For You, the Universe on a String

By Art Edwards

August 12, 2016

For You, the Universe on a String

Origins of the Universe and What It All Means by Carole Firstman (Dzanc Books)

Whenever I hear someone has writer’s block, I recommend writing about one’s parents. It’s a loaded subject for anyone, conjuring feelings we might otherwise repress. It’s not that I believe a writer’s best work will come from this subject, but I do believe the parental well runs deep, making for prime, weighty material to help dislodge whatever is in the way. Maybe it will break the impasse, and if not, maybe the writer will get some therapy out of it.

The difference between a therapeutic pursuit and Carole Firstman’s debut memoir, Origins of the Universe and What It All Means, is significant. With the book, Firstman is ready to give the raw emotions surrounding her relationships with her parents narrative form, utilizing storytelling, science, and the quirks of a 1970s upbringing to make sense of a childhood less than ordinary.

Firstman’s focus is her father, a college instructor and researcher whose life’s work involves examining spiders, mites, and scorpions to fill a hole in Darwin’s theory of natural selection. This pursuit requires a great deal of alone time, and wins no “Father of the Year” award. For example, when Firstman was born,

Within days of bringing me home, my baby noises were too much of a distraction to his studies, so he erected a tent for my mother and me in the backyard, the large army-green canvas shelter they’d used on my father’s scorpion-gathering expeditions in the Mexican desert.

Such a traumatic early episode could be material for a wealth of caustic journal entries, but Firstman’s goals are larger. She wants to come to terms with what her father means to her as he, now in his eighties, approaches his end. “What label describes our relationship?” she writes. “And would I regret not knowing him better—or could I at least appreciate him more if I understood him from a different perspective?”

Any attempt to understand this man must deal with his eccentricities, which have always been more of a door than a window for Firstman. “My father’s speech patterns—his vocabulary and syntax—are unusually formal,” she writes. “Classic Asperger’s, from what I understand, albeit undiagnosed.” He grabs onto details and repeats them with a particular fondness for big science issues, and he picks strange times to unleash discourses. The author recounts a Thanksgiving dinner from her childhood with extended family around the table.

He explained that a googol is the number ten raised to the hundredth power, which is presumed to be greater than the number of atoms in the observable universe. A googolplex, then, is the number ten to the power of googol. It would be impossible for a person to print all the zeros in a googolplex because there isn’t enough space in the known universe.

It’s a long way from such abstractions to the emotional core of a father-daughter relationship, but it’s what Firstman has to work with. Ultimately, it’s a journey she’s compelled to take. “I’m drawn to these impossibilities,” she writes, “of understanding the world, understanding my father.”

Out-of-town trips are where the two bond most—seat-of-the-pants’ sojourns filled with not-always-safe adventures sightseeing and snake-dodging. One night under the stars in San Vicente, Mexico, her dad explains the Big Bang Theory to her in a way that puts Firstman at the center of the narrative. It’s a lovely moment, and an early clue for the author of what her dad might have to offer.

This version accounts for the longevity of my atoms, the basic elements that spewed into existence billions of years before now, elements that will still exist long after my body’s gone: a form of immortality, I suppose—not quite as comforting as the notion of heavenly eternal life, but at least the element-recycling plot of the Big Bang storyline is, well, it’s something. Better than nothing.

At such moments, Firstman seems to realize that this imperfect man is trying to give her the best part of himself, which—on at least one level—is more than she could expect from a traditional father-daughter dynamic.

The story veers into more explicit memoir subject matter when Firstman reveals her father’s take on sex, a topic that represents the grayest area of their relationship. He has had six wives throughout his life, not to mention an extra domicile during Firstman’s childhood where he had sex with women other than her mother. Once, when the author, an early grade-schooler, complains that her calls to him at the domicile too often yield a busy signal, he takes the questioning as time for a teachable moment.

He went to the bookshelf there in the living room and reached for a large book with a white cover: The Joy of Sex. He sat down next to me, cross-legged on the shag carpet, opened the book, and pointed to several of the illustrations—drawings of couples in various lovemaking positions. “This is what grownups like to do,” he said, then proceeded to explain what was happening in those pictures and the mechanics of what went where.

Naturally, Firstman has trouble categorizing this memory. Was it appropriate? Was she old enough to understand? The author doesn’t pretend to know, creating more unresolved feelings.

Firstman manages to understand some element of their dichotomy when the two travel to Moro Rock in Sequoia National Park, this not long after her father has grown old and seen his most recent wife and their 20-year-old daughter—the author’s half-sister—die. “What my father sees and what I see are two very different things,” she writes. “With confidence, he identifies indisputable facts. With uncertainty, I intuit shaded variations of humanity.” This insight implies a gap, but perhaps not an unbridgeable one.

There’s a difference between having complicated feelings about one’s parents and constructing those feelings into a compelling narrative, the latter, the far rarer quality. Primal sentiments are messy, but the story must have an emotional togetherness that trumps any grievance-fest. Origins of the Universe and What It All Means feels well-earned, offering hope that while we may not have all of the tools to figure out the complexities of the cosmos, nailing down one’s dominant parent might be a good place to start.


Origins of the Universe and What It All Means by Carole Firstman
Dzanc Books
$26.95 hardcover | Buy Now!


About the Reviewer:

Art Edwards’s reviews have or will appear in Salon, Colorado Review, The Rumpus, Entropy, The Los Angeles Review, The Collagist, JMWW, Word Riot, Up the Staircase, and The Nervous Breakdown.



Keywords: book review
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