I recently finished Allegra Goodman's newest novel, Intuition, which focuses on the work and lives of medical researchers in a Boston area research lab. It's a rather philosophical novel in its concerns and its structure, probing into questions about ethics and epistemology. Did the marginalized postdoc Cliff, doing a failed experiment for the third time (against the orders of his supervisor), really discover something that will aid in the fight against cancer? Or did he falsify his results in some way? Goodman cleverly organizes her chapters, which take up different characters' points of view, so that the reader never gets a definite answer to such questions. Instead, we are inevitably in the position of using our readerly intuition to interpret or predict the actions and motivations of the different characters: the two supervising scientists, their assorted postdocs and techs, the spouses and children whose lives are dominated by the pursuit of medical discoveries.
Unfortunately, the word intuition shows up rather too often in the book's midsection for my liking, making what would otherwise be a rather elegant structure seem a bit clunky. Of course, intuition isn't scientific -- we are told this over and over again. In some ways, the novel seems to be interested in revealing the limitations of the scientific mindset (particularly in the scientists' difficulties with human relationships), but the camps of Science and Humanism seem too exaggerated: on one side, the postdocs suffering for their love of research, the research scientist who never sees his family on holidays because he's in the lab, the chess player who can't imagine a world without rules; on the other, an English professor spouse who has never finished her book about suffering poets, and a gawky teenager who shuts herself up in her room reading John Donne and sends copies of Victorian novels to the postdoc she has a crush on. But these are tensions worth exploring, and some of what I enjoyed in the book was its juxtaposition of different models of knowledge.
The last third of the novel sets these issues aside, however, to castigate all outsiders as inadequate judges of what takes place within the confines of the lab: the NIH committee investigating fraud, the unscrupulous journalists, the hayseed Congressman. But the hierarchies of academe and the desire for reputation are equally under scrutiny in this book, which doesn't really offer much of a conclusion. Everyone, from the disillusioned whistleblower to the possible cheater, just wants to keep on doing research.
I always read novels featuring academics, and it's refreshing to read one that is serious, rather than a satire. I thought a lot while reading it about my friends from graduate school who were in biology, and our many conversations about the different processes of investigation and analysis in our respective fields. We in the humanities think differently about the answers and about the questions than many in the sciences, and what we understand as the work of research is often quite different. If just for the depiction of labwork in all its boredom and brutality, the novel is interesting (although hard to read in places). But I wanted more from the characters -- the coldly patterned structure didn't quite give me the intellectual or emotional satisfaction I wanted as a reader.