Thanks to our friends at Text Publishing, we have two copies of Andrew Porter’s The Theory of Light and Matter to give away. Details will appear in our April newsletter, which you can join here.
The Theory of Light and Matter
Publication date: 01/03/2010
Richard Feynman’s The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, published in 1986, contains four lectures in which Feynman demonstrated ‘the truly strange behavior of light’: why light is partially reflected from some surfaces, including glass – even though it’s transparent. Andrew Porter’s debut collection of stories, The Theory of Light and Matter, which won the 2007 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction, directly references Feynman. And while Porter’s stories deal with people, not physics; memory, not light, they too investigate invisible barriers.
In the title story, a physics professor gives his students a test so difficult that they, failing, leave the classroom one by one; even the brightest are made cruelly aware of their inadequacy. Only Heather, the story’s narrator, stays behind, though she later finds out that her attempts to solve the problem were ‘not even close’. Her modesty is a key, not to an honours mark, but to tea with the professor, who tells her that ‘as soon as you think you understand something, you eliminate any opportunity for discovery’.
This mantra resonates throughout these eleven stories, whose narrators approach tragedy and surprise with seeming equanimity. In Porter’s Middle America, observers quietly assess change – or take coy distance from it – to avoid the harm they’ve witnessed in others. In ‘Coyotes’, teenage Alex routinely goes up to the roof of his mother’s house in southern California to listen for the cries of the desert’s wild dogs. His father, struggling to make good on the promise of his first film, returns from a failed venture in Mexico. Although Alex’s mother is seeing another man, the long-absent father re-enters the home and their lives, working in the basement and only occasionally surfacing to eat or talk.
But quiet assessment without judgment can make an effete observer. In ‘Departure’, the unnamed narrator reflects on his teenage years, particularly the time when the local Amish teenagers started visiting his Pennsylvania town on Friday nights. Most of the Amish teenagers keep well out of fights, but one – a large and angry youth called Isaac King – ducks and dives until he is inevitably defeated. Despite the escalating pattern of violence, the narrator is surprised when, in the final bout of this kind, Isaac falls to the ground, ‘his head split open near the hair line.’ ‘Hey,’ he says, ‘What the fuck just happened?’. Unlike mass-market American heroes who take their fate in their fist, these characters let fate have its way with them.
Though the narrators are often retelling these stories – to new girlfriends, or going over them in their minds – in The Theory of Light and Matter, the position of interpreter affords no particular insight to its holder. So it is for the narrator of the opening story, ‘Hole’. His present-day dreams and recollections from a summer twelve years ago, when his childhood friend Tal Walker fell into a hole and died, are plagued by misrememberings. For the narrator, the past is impertinent. The details of the accident – the depth of the hole, the fatal misstep – fail to surface with any certainty.
Porter’s narrators offer the intimacy of the first person and the adaptive resignation of the monk: no blame is assigned, and guilt is inevitable. In ‘Azul’, a middle-class couple encourage Azul, their teenage exchange student, to hold a party. The contrast between their blithe wish to indulge their surrogate son and the night’s end, where they watch paramedics carry another teenager from their backyard, is gently appalling. Porter renders an exquisite moment of resistance before they ‘finally turn around and look’ at what they’ve done.
To what end does Porter portray a compact barely honoured between its parties – possibility and powerlessness? Significant events in The Theory of Light and Matter strike other parties like jackhammers – the Pennsylvania Amish eventually leave for the west, a teenage girl is sexually assaulted – but leave off Porter’s narrators with little fanfare, much like a feather’s glancing blow. Yet the protagonists often end up alone or compromised, like Heather, the physics student. Rather than consummate her love for her old professor, she chooses to marry a man whom she understands ‘would one day be the man I married … a very different feeling than the feeling you have when you realize you are in love with someone’.
While these compromised endpoints are salient, it’s the conceit of the stories themselves – the remembrance of things past – that truly defines the tales. The protagonists’ unsettled return to traumatic, formative experiences reveals the physics professor’s dictum as a double-edged sword: they don’t try to fully comprehend their past, but neither can they make peace with it. Instead, they choose to retract the buffer of time, to ‘shudder at our carelessness, our blind motion’.
Porter’s quiet, mesmerising skill ensures that his protagonists are powerfully inhabitable, the susurrus of history bridling under their skins. And though the elegant emotional trajectory of the stories becomes easy to predict by the book’s end, Porter’s prose is sustained and confident. This ensures that the deeply human heart of The Theory of Light and Matter is always visible: people that, like light, look whole, but have left some of themselves behind along the way.