Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Special "Friend of N&V" Post! (Book Review: THE TECHNOLOGISTS by Matthew Pearl (Random House, 2012))

As I learned most memorably following my review of kaboom! DUCKTALES #3, a fair number of people follow this blog. I really appreciate the continuing interest and thank all those my visitors for their "virtual patronage." Even so, a recent email commenting on some of my comics posts came as a huge surprise. The correspondent was Matthew Pearl, a NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author, recognized authority on the works of Dante and Edgar Allan Poe, and, as I learned, a big Duck fan. He offered to send me his latest novel, THE TECHNOLOGISTS, and I accepted with glee. I've just finished reading the work -- as you might guess from the nature of many of my book reviews, it's the first novel I've read in a fair amount of time -- and what better way to recommend it than to say that it is a novel that many Duck fans would probably love. No, not because the characters go in search of a long-lost treasure, or even (as would probably be more apropos given Pearl's interests) the literary wares hidden in an ancient library. It is Pearl's careful attention to meaningful detail, plus his deft mixing of real-life historical personages with well-crafted fictional creations, that should raise a smile from anyone raised on the works of Barks, Rosa, and company.

Pearl has carved out quite a niche for himself as a writer of "historically-based mystery thrillers." His first big success cast such literary lions as Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell in the roles of detectives using their knowledge of Dante to investigate murders based on scenes from THE INFERNO. (I believe that the phrase "Write what you know" applies here.) Later works centered around the strange death of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens' last novel. As can be gleaned from the title, THE TECHNOLOGISTS is a slightly different breed of cat.

In 1868 Boston, the struggling Massachusetts Institute of Technology is about to graduate its first senior class. MIT's novel approach to education and its piebald student body -- which includes working-class "charity scholars," black-sheep offspring of scandalized Brahmin families, and even a brilliant freshman woman -- have put it in very bad odor with a number of institutions and groups in the city, including the haughty denizens of Harvard (then a rather retrograde institution more interested in classical and spiritual education than in applied science) and local labor agitators worried about lost jobs (some things never change, I suppose). When a series of bizarre "scientific disasters" strike the city, MIT's already-shaky image takes an even harder hit. Feeling a sense of obligation to MIT and to its ailing President William Barton Rogers, a group of MIT students decide to investigate the phenomena themselves -- and to try to stop the "experimenter" before he strikes again, or the dream of this new Mecca of technological education is dashed for good...

THE TECHNOLOGISTS does take a while to pick up steam (hyuck!), so much so, in fact, that I was occasionally reminded of another real-life, Boston-based cataclysm. But if you stick with the narrative and allow the characters and the richly filigreed detail of the narrative to grow on you, then the urge to read on will quickly become irresistible. A number of major and minor characters, including the idealistic President Rogers, Ellen Swallow (the aforementioned pioneering female, who really was restricted to her lab and not permitted to attend classes with the male students) and a number of other MIT students, imperious MIT professor and future Harvard president Charles Eliot, and cantankerous, anti-Darwinian Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz, are drawn directly from life. Pearl does takes some understandable liberties with character portrayals for the sake of the narrative. For example, Agassiz, as the representative of the "old-fashioned science" hired by the police to conduct the "official" investigation, is presented as something of an archaic, ineffectual figure, the better to use as a foil for the MIT "Technologists." Agassiz may have gotten evolution wrong, but I don't think that he was quite the bumbling fusspot depicted here. But, of course, Teddy Roosevelt wasn't wholly the semi-comedic blusterer of Don Rosa's LIFE AND TIMES OF SCROOGE McDUCK, either. (See what I did there? I told you Duck fans might appreciate this.) No matter who the character is, Pearl pays attention to diction and tone; everyone sounds as if they belong in 1868. This is no small matter.

"Steampunk" is a rather nebulously defined term, but I certainly think that parts of Pearl's tale would qualify as such. Diving suits, submarines, and steam-powered robots are among the wonders glimpsed here, and the "experimenter"'s nefarious deeds involve enough 19th-century verisimilitude to seem legitimately achievable. The would-be climactic attack is as close as a 19th-century city would probably get to "mass destruction." The identity of the "experimenter" is expertly concealed by a series of ingenious red herrings.

The one feature of the book that I honestly didn't much like was the "rivalry" between the main hero -- MIT senior, "charity scholar," and former Civil War POW Marcus Mansfield -- and the pompous Will Blaikie, head of Harvard's notorious secret society, Med Fac, and denigrator of all things Tech. Some of the "confrontation scenes" involving the pair and their friends and allies, to be honest, had something of a Dover Boys flavor to them. (Or perhaps 19th-century college life really did have a cartoonish aspect. I wasn't there. Heck, I didn't even attend a university that had fraternities.)

If you are up for a "thinking person's thriller," then THE TECHNOLOGISTS may be for you. Thanks again to Matthew for giving me the opportunity to read it.

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