Andrea Barrett’s “The Investigators” is the first story in her short story collection Archangel (2013), which is a finalist for this year’s The Story Prize. “The Investigators” was first published in issue 18 (Summer 2013) of A Public Space.
I’m a big fan of Andrea Barrett. She has a degree in biology and attended a Ph.D. program for zoology, and her fiction reflects a fascination with the scientific process and with the personalities of the men and women involved in the scientific revolution. Her first splash in the literary scene was the short story collection Ship Fever, which won the National Book Award in 1996. Ship Fever mostly takes place in the nineteenth century, among natural scientists. I’ve often meant to revisit it and review its stories here. I still plan to. She followed that collection up with The Voyage of the Narwhal, a novel that takes us to an Arctic expedition in the 1850s. Her next story collection was Servants of the Map, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, that again deals with the very personal characteristics of scientific curiosity. It’s not a surprise, then, that when looking at the table of contents for Archangel, you can get a glimpse of this same thread:
- The Investigators (1908)
- The Ether of Space (1920)
- The Island (1873)
- The Particles (1939)
- Archangel (1919)
I’m thrilled Andrea Barrett became a writer, and what a writer she is. While she’s picked a sweet spot for me — I am no scientist, alas, but I hold a fascination for this period, a period when the world seemed to be opening up, to be limitless and still full of mystery — it’s not just the period that attracts me; Barrett examines the psychology — sometimes familiar, sometimes warped — of these characters. The setting is fundamental, but Barrett treats it as incidental.
“The Investigators” takes place in the summer of 1908, the summer its protagonist, Constantine Boyd, was twelve years old. When the story begins, Constantine is uncomfortably riding the train from his home in Detroit to Hammondsport, New York, in the Finger Lakes district, where his mother grew up. He’s nervous, but not necessarily because he’s leaving home. He’d already been leaving home for two summers, going west to an uncle’s farm, and he was comfortable there. This year, he’s going to another uncle’s farm, and he’s a bit nervous it won’t work out.
This new acquaintance, his Uncle Taggart, also runs a farm, but it’s different. Taggart and his friends are the obvious investigators of the title. They breed animals and plants, hoping for new selections. They read scientific magazines and keep detailed records of everything. None of this really interests Constantine: he had “an ability to keep working, without complaint, no matter how tired and lonely he really was. Here, the hours whisked by and the tasks were mostly pleasant. But what was he doing them for?”
He also has not yet examined himself, why he’s there and not home or at his other uncle’s farm. The adult world is complex, suggested when Constantine finds Taggart’s fascination with natural selection somewhat infuriating (though Constantine does not at this point consider things long enough to truly get infuriated): “Was this how adults thought? Maybe this, maybe that, and then and then and then.”
But slowly and surely, the world around him begins to open up. He learns to ride a bike, “and then — suddenly he could reach so many places!” It’s on these bicycle rides that he discovers more about the town and the inhabitants, up to now “[u]nremarkable-looking strangers he’d earlier ignored,” came to life. Particularly because he finds something that does fascinate him: all the men and women — including his uncle — engaged in mechanics and engineering to fly.
The central event in this story is one that actually took place: Glenn H. Curtiss’s flight on July 4, 1908. On that day, G.H. Curtiss won a contest by flying over one kilometer (he actually nearly doubled this). Practical, Constantine can fully get behind this, and suddenly a lot of things that previously had no purpose do. We finally see him as a young boy discovering the world around and inside him. He’s filled with hope, hope to discover — and also to escape.
When the story began, Constantine was relatively unaware of his own emotions or of those around him. One night he is looking distant, and someone tells him it’s okay if he’s feeling homesick. He realizes he isn’t homesick. Rather, and enigmatically, “[i]t was back [home] he felt, not homesick but . . . some other thing.” He doesn’t know what he feels at home. By the end he’s metaphorically blind and drowning under water, because he now begins to understand.
Though I admire this story a lot, it’s not her strongest. Indeed, it feels slightly underdeveloped, like a prologue, on its own. It does stand alone, but at the same time in Archangel Barrett is up to something a bit different, which we will get into in posts about the later stories. Not quite a novel of connected stories, nevertheless these are linked. We will run into Constantine Boyd again in the last story. The time of discovery, of mystery, will unveil some true ugliness.