Friday, July 21, 2006

'A perfectible world'

Carrie Tiffany's Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living is a poignant tale of one man's passion for science and how that passion fails him. Robert Petergree travels through the wheat fields and small towns of America in the 'Better Farming Train' to dispel scientific notions of increasing farm productivity. On this train, he meets and falls in love with Jean Finnegan, a seamstress, and together, they decide to settle in impoverished Mallee to transform its land and economy.

But like all ill-considered attempts, the experiment fails and a crushed Robert is forced to enlist for the Second World War to tide over the humiliation of his failure.

This ordinary tale becomes extraordinary in its clinical telling. Tiffany's narration is raw, and sprinkled with scientific jargon. Jean assists Robert in his experiments with soil, and a number of chapters finish with their details. What takes the book to another level, however, is the merging of scientific data with the emotional undercurrent running through the protagonists' lives. When Jean is finally departing for Mallee with Robert, her friend Mary, boarding the train, shouts to her, "Write to me with all of your results." The reader does not miss that the "results" Mary is talking of are not only the results of the scientific experiments Robert conducts, but also the outcome of Jean's marital life.

Everyman's Rules is a long tale that crisscrosses the barren landscape of countryside Australia and inter-relates it with the gradually seeping barrenness in Jean's life. The final straw comes in the form of an attack on Robert that pushes him to forsake his beloved experiment and join the Army, leaving Jean behind.

Finally, Jean decides to not leave Mallee, somewhat like Lucy in Disgrace, rather stays back in this place which (a) reeks of nothing but her husband's failed attempts (b) is the only place she can call home.

This is where the matter of her life was created, despite successes/ failures.

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