with a wonderful impressionism that gives depth and eloquence to her story. In the Prologue, she presents a lengthy treatise on sleep, including this comparison of sleep to death. “A man who falls asleep is like a diver who slips from the air into the water. Yet through it all, the sleeping man’s body stays put, under a thin sheet, straight and flat. You could put his whole body in a box. You could put the box into the ground. Sleep is a shallow death we practice every night.” (p. 2) Netzer also scatters inventive metaphors through her story. When the pastor of Irene’s mother’s church calls to inform Irene of her mother’s untimely death, his “buttery” voice is “like a waterfall of olive oil.” (p. 10) When Belion and his ladylove cavort in Lake Erie with the narwhals, Belion “orbited her like a big polite buoy.”

     Although this book is a romantic fantasy, it is definitely not constructed according to the usual formula. Tragic events, zany antics, snarky dialogue, and singular characters all add absurdity and surrealism to what is essentially a fantastical love story. There are no stereotypes among these characters. Each is a deeply developed individual with kinks and quirks, and they combine to form the frame on which the plot is hung. If you have read and enjoyed Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, or if you are a fan of the quirky characters in the early books of John Irving (e.g., The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany), you will probably enjoy this novel.

    Just one final note: As a former resident of the Toledo area (where I was born and raised), I truly enjoyed all of the references to actual locations (names of familiar streets, the Maumee RiverBGSUmy alma mater, the Spuyten Duyval Golf Club). It's too bad that my Toledo didn't have the TIA. Perhaps I would have become a famous astrophysicist like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Carl Sagan!

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