Jacob M. Appel’s THE BIOLOGY OF LUCK (Elephant Rock Books, 2013) is an inventive and thought-provoking new novel that transcends the simple boy-meets-girl plot. New York City tour guide Larry Bloom is by his own account neither handsome nor wealthy. (That’s if we can trust his word—more on that later.) Yet on the summer day in which this love story is set, he cannot deny his own luck. He is in possession of two items of life-changing potential: an unopened letter from a literary agency about his manuscript, and a confirmed date with his dream woman, an aimless 20-something Brooklynite named Starshine Hart.
Bloom has spent the last two years procuring this dinner and writing his Great American Novel for, and about, his dream woman. But he doesn’t yet know whether the agency would like to represent his novel—he plans to have his date open the letter. Bloom’s novel, which shares a title with Appel’s, is about Hart herself, and the warm June day on which she has planned a dinner date with a schlubby tour guide whom she will inexplicably fall in love with. She might not take this well.
Appel alternates the chapters in his pretzel of a novel between Larry Bloom’s day and Bloom’s story about Starshine Hart’s day. Though BIOLOGY feels like more of a slim and fascinating experiment with literary forms than a Grade A Novel, it would miss the mark completely if Appel wasn’t a wiz on the page. There’s a richness of allusion (besides the obvious nods to Joyce and his Bloom in June, Appel’s loving paean to his hometown pays extensive tribute to New York’s twin titans Melville and Whitman) in BIOLOGY that makes a few of Appel’s critically beloved contemporaries seem almost rootless by comparison. Equally impressive is his sentence-by-sentence craft. Bloom’s too, for that matter.
But who are we to believe? How can we trust a writer (Bloom, not Appel) so enamored of his subject? Maybe we don’t trust Bloom, or shouldn’t. That doesn’t seem to be the point. He isn’t especially likable; though he seems strangely ambitious and thoroughly (over)educated, he’s also the type of resentful and disgruntled anti-hero common to the stories of Wells Tower, George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte, etc. While the challenge is usually making the reader sympathize with the sad sack cowards and their foibles, Appel’s most formidable obstacle (and achievement) is arranging his hat trick of well-worn literary devices (the novel-in-a-day, novel-within-a-novel, and good ole’ parallel narratives) so that the reader cares deeply about Starshine, a woman we’ve only, well, read about.
By Andrew Wetzel