The Way We Get By
The Biology of Luck
Jacob M. Appel
Elephant Rocks Books, 2013
Elephant Rocks Books, 2013
The Biology of Luck is an adventurous novel not only in its subject matter, but in what it attempts to do with form. It is the story of Larry Bloom, a writer and NYC tour guide, who is profoundly in love. So in love, in fact, that he dedicates two years of his life to writing a novel about the subject of his affection, Starshine Hart, and it is through Bloom’s novel—whose chapters alternate with Appel’s—that we get to know Starshine. Appel and Bloom proceed to take us through the day in each character's life that will lead to them having dinner that evening.
For me, the best parts of the novel, and what kept me reading, were the encounters with the secondary characters that fill the spaces in between the main narrative. Appel has a way of concocting characters that are so ridiculous that they are almost unbelievable. Yet I found myself drawn to them far more than our leading couple. The Armenian flower peddler, for instance—the character from whom the novel derives its title—is dynamic and intriguing, and I would love to hear more of his story and his theory on the genetics of luck. Same goes for Ziggy Borasch and his insatiable quest to write the perfect American sentence; Eucalyptus, Starshine’s roommate, and her scrimshaw; Bone and his uncanny knowledge; and Jack Bascomb with his dark and possibly violent past with the Weather Underground Organization. These were the characters that drew my attention and kept me reading from page to page.
It is the novel’s conceit, the form that it takes, where I believe Biology is unsuccessful. For all of the things that it has going for it—energetic and often beautiful prose, a quick wit, and quirky characters—I kept wondering how the format served the story and the characters. The reader only gets to know Larry Bloom in the reality of the novel, as we only learn about Starshine through Larry's eyes and text. Because these are the only interactions we get with her—which obviously come from an obsessive and fawning fan, and are mostly the regurgitated and dramatized accounts of her life that she has divulged to him theoretically in confidence—our protagonist comes off more creepy than endearing, and far more of a stalker than a harmless lover boy. The format also does the ending a disservice, as the final scene—the long-awaited date with Starshine—is told by Larry in his novel, keeping us distant from the truth and from any sense of certainty about the fates of the characters we have followed thus far.
Overall, even though this book was not for me, I applaud Mr. Appel for his courage in creating a new format, a new kind of novel, if you will, even if it does fall short. Even Larry Bloom recognizes the difficulties of the author when he says, “It amazes him that life never offers completely smooth sailing, not even for one day, that just when the morning seems as flawless as the mountain sky, a sinister cloud manages to creep its way over the horizon.” But through everything that Larry experiences, he manages to hold on to an almost indomitable hope that leaves you with a sense that, strangely enough, everything will turn out all right.