The Biology of Luck by Jacob M. Appel; Elephant Rock Productions, 2013
Reviewed by Kayla Greenwell
The Biology of Luck by Jacob M. Appel is a hand-wringing thought experiment that makes you embarrassed to be human, but in a good way. It’s a merciless view into the darkest holes of contemporary society and how it can twist an identity into self-destruction. Appel answers the question “what can a highly individualized society create?” and he does it by creating characters that are too ridiculous to be real, and to realistic to tune out.
The author has won the Kurt Vonnegut award, and rightly so. In typical Vonnegut fashion, Appel’s characters only see the world in the way that suits them. They can peg those around them in an instant, but they are clueless when it comes to themselves.
Starshine is the perfect role-model for any young, aspiring narcissist. Her self-obsession is a work of art, and her ability to manipulate those around her probably puts her smack-dab-in-the-middle of sociopath territory. (Right? You tell me Appel, you’re the psychiatrist). Starshine is like Stephanie from the third grade. You know, the one who ripped the monopoly board in half, threw the money out the window, and swallowed the dog piece when she realized she wasn’t going to win. Screw you, Stephanie. The dog was my favorite and nobody cares that your dad has a corvette.
Anyway, Starshine is all about herself, which is why marriage is such a horrifying prospect for her.
“Yes, marriage is like a series of opposing reflections, inverse images getting ever smaller like nesting dolls, each one of your trying to squeeze yourself smaller to fit inside the hopes of the other, until one of you cracks or stops existing. Starshine would prefer to die a spinster.”
Well yeah, I mean who needs marriage when you have a rockin’ hot bod?
Larry Bloom (insert Orange is the New Black joke here) does not have a rockin’ hot bod, but he wants people to believe that even though he’s rough on the outside he has a heart of gold. Of course, then he goes and thinks things like this:
“Being unattractive is much like being black, Larry thinks: one makes you a second-class citizen in the world of business, the other a peon in the realm of romance. The only difference is that there hasn’t been a civil rights movement for the nondescript and homely people of the world…”
No, Larry. Just no.
These two shining examples of selflessness and compassion are about to have a date. Of course, since Larry knows everything about everything, he’s already wrote a book about it. It’s called The Biology of Luck. And before you ask, no they do not have their date at the Meta café.
While the characters are struggling with putting people on pedestals and trying to meet other people’s expectations, the reader really gets to enjoy Appel’s great command of place. What I enjoy most is the familiarity used when giving street names, short cuts, and the history of New York. The city comes alive on the page, and it really ties the novel together.
Appel’s writing style is fresh, but sometimes you can tell he’s an academic by the way he writes. Still, after I widened my vocabulary I found that his writing was exceptionally specific and clear. He says exactly what he means to say and moves on, leaving the reader to come to their own realization 50 pages later with an “Oh, that’s clever. Why didn’t I see that coming?” It’s a refreshing labyrinth of subtle nuances and smack-you-in-the-face conclusions.
I look forward to seeing more work by this author in the future. Appel has his own, distinct writing style and I would love to see how it develops. The pin-point accuracy skills of a psychological academic mixed with the talent and imagination of a fiction writer is a singular style, and one that only Appel can emulate with success.