Illustration by Debby Wolfensohn
It is not often that science forms the foundation for a great work of literary fiction. As Jay McInerney recently wrote in The New York Times Book Review, the literary novel should require of us new kinds of reading skills, unlike the conventional novel, which “depends on our ingrained habits of reading and perception, and ultimately confirms them as adequate to our understanding of the world.” Nicholas Drayson’s remarkable debut novel, Confessing a Murder, released last year to near-complete disinterest but now out in paperback, lives up to McInerney’s criteria with joyous and astounding effect. Presented as the memoir of a 19th-century naturalist, the book reveals itself gradually as a fantastical blend of science, imagination, personal narrative and philosophical reflection combined with actual historical events and characters that so deeply confounds the boundary between fact and fiction, the reader is propelled at times into a state of near hallucination.
The conceit is a simple one: A manuscript discovered in an attic in Holland purports to be the journal of a man in the Victorian era marooned on an island in the Java Sea. Under the threat of an active volcano and what will surely be his imminent demise, the man has written the true story of his own life as well as that of his childhood friend Charles Darwin. Into this narrative, he interweaves a detailed account of the bizarre flora and fauna that populate his own private Galápagos.
Just as Darwin found on that remote outpost a set of “organic productions” distinct from all others on the planet, so Drayson’s narrator discovers species unknown anywhere else. On his island live vampire plants (a carnivorous variety of mistletoe) that suck on the blood of young birds, fish that climb up rocks, spiders that ensnare bats, another species of bird that hibernates under water and a beetle that lives solely on the noses of shaggy goatlike creatures the narrator calls “gadzocks.”
Like his unnamed protagonist, Drayson himself is a naturalist; until recently he was a curator at the National Museum in Canberra, Australia. His knowledge of nature’s quirks is prodigious, and before launching into his story of the gadzock nose beetle, we are briefed about an actual variety of Australian dung beetle (Macropocopris symbioticus) that lives in the anus of wallabies. Typically, dung beetles lay their eggs in the feces of their chosen species, flying to freshly laid ordure only when it is time to reproduce, and fashioning from it a small ball into which the female deposits her clutch. The dung is the food on which the infant beetles will feast, the copris equivalent of mother’s milk. Macropocopris symbioticus, however, simplifies this cycle, spending its entire life — in Drayson’s bluntly poetic phrase — “up the arse of a wallaby,” where it eats the dung in situ. Thus primed by the surrealist tendencies of actual nature, the narrator’s fictitious beetle seems positively tame by comparison — while the pupa feed on dung, the adult beetles subsist entirely on the gadzock’s nasal mucus.
It is nature’s immense and absurdist potential that Drayson celebrates, its sheer powers of creativity. This almost magical plasticity is metaphorically encapsulated in the island’s most unique creature, an über-chameleon that can not only change its color but also its form, looking at one moment like a twig, at another like a patch of sand, and at another like a sixth finger attached to the narrator’s hand. Nature, Drayson implies, will ultimately recognize no limits and confound all classification systems. In his island the narrator has found an antidote to the pathological desire for both constraint and restraint that so characterized Victorian society. Nature unplugged as it were.
Mysterious islands populated by exotic and often scientifically advanced cultures have long been a staple of fantastical literature, itself a precursor to modern-day science fiction — Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Thomas More’s Utopia and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis being the foremost examples — but I know of no other book in which an author has so fully realized an alternative vision of natural history. In his exquisite attention to botanical and zoological detail, Drayson brings his island alive — you will swear this place exists.
Where so many science-based novels fail is in the teaching of the science behind the story. From the pulp-sci thrillers of Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, Timeline, Prey) to the lugubrious, highbrow tomes of Richard Powers (Gold Bug Variations, Galatea 2.2), most such fictions descend continually into classroom mode, cramming crash courses in quantum physics or molecular biology uneasily into the interstices of their narrative engines. All too often the tone is of gears crunching. But so deft is he at meshing the facts and theories with the fiction that Confessing a Murder never feels like a lesson. What is perhaps more amazing — given that Drayson is a scientist — is the extraordinary vitality of the tale itself. His narrator is as exotic and ambiguous as any creature that inhabits his enchanted isle.
In Drayson’s wittily constructed “publisher’s introduction” it is explained that the title chosen to adorn the text has been taken from a letter by the real Charles Darwin, who wrote to a friend that by publishing “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection” he felt as if he were “confessing a murder” — of God. That Darwin, with his deeply held religious convictions, was reluctant to convey his theory is a fact long known to historians of science. But how and why did he come to publish a book that by his own admission he could hardly bring himself to accept? Confessing a Murder purports to give us the story behind this decision, one that takes us back to Darwin’s and the narrator’s childhoods, and to a sordid revelation about their intertwined parentage. It is not giving anything away to say that the two are cousins, the narrator being an illegitimate son of Darwin’s uncle.
The boys share not just blood but a passion for beetles, and it is while collecting specimens in the English fields that the pair begin to think about the nature of nature, Drayson’s narrator always at the leading edge of their scientific musings. Thus we discover the “true” origin of Darwin’s ideas in the mind of his brilliant yet anonymous cousin.
Where Darwin was, by most accounts, a man of scrupulous moral rectitude, his cousin is a wastrel entirely committed to his own pleasure, which he derives equally from beetles and boys. Though he is not entirely averse to the ladies and is involved at one point in a scandalous liaison with Darwin’s future wife, our narrator’s sexual proclivities lie in the homosexual direction.
Yet again, where so much contemporary literature dwells so thuddingly on the theme of sexual identity, Drayson approaches the subject with a lightness at once winning and original. Between the sheets of the narrator’s own conquests are anatomical details of the reproductive strategies of his island’s creatures, a polymorphous bunch that includes the orgiastic gadzocks; a species of fish in which the male fertilizes the female by swimming inside her mouth and ejaculating into a special pouch; and, perhaps most subversively, a species of beetle and an orchid that are so sexually entwined the male beetle never actually copulates with the female but only with the labium of the flower. This interspecies carnality serves as a delicately playful yet profound rejoinder to the staid sexual mores of the narrator’s straight-laced era. In this effusively liberal vision, nature embraces the endless permutations of sexual liaison with as much gusto as our near-shameless narrator.
All of this is further woven into the structure of a murder mystery, and in the end there is both a killing and a confession — Darwin is not the only cousin responsible for a death. Few novelists of any stripe can handle so many diffuse and potentially divergent strands so gracefully. Confessing a Murder ranks not only among the best scientific novels, it is quite simply one of the most riotously entertaining novels I have read in years.
CONFESSING A MURDER | By NICHOLAS DRAYSON | W.W. Norton | 281 pages | $14 paperback
Margaret Wertheim’s Quark Soup column entitled “Here There Be Dragons” (L.A. Weekly, November 14, 2002) has been selected by guest editor Oliver Sacks for inclusion in The Best American Science Writing 2003, to be published by Ecco in September.