Hailed as “a writer of uncommon clarity” by the New Yorker, National Book Award finalist Allegra Goodman has dazzled readers with her acclaimed works of fiction, including such beloved bestsellers as The Family Markowitz and Kaaterskill Falls. Now she returns with a bracing new novel, at once an intricate mystery and a rich human drama set in the high-stakes atmosphere of a prestigious research institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Sandy Glass, a charismatic publicity-seeking oncologist, and Marion Mendelssohn, a pure, exacting scientist, are codirectors of a lab at the Philpott Institute dedicated to cancer research and desperately in need of a grant. Both mentors and supervisors of their young postdoctoral protégés, Glass and Mendelssohn demand dedication and obedience in a competitive environment where funding is scarce and results elusive. So when the experiments of Cliff Bannaker, a young postdoc in a rut, begin to work, the entire lab becomes giddy with newfound expectations. But Cliff’s rigorous colleague–and girlfriend–Robin Decker suspects the unthinkable: that his findings are fraudulent. As Robin makes her private doubts public and Cliff maintains his innocence, a life-changing controversy engulfs the lab and everyone in it.
With extraordinary insight, Allegra Goodman brilliantly explores the intricate mixture of workplace intrigue, scientific ardor, and the moral consequences of a rush to judgment. She has written an unforgettable novel.
From the Hardcover edition.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Allegra Goodman is the author of two previous story collections and two novels. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker, Good Housekeeping, Slate, and The American Scholar. She is the recipient of a Whiting Award and the Salon magazine award for fiction. She lives with her family in Cambridge, Massachusetts.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
All day the snow had been falling. Snow muffled every store and church; drifts erased streets and sidewalks. The punks at the new Harvard Square T stop had tramped off, bright as winter cardinals with their purple tufted hair and orange Mohawks. The sober Vietnam vet on Mass Ave had retreated to Au Bon Pain for coffee. Harvard Yard was quiet with snow. The undergraduates camping there for Harvard's divestment from South Africa had packed up their cardboard boxes, tents, and sleeping bags and begun building snow people. Cambridge schools were closed, but the Philpott Institute was open as usual. In the Mendelssohn-Glass lab, four postdocs and a couple of lab techs were working.
Two to a bench, like cooks crammed into a restaurant kitchen, the postdocs were extracting DNA in solution, examining cells, washing cells with chemicals, bursting cells open, changing cells forever by inserting new genetic material. They were operating sinks with foot pedals, measuring and moving solutions milliliter by milliliter with pipettes, their exacting eyedroppers. They were preparing liquids, ices, gels.
There was scarcely an inch of counter space. Lab benches were covered with ruled notebooks and plastic trays, some blue, some green, some red, each holding dozens of test tubes. Glass beakers stood above on shelves, each beaker filled with red medium for growing cells. The glass beakers were foil topped, like milk bottles sealed for home delivery. Peeling walls and undercounter incubators were covered with postcards, yellowing Doonesbury cartoons, photographs from a long-ago lab picnic at Walden Pond. The laminar flow hood was shared, as was the good microscope. In 1985, the Philpott was famous, but it was full of old instruments. Dials and needle indicators looked like stereo components from the early sixties. The centrifuge, designed for spinning down cells in solution, was clunky as an ancient washing machine. There wasn't enough money to buy new equipment. There was scarcely enough to pay the postdocs.
On ordinary days, the researchers darted into and out of the lab to the common areas on the floor. The cold room, warm room, and stockroom were shared with the other third-floor labs, as was the small conference room with its cheap chrome and wood-grain furniture, good for meetings and naps. But this Friday no one left the lab, not even the lab techs, Aidan and Natalya. Gofers and factotums for the postdocs, these two belonged to a scientific service class, but no one dared treat them like servants. They were strong-willed and politically aware, attuned to every power struggle. They kept darting looks at each other, as if to say "It's time to go downstairs," but they delayed going to the animal facility for fear of missing something. The lab directors, Marion Mendelssohn and Sandy Glass, were meeting in the office down the hall. They had been conferring for half an hour, and this did not bode well. One of the postdocs was in trouble.
How bad was it? No one spoke. Prithwish kept his head down over a tray of plastic tubes, eyes almost level with the avocado plant he'd grown from seed. "My most successful experiment," he often said ruefully. Robin ducked out to look up and down the hall, then brushed past Feng as she hurried back inside. The black and white clock on the wall was ticking past three, but like the clocks in grade school, this one was always slow. Natalya glared at Aidan, as if to say "I went downstairs last time; it's really your turn now," but Aidan turned airily away. It might have been funny, but no one joked at the techs' pantomime.
"Cliff." Suddenly, Marion Mendelssohn was standing in the doorway. She stood there, fearsome, implacable, dark eyes glowering. "Could we have a word with you?" Cliff smiled tightly and shrugged, a desperate little show of nonchalance.
The others looked everywhere else, as their lab director led Cliff away to the office she shared with Sandy Glass.
Cliff's cheeks were already burning as he followed Marion down the corridor. At six foot three, he was more than a foot taller than Marion. Still, he was entirely in her power, and he dreaded what she and Glass were about to say. For years he'd been developing a variant of Respiratory Syncytial Virus and had dreamed of using his modified RSV to transform cancer cells into normal cells. His experiments were not working; Sandy and Marion had ordered him to give them up, and he had disobeyed.
The door closed behind him, and Cliff was standing in the tight, cluttered office.
"Now, Cliff," said Glass, "did we or did we not have a discussion about your continuing trials with RSV?"
Cliff stood silent.
"Maybe you don't remember our conversation," said Glass, smiling.
Cliff did remember, and he knew better than to smile back. Always cheerful, brimming with the irrepressible joy of his own intelligence, Sandy Glass smiled most when he was angry.
"I said you had to stop using RSV," Sandy reminded Cliff. "You said you understood."
"We established RSV has some effect in vitro," Glass said. "Congratulations. You're on your way to curing cancer in a petri dish. But what have we established when we try injecting RSV into living mice?"
Cliff looked away.
"You've established nothing. You injected fifty-six mice with RSV, with no effect on tumors whatsoever. Therefore, Marion and I asked you to stop. We asked you nicely to move on. What did you do next?"
"I tried again," Cliff said, staring down at the floor.
"Yes, you did. You tried again."
Sandy ignored this. "We told you to stop wasting resources on RSV."
"I didn't want to give up," Cliff said.
"Look, I realize RSV was your baby," Sandy said. "I realize this was two years' work developing the virus."
Two and a half years, Cliff amended silently.
"We understand you put your heart and soul into this project." Sandy glanced at Marion, who looked anything but understanding. "The point is, RSV does not work. And now, yet another set of experiments--against all advice, against our specific instructions. What were you thinking, Cliff? Don't say anything. Perseverance can be a valuable trait, particularly when you're right. But we see now that this third trial is showing every sign of failing spectacularly. No, don't apologize. Just tell us what you were thinking. Tell us your thoughts, because we really want to know."
Why had he tried twice more with the virus after it had failed? They were expecting an answer, but Cliff could not speak. The truth shamed him; it was so simple: he could not bear to jettison work that had taken so much time. The hours, the thousands of hours he'd spent, sickened him. How could he confess to that? The scientific method was precise and calibrated. A scientist was, by definition, impassive. He cut his losses and moved on to something else; he was exhausted, perhaps, but never defiant with exhaustion. A scientist did not allow emotion to govern his experiments.
And yet Cliff had been emotional and unrealistic about his work. He had behaved unprofessionally, taking his long shot again, and yet again. How could he explain that? There was only one reasonable explanation: he was not a scientist. This was what Mendelssohn and Glass were driving at.
"Did we or did we not agree," said Glass, "that you would end the wholesale extermination of our lab animals?"
"We don't have the money," said Mendelssohn, and she didn't mean funds for the mice themselves, which cost about fifteen dollars each, but the money for the infinite care the delicate animals required. "You'll recall we asked you to work with Robin."
"She could still use another pair of hands," Glass said, and Cliff hated him for that, and for the patronizing, slightly prurient tone in Glass's voice.
"I deserve my own project," Cliff said, raising his eyes.
"There is no such thing as your own project in this lab," Mendelssohn declared.
"Look, this is a team," Glass said, "and you need to pull your weight, not drag everyone else down with your personal flights of fancy."
Down the hall, in the lab, the others gathered like near relations at a funeral.
"They wouldn't fire him," Prithwish said loyally. He was Cliff's roommate, after all.
"They will not fire him," Feng agreed.
Natalya thought about this. "My feeling is Mendelssohn would not, but Glass would." She was Russian and had been a doctor herself, before coming to America. Natalya had never taken to Glass.
"They'll be arguing, then," said Prithwish.
"They'll let him stay," Aidan predicted, "and make him so miserable he'll leave by himself."
"He was miserable before," Prithwish pointed out, but the others hushed him. Cliff was coming back down the corridor.
Instantly his friends scattered, vanishing into the clutter of glassware and instruments like rabbits in the brush. All but Robin, who pulled at Cliff's sleeve. Silently they slipped into the adjoining stockroom, the lab's poisonous pharmacological pantry.
She closed the door behind her. "Are you all right?"
His cheeks were flushed, his eyes unusually bright. "I'm fine."
She drew closer, but he turned away.
"What are you going to do?"
"I don't know," he said. "They've already tried to pawn me off on you."
"They suggested that you work with me?"
"Six months ago, but I said no."
She was surprised, and hurt. "You never told me that."
"What was the point? I didn't want to work on your stuff."
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