The Bull Calf

Reviews of Fiction, Poetry, and Literary Criticism

Specimen by Irina Kovalyova

Reviewed by David Hollingshead

Irina Kovalyova

Specimen. House of Anansi Press, 2015.

304 pp.


Anyone interested in the relationship between science and literature, or between the various disciplines comprising the natural sciences and the humanities broadly construed, will find the ideology of the “two cultures” model almost inescapable. It goes something like this: whereas scientific scholarship is rigorous, disinterested, objective, and committed to the descriptive validity of the empirical fact, scholarship in the humanities is speculative, critical, subjective, and committed to the mandate of endless interpretation given the relativism of its truth claims. Neither field, according to this logic, is distinctly superior to the other (hence the notion that they demarcate two distinct cultures). Rather, each traffics in different kinds of knowledge and interpellates different kinds of subjects: the sciences are “hard,” while the humanities are “soft,” with all the connotations associated with these descriptors following in tow. The public debates revolving around this opposition, both within and beyond the academy, have come to be called the “Science Wars” and, for better or for worse, its terms have informed the way we think about interdisciplinarity for almost four decades.

Irina Kovalyova’s debut collection of fiction, Specimen (eight short stories and a novella), is both a product and critique of the oppositional discourses underwriting the Science Wars.  From its laboratorial title to the carefully curated objets de science adorning its (beautiful) cover to its promotional emphasis on the author’s diverse résumé (Kovalyova is a molecular biology professor with graduate degrees in chemistry, biology, and creative writing) to its blurb from the series’ editor heralding the arrival of “a literary scientist [who] experiments with structure, style, form, and genre,” Specimen loudly announces itself as a hybrid entity, a collection to be noticed and taken seriously precisely for its innovative fusion of authoritative scientific expertise with high literary style and a refined aesthetic imagination. And yet, even as the collection exploits the “two cultures” divide for the purposes of marketability, it also represents an attempt to think beyond its governing structural oppositions. Science, in Kovalyova’s literary universe, is neither a stylistic accessory (though she loves a good chemistry or biology metaphor) nor a mere backdrop for plot (though many of her stories take place in classrooms, laboratories, research facilities, and doctor’s offices): instead, Specimen’s chief gambit is that science itself is inherently aesthetic, which is to say that both its objects and its modes of inquiry are informed by generic conventions, motivated by passional investments, constituted through metaphor, permeated by rhetorical figures, mobilized according to points of view (or lack thereof), and just as recalcitrant, polysemic, and epistemologically messy as the most esteemed works of art. 

This is a provocative proposition, and one that Kovalyova attempts to validate through a series of unique literary conceits, wherein a concept or phenomenon derived from the natural sciences gets juxtaposed with one associated with the humanities. Such conceits are often ambitiously brainy affairs. For instance, in “The Big One,” when a sudden and violent earthquake inters a mother, the story’s narrator, and her young daughter beneath the rubble of their apartment’s parking garage, the disaster manifests as a formal event in the body of the text itself. At the very instant “the ceiling collapses, folds on a wrecked pillar, and canopies us with pasted stone” (140), a vertical typographical rift, suggestive of the geological fault plane along which the earth’s tectonic plates seismically chafe during just such a natural phenomenon, bisects the written page, splitting it into two separate columns that organize the narrative material for the remainder of the story. The left margin contains an unembellished, exteriorized account of the women’s dialogue and physical interactions as they navigate their lightless tomb (“We find each other’s hands and interlace our fingers;” “I check my BlackBerry’s messenger” [140, 141]), while the right margin tracks the mother’s interior stream of consciousness, all the thoughts that are too painful, terrifying, or simply tangential to be spoken in the presence of her daughter, whom she is trying desperately to comfort (“Please do not let anything be crushed unevenly. All must be crushed at once;” “What was it in Poe?  Why am I thinking of Poe?  I must think of nothing but M” [141, 142]). The effect of this formal analogy between geological rupture and psychic rupture, however, is more interesting in theory than it is in practice on the page. Indeed, the story’s suggestion that our modes of representing human trauma in the face of inhuman forces might actually share certain features with those forces themselves is fascinating, but it amounts to nothing more than a thought experiment—ie. what happens if we imagine literal cracks in the earth’s topography as analogous to the figurative cracks in our mental topography?—whose implications remain unexamined in the narrative itself.

Every story in Specimen is constructed around exactly this sort of conceit—one that appears, at first glance, potentially profound, but winds up feeling hollow and strangely inconsequential in execution. In the postmodern faux-Poe mashup, “The Ecstasy of Edgar Allabaster,” Kovalyova compares the notion of literary hybridity—the recognition “that all literature is in fact hypertexted, like the links on the Internet”—to an act of incest, which the story’s plagiaristic narrator tries to justify through his own aesthetic intermixtures: “chromosomal imprint of the doomed. Plagiarism as incest.  Perversity made into art” (25), he writes in a letter to someone we take to be his beloved sister.  This equation, far from casting incest in a new or interesting light, simply pathologizes the artist—a strategy Poe himself undertook towards much more unsettling ends. In “Side Effects,” a middle-aged woman’s experimentation with Botox injections provides the occasion for Kovalyova to play out the drama of what the woman’s sinister physician calls “emotional feedback,” the promise of “psychological smoothness to go along with the smoothness of your forehead,” which proves a predictably Faustian wager (36). And in “Gonos,” a biology professor’s struggle to reconcile himself to his son’s transgender identity hinges on the multivalence of the term “game,” which indexes both the randomness of genetic selection and the performative nature of gender as a kind of play (the son will turn out to be merely playing a “game” on the web, faking his gender transition to profit economically from a deceitful Kickstarter campaign). The list of conceits goes on and on: in Kovalyova’s hands, the asymmetrical, rhizomatic growth of crystals in a petri dish become metaphors for the imperfections of all human life; a hyper-deadly sci-fi virus that breaks down its victim’s heart cells, but which children who have experienced the loss of a parent are mysteriously immune to, is ironically named “Heart Break;” and in the ungainly, genre-bending geopolitical romance-cum-spy-thriller novella, “The Blood Keeper,” the symbiotically reproductive relationship between orchids and bees allegorizes the vicissitudes of cross-cultural courtship rituals. 

Insofar as these conceits ostensibly provide occasions for serious philosophical reflection by generating surprising juxtapositions of heterogeneous concepts or phenomena, it is entirely appropriate to call them literary “experiments,” but are they successful ones?  Do they illuminate the relationships they put into play? In asking this question, however, we find ourselves back within a key problematic of the Science Wars—namely, the question of the transferability of standards across the disciplines.  Although Specimen is marketed on the merits of this very premise, it is, in the end, enervated by its own scientism. For all their intellectual curiosity, Kovalyova’s stories retreat from emotional and interpretive ambiguity at every turn, frequently drawing conclusions for the reader about the material at hand (“The Big One,” despite its interest in the inhumanity of natural forces, ends on the trite humanist axiom, “Without imagination, life makes no sense”); her characters tend to read as mouthpieces for ideas rather than living, breathing, emotionally-complex beings (a literary professor at one point says to her daughter, “It just goes to show that even adults who consider themselves smart sometimes make big mistakes. The irony is that I’ve read all these books on parenting, not to mention the novels of the classical canon,” lines as flat as they are improbable); and much of the genre play and formal experimentation feels forced rather than integral to the storytelling (one short narrative, “Gdansk,” is arranged into seventy-two numbered blocks of text, to no apparent benefit for the reader). Specimen even contains a kind of “works cited” page as its author’s note, a list of all the literary works that inspired individual stories, giving the strange impression that the text we hold in our hands is a kind of school project: there, I’ve done my research, now I can write up my findings. It feels as if Kovalyova has aestheticized science at the expense of rendering the practice of aesthetics scientific. 

All of which makes Kovalyova’s title so apt in spite of itself, for the pieces in this collection do feel like laboratory specimens: functionally illustrative of a particular concept, or exemplary of a particular technique, but simultaneously lifeless, sterile, extracted from the vital milieu in which their potentialities might have been allowed to flourish.  This is especially unfortunate given how intellectually ambitious Kovalyova’s project actually is. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, her writing is at its strongest when it hones closest to her own professional training: in “Peptide p,” she conjures up a legitimately chilling technocratic dystopia, organized around the experimentation upon human children, through the asceptic genre of the lab report. The force of this story lies in its irony, its ability to turn the report’s generic conventions against itself by pushing them to their outer limit, at which point the austerity of the laboratorial gaze finds its negation in the living subject under scrutiny.  This is a delicate balancing act: the strange necromancy of giving life back to the specimen, but it is precisely the payoff that every story in the collection should have aspired to.


David Hollingshead is a PhD candidate in the English Department at Brown University where he studies turn-of-the-century American realism and naturalism.


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