After more than two weeks of trying to write about my absorption in the huge role careers and obsession hold in Samantha Peale’s The American Painter Emma Dial and Allegra Goodman’s Intuition, I’ve nearly thrown in the towel. Clearly my dedication as a blog writer— perhaps soon to be a career to tick on the WNYC member survey— would not qualify me to even stand in the same paint-fumed studio or pipette-strewn laboratory with the characters in these two books.
Weeks ago, BBB (Before Bedbugs), my friend S gave me the idea of writing about the vastly different careers that come up in the novels we read. The two books I picked up shortly after we spoke were Emma Dial and Intuition both of which feature driven, talented experts in their fields operating in subcultures: the New York art world and the scientific research community.
I burrowed into Emma’s solitude and desire to surpass the expectations of the world-renowned, critically acclaimed painter Michael Freiburg for whom she performed all his actual painting. I seethed while Michael directed her from the sidelines, as Emma took every opportunity to avoid staring at her own blank canvases and making her own work. Emma’s Lower East Side Bohemian existence, peopled by artsy types, the subjectivity of who is “good,” and the despicable egotism and arrogance of her famous boss, smelled a lot like the theater world to me. But the long focused hours painting and the loneliness of the work differ greatly from the communal feeling of the theater. In the same way that, after seeing the film The Paper Chase, I was entranced by the idea of working so hard to be a lawyer and being utterly guided by the purity of work, Emma’s obsession and sacrifice seemed glamorous. Briefly.
Emma and the postdoc scientists and administrators of the lab at Harvard’s Philpott Institute might stand on line at the DMV together or share a crowded bus but it’s difficult to imagine their worlds colliding in many other ways. Rather than the wintry streets of New York’s Lower East Side, Intuition’s obsessive characters tromp to work in the snows of Cambridge, MA. While Allegra Goodman’s young scientists and older, more jaded administrators are interesting and well-drawn, their driving forces are less personal searches but explorations for truth, fame, and more specifically answers to whether a certain solution might be the beginnings of a cure for breast cancer. Again, there is the arrogant brilliant leader, Sandy, who can’t lose, and the trod-upon underlings who gain little glory and much pain. Intuition is sort of a thriller—Were the data messed with? Shouldn’t Sandy have waited to alert the press before leaking the news? Is Cliff, the scientist who discovered the serum, telling the whole truth? What are Robin’s—Cliff’s former girlfriend and colleague—motives for initiating the doubt?
In these, my days of unemployment, Samantha Peale and Allegra Goodman gave me enough of a look, albeit a novelist’s glimpse, at the positions of artist’s assistant and research scientist to know that I needn’t rework my resume to lean in either of those directions.