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Under the Microscope

The Air We Breathe
By Andrea Barrett
Norton, 2007

On a warm Saturday afternoon, middle school girls drift from tent to tent on a meadow at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. In one tent they calculate the flying time of a small jet from Palo Alto to Lake Tahoe. In another, they maneuver robots along an obstacle course. Then they gather to listen to former astronaut Sally Ride speak about her life as an astronaut and encourage the girls to pursue studies in science. The only time I see my daughter’s eyes light up is when she’s given a pencil to perform flight calculations and when she’s put behind a computer and crashes planes in her attempt to be an air traffic controller. As I walk by a tray of rocks at the US Geological Survey’s table, I can’t help but imagine a young Andrea Barrett foregoing the air traffic controller tent to spend the afternoon picking up each rock and turning them round in her hands until they surrender their origins. The quiet, intellectual aspects of science fail to inspire my daughter, but they are what have, until now, permeated the works of Andrea Barrett. Dramatic conflicts are not organic to her fiction, but in The Air We Breathe the conflicts approach plane-crashing proportions.

In a Barrett story, finding the fossil, mapping the Himalayas, or building an X-Ray machine is far easier than telling a woman her hair ribbon is attractive or telling a man that you like his sextant. Misunderstandings and disappointments are the stuff upon which her fiction is usually built. However, in The Air We Breathe, the stakes are much higher than discovering the winter nesting grounds of swallows. While it would be asking too much of Barrett to leave her scientific comfort zone entirely—and yes, in this novel we must endure opaque quotes from nineteenth century chemistry textbooks and detailed passages on the development of X-Ray technology—World War I thankfully intervenes.

Whereas in Thomas Mann’s classic The Magic Mountain, set in a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss Alps, World War I enters like a thunderbolt at the novel’s end, in Barrett’s upstate New York sanatorium the war’s pervasive influence is imposed gradually. Letters, telegrams, newspapers, movies, lectures, first-hand accounts of the battlefield—all the best tools of early twentieth century information technology inject this war into the sanatorium and unnerve its mostly European immigrant patients. Their isolated pursuits and their worries over their disease become supplanted by feelings of fear for loved ones left on Europe’s soil and fear that their lives in America have be imperiled by events overseas. Ultimately, the fears ignited by war forces the patients to turn on one of their own. The novel dramatizes the dangerous lengths that humans will go to in order to feel safe.

With the release of The Air We Breathe, Barrett completes the series she began with the release of her National Book Award Winner, Ship Fever, followed by The Voyage of the Narwhal, and Servants of the Map. Previous stories in this series encompass a wide range of geographic and historical territory—from an early expedition to the North Pole to a mapping expedition of the Himalayas, from the Irish potato famine to a nineteenth century archeological dig in the Dakota badlands. Characters appear in one collection, then reappear in another. For example, Nora Kynd, a central character in the title story from Ship Fever returns in the story “The Cure” (Servant of the Map) to be reunited with her brother Ned, whom she thought she had lost, a brother who in turn is a prominent character in The Voyage of the Narwhal. “The Cure” also turns out to be a prequel to The Air We Breathe, but reading it is in no way essential to enjoying the latter. And thankfully, for those who have read Barrett’s other books, The Air We Breathe comes with a helpful character diagram to ease the distraction of trying to remember all the timelines and relationships.

 
In the summer of 1916, Leo Marburg, a poor, well-educated Russian immigrant, arrives at a tuberculosis sanatorium in the town of Tamarack Lake in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. Leo’s story establishes the novel’s timeline and plot arc. However, Leo is more anti-hero than hero. He wears a victim’s crown for most of the novel. He is a victim of disease, a victim of a love obsession, a victim of unrequited love, and a victim of circumstances. Leo buries his head in a chemistry book and occasionally lifts it to notice Eudora, a nurse (and granddaughter of Nora Kynd from Ship Fever) at the sanatorium who is pursuing studies in X-Ray technology. Thanks to Leo’s distractions, correspondences gone awry Jane Austen-style, and the misplaced jealousies of the wealthy industrialist Miles Fairchild, Leo eventually, comes under suspicion for an explosion that destroys part of the sanatorium. In the course of this novel, Leo develops in baby steps while the narrators, the sanatorium’s patients who tell us Leo’s tale, take an evolutionary leap forward.

Evil deeds committed by seemingly good people—an age-old conundrum resurrected in the character of Miles Fairchild. Miles is a wealthy industrialist sidetracked from his business and his paleontology hobby by tuberculosis. He resides in Mrs. Martin’s Cure House. Unaccustomed to passivity, Miles starts weekly educational discussions with volunteers from the sanatorium. He leads the first few discussions, but loses interest when the patients take over. Subsequently, he learns of the death of a friend’s son in the war and finds a new distraction. When he tries to convince Leo that America should enter the war, Miles’ arrogance and his inflated assessment of America’s abilities read like a page out of a neocon’s speech book:

What’s wrong with the French and the British, that they can’t organize matters better than this? The inefficiency, the sheer waste of life and idealism—when we get over there, when Americans are in charge, things will be different…we’d never let men rot like this. Not just physically but morally, spiritually.

Miles organizes a local chapter of the American Protective League that is “charged to look for evidence of sabotage and espionage and to combat the threats to vital industries.” While in the midst of drumming the local German-born choral master out of town for saying he enjoyed German composers or denigrating the X-ray technician’s appreciation for Einstein’s work because he is German, Miles falls in love with Naomi, Mrs. Martin’s eighteen-year old daughter. However, Naomi only has eyes for Leo.

When Leo admits he loves Eudora, Naomi flees Tamarack Lake. Miles feels like a fool when he learns that Naomi loved Leo. Using his power with the American Protective League and scanty evidence, Miles implicates Leo in the sanatorium fire that occurred the night Naomi left. The sanatorium’s patients—our narrator—are too eager to believe rumors about Leo’s guilt and too fearful that they will be the next ones accused; they fail to come to Leo’s defense. Times of fear, Barrett implies with one eye peering into the past and one cocked toward the present, breed more dishonorable acts than honorable ones.

 
As in The Voyage of the Narwahl, Barrett places the characters of The Air We Breathe in isolated circumstances. Instead of a ship locked into the ice of the North Pole, they find themselves in a tuberculosis sanatorium. Thanks to “the air meant to cure us pouring antiseptically through the woods,” the town of Tamarack Lake has prospered on the industry of caring for tubercular patients. The disease more than the geography isolates the characters. Additionally, the community is split between Americans of means who can pay for stays in privately run Cure Houses and poor immigrants who are wards of the public health system and must stay confined in the Tamarack Lake sanatorium. This system of health care breaks down along the same “have versus have-not” lines of our current health care system. Clearly, in her research for this novel Barrett mined early 20th American history for analogous events in the 21st century. Though at times the weaving of these analogies into the plot leaves awkward knots in the form of long newspaper excerpts and didactic dialogue, the subtle handling of this health care analogy is an example where Barrett made the novel’s setting do all the work.

Somewhat less subtle is Barrett’s decision to narrate The Air We Breathe with a voice of sanitarium patients. When Leo Marburg first comes to Tamarack Lake, his arrival is described by the patients as they sit on the sanatorium’s porches taking in the cleansing air:

We weren’t a big group even then—sixty women and sixty men, if every spot was taken—and a single arrival shifted scores of relationships, as did a single discharge, or a death. On the porches we gossiped as eagerly as we drew breath. Twice each week, if the mist didn’t block our view, the train pulled up to our unmarked siding and we inspected who might join us next.

When Barrett used this first person plural narration in the story “The Marburg Sisters” (Ship Fever) it was disorienting in its inconsistencies and seemed to add little to the overall theme of the story. Initially, in The Air We Breathe it feels as though Barrett has set herself up for similar problems. There are moments when the narration, by necessity, slips into a close third person to convey obligatory details of character and plot development. Additionally, the first person plural narration creates awkward who-said-what-to-whom-and-when moments seemingly necessary for the reader to piece together the chain of events. For example, it takes over seventy-five words in the example below for the narrator to tell us that the fire and Otto combined to delay the delivery of a letter to Leo.

For more than a month that letter, stalled at first by her [Naomi’s] careless address and then by the chaos after the fire, had lain in the village post office with the other mail meant for here. Once the sacks were finally delivered and all the mail was sorted through, Otto had seen the envelope addressed to Leo and, well-intentioned then, had taken it to their shared room, to deliver when Leo returned. After the humming started, though, he’d hidden it on purpose.

However, Barrett’s choice of narration redeems itself in the last hundred pages. Her chorus of patients becomes a plot protagonist when it gathers and spreads suspicious rumors that ultimately isolate Leo and make the others feel safer for having ejected the rumored-traitor from their midst. The patients’ actions establish the story’s quiet and inevitable resolution. Also, through the telling of this tale, “we” confesses to their part in it—they face truths about their less than honorable behavior, sometimes head-on, sometimes with polite excuses. In the end, it’s hard not to forgive “we” for their transgressions.

Early in the novel, Miles mentions that he, his friend, and his friends’ son Lawrence “learn about the war.” Like distant thunder registered but easily forgotten, World War I has crept into The Air We Breathe. But soon the storm overtakes the novel. Patients are forced to watch a film of real war footage substituted for their evenings’ promised entertainment of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Miles oversees the unloading of selective service documents in the dead of night. Leo reads of an account of the Russian Revolution in the newspaper and wonders what it means for his former homeland and their part in the war. With the exception of Ship Fever, Barrett has rarely permitted dramatic historic events to encroach so pointedly on her characters’ private pursuits. The Air We Breathe tackles, in contrast, questions that mirror those found in our current news stories and make most of us turn away in a sense of futility or disgust. With what country does your loyalties lie? Who is a true American patriot? What freedoms should be forfeited for our security? In one particularly moving scene, a sanatorium doctor describes to assembled patients what he has seen on the battlefields of Europe:

He [Dr. Petrie] had thought…that a nation that could in cold blood implement such a foul method of warfare should not be permitted to exist, should itself be strangled and made to suffer…. Anyone might have said something here; a number of us had relatives, or had once had relatives, either in that sprawling chunk of Europe now called the Central Powers or nearby, in places overrun by them. We hadn’t done this, not us, not people we knew—but then, who?

In World War I, Barrett has found an era with parallels to our own when patriotism and fear combined to make the call to war inevitable. While initially The Air We Breathe’s setting seems to revolve around a theme of medicine and public health similar to that of Ship Fever, once the war enters this novel its landscape explodes into a different sphere of relevance—a sphere that forces its characters to cross moral minefields in their need to feel safe. Whatever fears the characters have of succumbing to tuberculosis become supplanted by war-generated paranoia. Barrett is never able to fully assimilate these two themes, and she sacrifices an exploration of the ravages of tuberculosis to an increased preoccupation with the off-screen war; but giving two such tragedies their complete due in one novel would be a near-impossible feat in such a slim novel.

Still, despite the thematic imbalance, World War I saves The Air We Breathe. Unlike in Barrett’s previous stories, we are not set adrift with an array of science-obsessed characters in settings that contribute little dramatic fuel to the tales. Instead, Barrett positions the orbits of her characters in a universe that expands beyond the lens of a microscope. Dinosaur digs, chemistry theories, X-ray machines, even tuberculosis treatments are sacrificed to give us the problems of a larger world where people interact and make mistakes with both minor and grave consequences. But has Barrett truly abandoned her pet science pursuits in this novel? Instead of dissecting a swallow has she dissected human nature? Has she placed our fear under a microscope and identified a war-mongering virus with such symptoms as fear, blindness, arrogance, and inability to admit defeat? Novels, when expertly executed, can be a perfect instrument for a laboratory study of human acts—the monstrous, the heroic, and all the areas of gray in between. The Air We Breathe is a satisfying blend of the right characters in the right time to tell the right story—an admirable dissection.

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Karen Vanuska’s short fiction has appeared in Faultline Journal of Art and Literature. She is at work on a novel entitled Window to the West and lives in Half Moon Bay, CA.