Book Review: The Biology of Luck
The Biology of Luck is a story that bursts onto the page and into your imagination, shimmering with life. From the first page I could tell it was far from just another tale set against a New York City backdrop.
Jacob M. Appel tells the story of Larry Bloom, an unattractive tour guide who is hopelessly in love with charismatic free-spirit, Starshine Hart. Larry has spent the last two years immortalising Starshine in his as-yet unpublished novel, also entitled The Biology of Luck.
Now he’s set to play his trump card. He has a date with Starshine and an envelope from a publishing house in his pocket.
The novel takes the reader on a journey through the day leading up to the date, alternating between Larry’s perspective and chapters from his manuscript. Here’s where it gets tricky. Larry’s novel tells the story of Starshine’s life on the day leading up to the date, the day he feels he will win her heart. The result teams whimsy, grit and metafiction in a spunky metropolitan fairy tale.
When Appel pitched the book to his publisher, he described it as an anti-novel. In a way, Appel does indeed play with the genre. More notably, Appel was inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses. Like its more famous predecessor, the entire novel takes place in a single day. Where Joyce’s Leopold Bloom traverses Dublin, Larry Bloom wanders through New York, with the narrative creating a love letter to the city.
New York City lives large in the pages, but it’s a different New York to the one thrown before us in countless movies, TV shows and books. It’s the New York smelling of stale urine, cured meats and diesel. It’s a New York with veterans panhandling at McDonalds, women dressed for church waiting at post offices, dead bodies in the street, picnics in the Trinity churchyard, the Walt Whitman statue in Battery Park and beautiful girls on bicycles.
It’s a realistic portrait of the world’s most idealised city – gritty but charming in a distinct way. The descriptions leap out at readers, poised to create nostalgia in those who know New York and wanderlust in those who have never visited the bustling metropolis.
As Rita, the journalist with a tendency to miss a scoop, puts it in the novel, “One never knows what will happen on the streets of the Big Old Apple. That’s the amazing thing about New York, isn’t it?”
Much as Larry takes his tourists around the city, his narrative voice showcases distinct suburbs to the reader, weaving through the city as we learn more about him, his life and of course, his muse, the illustrious Starshine.
Starshine Hart is a Zooey Deschanel-style character with plenty of whimsy and a big personality. Even her name fits a hipster ideal of beauty. She refuses to take jobs that require her to wear shoes, charms bankers to eke out an extra $45 and has a roommate named Eucalyptus. She is an extreme character and none of her quirks are watered down to make her seem less contrived.
Oddly enough, it works. What is disconcerting is having to constantly remember that we are in fact only seeing Larry’s perception of Starshine, thus only getting a secondhand glimpse at the character. It plays on the idea that so often the reader only gets one very small glimpse of a character, through the perspective of the narrator. Starshine is meant to be on a pedestal. The fact that we know that her experiences are only the ones that Larry surmises that she would have shows that quite clearly.
She is Starshine. She is in her prime. She is a spring beauty carrying a fruit basket through the heart of Greenpoint… She balances the fruit basket on her head and she feels like Carmen Miranda. Like a celebrity. Like the sort of woman for whom ships are launched, for whom kingdoms are imperilled, for whom epic literature is composed.
And she is.
The metafictive elements also allow Appel to explore coincidences, fate and the strange ups and downs of life. Strange connections between Larry’s day and Starshine’s fictitious day keep cropping up, bringing up questions about fact and fiction that have no real answers.
The prose is uniquely crafted, alternating between grandiose and resolutely coarse. Some sentences flow endlessly on, but the flamboyant style works, with each detail serving to better set the scene, right down to the scent of maple blossoms on a Harlem morning. Little gems of sentences scatter unexpected viewpoints into the novel, such as the statement that “floral shops are the last havens of masculinity”.
The concept of writing and literature is also never far from the surface throughout the novel. While Larry’s ultimate goal might be to win Starshine’s heart, literary success is thoroughly tied up in that dream. “Larry senses that he will soon be among the immortals, that his name and Starshine’s will forever be imprinted in the collective conscience of Western Civilisation, vividly, indelibly, their names intertwined like so many lovers of yore.” Thus Appel skips past writer’s block and the process of creation straight to showing the larger-than-life dreams harboured in the hearts of creative types. This theme is continued in the portrayal of another character’s quest to write “The Great American Sentence”.
The Biology of Luck is a book so resplendent with detail and charm that it would be easy enough to go back for a second reading. Even the minor characters are imbued with life of their own and lifted above their peripheral roles. Appel has created a small masterpiece… vibrant, clever and utterly memorable.
Victoria Nugent is a writer in regional QLD. She makes a living as a journalist but moonlights as a writer of short stories, a Twitter foodie and a shockingly infrequent blogger. She has been published in Peppermint magazine, lip magazine, Ideas At The House, Bespoke, Spoonful and other publications.