On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction by Karl Iagnemma (Delta), 224 pages, $20 paper. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
Newcomer Karl Iagnemma redefines what people have come to expect from fiction writers with a science background.
His characters in this short story collection are almost all scientists, but instead of putting them on spaceships, Iagnemma explores themes of love and commitment in ordinary places like university cafeterias and computer labs.
The first story is a razor-sharp account of a young mathematics doctoral candidate who unsuccessfully tries to use a mathematical equation to model his relationship with his girlfriend. He even includes Venn diagrams and differential equations, attempting to map their love's rate of change over time.
An MIT research scientist, Iagnemma is strongest when writing about his own surroundings. He perfectly captures the tedium of social interactions at academic conferences and exposes the odd mix of professional curiosity and boredom that greets keynote speeches. He explores the battle of ego and emotion that often overtakes scientists in their pursuit of fame and funding, giving science a much-needed human dimension.
In one story, a 19th-century phrenologist (a follower of the discredited practice of deducing a person's intellectual and moral faculties from the shape of his or her head) begins to question his assumptions when he falls for a woman with "the perfect skull" who promptly steals his lab equipment on the road.
There are some weaker moments, including a stale account of a missionary living in Canada who witnesses a native massacre. But the author's originality comes through in The Confessional Approach, in which a mannequin-maker is plunged into a moral quandary when a client wants to use her mannequins on a firing range.
This is a solid first effort. Look for more work by this author in the Best American Short Stories collection. Me, I'm hoping Iagnemma will give us a full-length novel.