John McPhee books are like crack for the curious. He mines his topics, usually some slice of America or Americana, for all the minutia that the curious crave, diversions and details and especially lists. In Looking for a Ship he turns his pen to the United States Merchant Marine, already a dying institution when McPhee wrote the book in 1990. He manages to secure a spot as a PAC – Person in Addition to Crew on the Stella Lykes for a voyage from port to port down the Pacific coast of South America. The topics he dissects are many: the histories of his fellow seamen, the tribulations of the Merchant Marine, the astonishingly various contents of the hold, and the port towns they visit seen through the eyes of a sailor, to name a few. Interspersed in the story are tales of pirate attacks and boat wrecks, not to mention a discription of the ship’s engine room that will make you sweat just reading it. In this book, as in all his others, McPhee is pitch-perfect, taking the reader down any interesting digression encountered in the narrative, extracting wry humor from his observations, and digging deep into the personal history of any fascinating person he encounters. His books are biographies of a place and time.
“Six things you can’t live without,” the online dating site commanded to me to include in my new profile. The blank spot below the prompt begged for something more than a tepid, “addicted to my iPhone/I love my mother” answer, but I felt stumped. What to say? After a moment’s hesitation, I went full geek. I can’t live without cytosine, adenine, guanine, thymine, and uracil, I wrote. I also like cappuccino.
It’s true: like all living things, I’d be nothing without the components of my DNA. (I could not exist at all, in fact.) But the nitrogenous base pairs I’d listed were clearly unfamiliar to plenty of prospective online suitors — which is also true for a large percentage of the American public. For them — for all of us — a trip through Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Gene: An Intimate History offers startling clarity.
The Gene is a follow-up to Mukherjee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning medical history of cancer, The Emperor of All Maladies. “The archetypal genomic disease is cancer,” Mukherjee explains in The Gene, connecting that book to this one (he later calls The Gene a “prequel” to The Emperor). While it’s fair enough to say that genes influence the development of cancer — and while Mukherjee spends a fair number of words to describe how that can happen — The Gene extends far beyond that relatively niche topic. Rather, Mukherjee tackles the entire history of genetics, from its origins as a passion project of a Czech monk named Gregor Mendel to Charles Darwin’s journeys to Galapagos to the Nobel Prize-winning discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson, Francis Crick, and their colleagues. After rehashing that relatively well-known history, he traverses more recent, obscure, and often contentious topics, including eugenics, gene therapy, and the daunting ethical challenges of the future. In short, the work serves as a kind of primer on the whole of the topic, an unsurprising repackaging of a few major sections of an undergrad biology degree.
That said, it’s more appealing than any other molecular biology text I can recall. “Excuse my big yawn, but I just came from my own lecture,” a genetics professor tells a student halfway through the book. The comment is as an apt reminder of the Spockian science-nerd stereotype (perhaps the reason I’m still single?) and it almost comes across as Mukherjee’s admonishment to himself. He needn’t have worried. The book is defined best not by a crack about boredom but rather by a remark Mukherjee co-opts from the French impressionist Paul Cézanne, who once said about his friend Claude Monet: “Monet is but an eye, but, God, what an eye.”
“DNA, by that same logic, is but a chemical,” Mukherjee writes. “But, God, what a chemical.”
Humans depend on DNA, but not only. All life makes use of the exact same unique double helix of base pairs, sugar, phosphate, and water molecules. “A gene from a blue whale can be inserted into a microscopic bacterium and it will be deciphered accurately and with near perfect fidelity,” Mukherjee notes. Elsewhere, he constructs a list of DNA’s features in evocative, quasi-anthropomorphic language: “it is fiercely inventive…encrusted with history…[and] poised to evolve.”
Of course, our genes are also tightly tied to our daily existence — although that, too, Mukherjee describes as “surprisingly beautiful:” “On a vast stretch of [human] chromosome eleven, for instance, there is a causeway dedicated entirely to the sensation of smell. Here, a cluster of 155 closely related genes,” encodes “professional smell sensors…[for] spearmint, lemon, caraway, jasmine, vanilla, ginger, pepper.” The author’s enthusiasm for his simultaneously transcendent and mundane subject can make the dense text feel light.
Some readers have found the book a little too light. This month an excerpt printed in The New Yorker prompted controversy: a group of epigenetics researchers took issue with Mukherjee’s approach, alleging it misrepresents epigenetics (the process by which environmental factors can modify the structure and function of genes). “Their main criticism was that Mukherjee’s article put too much emphasis on histone modification and DNA methylation, which they say are relatively minor contributors to gene regulation,” an article in the science magazine Nature summarized. “They and other critics argued that Mukherjee ignored [other] well-established mechanisms of gene regulation.” In a statement published on a website (but since removed), Mukherjee prefaced a point-by-point rebuttal with a frank statement that he thought he had described epigenetics accurately. He also acknowledged errors.
But to argue too much about the fine points of The Gene seems to misunderstand its purpose. The book doesn’t serve only to attempt a summary of the technical points of a field that — as Mukherjee accurately reports — often advances through contentious debates. Rather, it serves to make the generalities of the topic accessible to the 90-odd percent of Americans who do not hold degrees in genetics or molecular biology. And here — amid odes to smells, plus lyrics to a Sanskrit folk tune and a stray quote from Snoop Dogg — Mukherjee delivers.
The debate also obscures this book’s other compelling accomplishments. First, Mukherjee takes on the ethically heavy topic of willful modifications to the human genome. “The most remarkable fact about human genomic engineering today is not how far out of reach it is, but how perilously, tantalizingly near,” he writes. These alterations have been proposed as ways to cure or prevent genetic illnesses. But because the genome (the sum total of genes in a given living being) is highly complex, willfully altering it carries the potential for unintended, potentially disastrous consequences. His solution? “We need a manifesto — or at least a hitchhiker’s guide — for a post-genomic world,” he writes. He doesn’t offer it himself, acknowledging in several places that geneticists are collectively grappling with their field’s ethical issues. Instead, he adds what he calls “an opening salvo,” which functions to distill the issue for readers. He ends with an appeal to skepticism at the value of genomic engineering, and adds, “Perhaps the compassion that such skepticism enables is also encoded indelibly in the human genome.”
The author is a good example of this compassion. Mukherjee interweaves the text with the story of his own family, particularly two uncles and a cousin with serious mental illnesses. (This, too, has been partially excerpted in The New Yorker.) Another chapter, “The Miseries of My Father,” documents a genetic brain disease Mukherjee’s dad is currently experiencing.
To oversharing-prone Americans, these disclosures might seem small. But they are not. What Mukherjee calls “ethical vertigo” with genomic engineering was what prompted me to leave biology and go into public health. Partly on the strength of a recommendation from a genetics professor (who, like Mukherjee, is a Bengali raised in Delhi), I won a Fulbright in the Bengal region to conduct research on mental health.
The topic was so intensely neglected I could not find an appropriate mentor for my work. (What ad hoc assistance I got was unsafe and often plain loony: one university administrator told me to manage people in psychiatric crisis by phoning an anthropologist in Germany. “Don’t call me,” that anthropologist later said, and I agreed.) Mental health was taboo enough to prompt flat rejections — and occasionally open anger — from my colleagues in health research.
In that context, Mukherjee’s forthright discussion of his own Bengali family’s psychiatric health is rare and courageous. It’s also worthwhile. If ethical issues in genetics are to be solved (or even communicated effectively to the public), we’ll need not only skepticism and compassion, but also a clear understanding of the humans our choices affect.
If I were joining that dating site today, I might alter my answer a bit. I can’t live without cytosine, adenine, guanine, thymine, and uracil, I would write. I also enjoyed The Gene, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
In late July, a kind of spell fell over London’s West End as the latest iteration of the Harry Potter saga opened: a play that even the New York Times’ imperious theatre critic Ben Brantley deemed magical. “The Eighth Story. Nineteen Years Later,” as the tagline goes, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts 1 & 2 picks up where the last film left off, as Harry, Hermione, Ron, Ginny, Draco, and their receding hairlines drop their Hogwarts-bound offspring at Platform 9 ¾. Subsequently released as a script, The Cursed Child almost immediately broke book sales records, consumed, like the “Hamiltome,” by hundreds of thousands of fans who have no hope of ever finding their way inside the theater.
Whether you consider Harry Potter and The Cursed Child exhilarating fan service or terrible fanfic, its purpose is less to give us a “where are they now?” than to exhume the original series and examine the workings of the plot. The discovery of a contraband Time Turner by Albus Potter and Scorpio Malfoy — the sons of Harry and Draco — allows us to consider a Ronmione-free future; a scenario in which Potter and Malfoy offspring are sorted into Slytherin and develop a close, Drarry-like bond; and the cosmic importance of that gif of Neville Longbottom slaying Nagini. But beyond the threads of parental legacies and the heroism of friendship, going back in time to fiddle with the knobs teaches us one thing above all: the formative properties of humiliation.
[SPOILERS] When Scorpio Malfoy and Albus Potter travel back to 1995 to save Cedric from dying in the Triwizard Cup, they disarm him, tweaking the events of the Yule Ball such that Hermione believes Viktor Krum played a part in sabotaging Cedric, and attends the Yule Ball with platonic friend Roonil instead. Without the Hermione-Krum pairing, Ron is never humiliated into admitting his feelings for his buddy (in the original story, “Ron got jealous and behaved like a prat”); without the catalyst of the crying on the stairs and ginger angst, Ron marries Padma Patil, and has a naughty son, Pradu. (Won’t someone think of Pradu?) Our lamb Cedric is still killed.
On a second trip back to 1995, Scorpio and Albus inadvertently humiliate Cedric with an engorgement spell that puts him out of the running for the cup. This ripples into a future in which the spiteful Cedric is a Death Eater (so un-Hufflepuff!), Harry is killed and Voldemort lives on as lord: “SCORPIUS: Humiliating Cedric turns him into a very angry young man, and then he became a Death Eater and—and—it all went wrong. Really wrong… He killed Professor Longbottom.” Yes, patron saint of awkward adolescence, the late-blooming Neville Longbottom, is another victim of this alternate future in which people greet each other with the humorless “For Voldemort and Valor.”
Worse, perhaps, killing off Harry in a more efficient manner (fewer books) robs us of perhaps the greatest gif of all time; that of the infamous Draco-Voldey hug that comes to mind any time I find myself in a conspicuous social situation.
The Draco we see in a meddled-with future in which Voldemort lives is the same knob we know from the original book series, sans-humiliating clinch, rather than the soft, aggrieved “Sorry about your floor, Minerva” Draco introduced at the beginning of The Cursed Child — a character who appears to be a better father than Harry.
The common theme with all of these toggles is humiliation. To even get the Time Turner, located inside Minister of Magic Hermione Granger-Weasley’s office, young Albus Potter takes polyjuice to disguise himself as his Uncle Ron, and winds up kissing his aunt (“Let’s have another baby!”), as his disgusted friend Scorpio watches on.
Make no mistake, bollocksing things up in front of your peers and suffering a metaphysical death from embarrassment is a fundamental part of the British human condition, if one that is downplayed in the fan worship abroad. The parts of Harry Potter most glommed onto by Americans are patriotic concerns like honorable sacrifice, bravery in the face of an existential threat, unabashed declarations of love, and a fierce work ethic. But the heart of Harry Potter is really the Weasley’s burrow, that den of poor, gangly, knit-sweatered gingers, and perhaps most emphatically in the character of the endlessly put-upon Won-Won.
You can feel the difference of tone in the recently announced American wizarding houses, which lack the whimsy and ironic pride of their British counterparts: where the name Gryffindor is linguistically silly enough to give its position as the Hero House a self-deprecating vibe, “Thunderbird” sounds just a bit too into itself. My American husband was recently sorted into Hufflepuff and covered his head with a pillow, misunderstanding the hidden honor in being deemed a badger. Harvard is the Harvard of Harvard; in the U.S., there isn’t the offsetting pride in being the slightly silly underdog.
Contrast Donald Trump and Boris Johnson: both are flame-haired buffoons, but Trump is virtually incapable of admitting his own stupidity, where Johnson will at least give us a self-effacing photo op in a climbing harness. Britons are, as ever, on the watch for numpties.
Back to literature, Evelyn Waugh’s hero Paul Pennyfeather kicks off Decline and Fall with a drunk, trouserless jog through Scone College that gets him booted from Oxford and installed as a teacher at a boarding school. From there, things generally get more and more degrading (“‘We class schools, you see, into four grades: Leading School, First-rate School, Good School, and School. Frankly,’ said Mr. Levy, ‘School is pretty bad.’”), until he fakes his own death and starts again. It’s the penultimate British tale!
Or consider Lucky Jim, whose hapless Dixon exists in a world of imbeciles, each stupider than the last. The dramatic high point of the novel comes when Dixon gets up to deliver a lecture and prove himself to the gallery shortly after taking a couple of “tonics” to calm his nerves. The result is a mash of hysterical incoherence, accents, and impersonations that sends the hall into disarray and gave me such an exhilarating sense of spiritual shame on Dixon’s behalf that I needed four crumpets to overcome my emotions.
The plot of Pride and Prejudice is really just “well-to-do people desperately trying to stave off public embarrassment” — which is why the moment where Mr. Bennet ushers Mary off the pianoforte is one of the most cringe-worthy for me — and adapted nicely into the reindeer sweater and sundry indignities of Bridget Jones’s Diary, while one of the worst single details in 1984 is the humiliating way that husband and wife engage in sexual relations (“She would lie there with shut eyes, neither resisting nor cooperating, but submitting. It was extraordinarily embarrassing, and, after a while, horrifying.”). Even Thomas Hardy understood how generally embarrassing it was to be a woman in Victorian England. More recently, Caitlin Moran turned adolescent awkwardness into a roaring tale with her YA novel How to Build a Girl.
The promise of English literature, and YA lit most especially, is that we shall rise like Phoenixes from the ashes of our latest mortification.
Several years ago on a ski-date, I tumbled down a cliff face after an attempt to gracefully execute a jump turn failed, and I found myself leaning out into space. My skis were plucked from my feet as I somersaulted over and over, beaming off my back, head, shoulders. Certain that this was my last, sublime mistake in this world, the only thought that crossed my mind was, “How embarrassing this is, the hot guy from ski school watching me die.” That is how deep my instinct to shame runs; that is the legacy the British bequeathed my homeland, Australia.
But is it heroic? I think the opposite; being cut down a peg or two stops the metastasizing of narcissistic personalities, the ultimate example of which is Voldemort, with his various attempts to stow his soul in different places. In The Cursed Child, the most sympathetic character is the sweet Scorpius Malfoy, who grows up dogged with the rumors that he was the product of some freaky time-travel IVF with Voldey.
Embarrassment allows a concession, a change of heart, a level of empathy, where the earnestness of someone who knows they are right does not. People aren’t crazy to feel like the atmosphere amid the election is a little Wizarding War-ish; the problem is that everyone is so entrenched in their positions, so coddled in self-righteousness, that compromise and conversation have become impossible.
J.K. Rowling, who didn’t write The Cursed Child (though she conceived the story with John Tiffany and the playwright Jack Thorne), has been the flashpoint for any criticism, most commonly for creating plot holes in the original story, and for allowing its weaknesses to be re-examined in this speculative trip back. I’m all aboard the bandwagon though, because a willingness to sift the contents of her masterpiece before an audience of millions, and even allow us to second-guess her choices, has to be unprecedented among authors. It’s almost as though she’s letting us go through her old wardrobe, where we are guaranteed to pull out her parachute pants and tiny backpacks and squeal “What is this?!!!” And that’s a bit heroic.