Review: The Biology of Luck
THE BIOLOGY OF LUCK
Novel by Jacob M. Appel
Review by Benjamin Perry
Issue No. 3 – March 2014
The Biology of Luck is Jacob M. Appel’s second novel, in which we follow Larry Bloom – a character who proves to be one of numerous nods to Joyce’s Ulysses – through a “normal” day in New York City. Larry is an NYC tour guide (which helps to elucidate the setting throughout the text) as well as a man on a mission. He plans to win over Starshine Hart, the long-time object of his unrequited affection, by landing a book deal with a novel he has written…about her. They will open the publisher’s response letter together at a meticulously planned dinner, thus simultaneously discovering both Larry’s literary and romantic fate. The “normal” New York day in question is the series of hours leading up to this dinner, told in a unique fusion of straightforward narrative interlaced with the chapters of Larry’s possibly-soon-to-be-published work about Starshine. Both narratives contain a cast of standout secondary characters, which often cross over from one story to the other. This construction might sound stifling, but is rather straightforward when presented in the novel. The combination of an interesting setting, unique form and solid supporting cast, however, fail to outweigh the shortcomings of a monotonous pace, great emotional distance from the events of the text and an overall pessimistic tone throughout.
The New York City setting plays a major part in the novel, which seems appropriate since both Larry Bloom and Appel himself are certified NYC tour guides. Outlandish and drastic events, such as a riot-turned-food fight (or vice versa?) and a young Dutch girl nearly drowning in the Hudson River, help to breathe life into the setting, presenting it almost as a character in its own right. The city does not, however, assist the plot in any discernable fashion. f and the subsequent hijinks that unfold along the way, but feel dragged rather than pushed. By viewing Larry in his work atmosphere, readers are allowed a few insights as to who he is as a person, as well as some brief detail about what it is to be an NYC tour guide. Unfortunately, many of these details center around complaints regarding his Dutch sightseeing group, and not much is actually divulged about the history of the city, which would have been a nice addition to the text – especially for someone like myself whose curiosity about the city and landmarks began to overshadow my interest in the story proper.
The cast of secondary characters, which really does hold the narrative afloat, comes across as an extension of the setting, as they possess attitudes and idiosyncrasies that seem to grow directly from the city they inhabit. The outstanding ensemble cast truly does steal the show away from Larry and Starshine and, though they sometimes tote with them distasteful habits or sordid pasts, they are ultimately less irritating.
Rita Blatt, a small-time reporter on assignment to interview Larry about his Dutch tour group, is a prime example of the energy the secondary characters give the novel. She introduces herself in a whirlwind, afterward explaining that she is, “Quite reserved, almost pathologically shy,” and that she uses a loud and abrasive demeanor as “her way of overcompensating.” She later assumes Larry is interested in her sexually and leads him back to her apartment during a break from the tour, attempting to lure him into intercourse. This hypersexual mindset finds its way into her work as well, and she asks Larry if he has “ever developed a—what shall I call it—a romantic attachment to one of [his] customers? Some pretty young girl from some exotic land?” It is this kind of imaginative action that spur the secondary characters into the forefront of the text, adding excitement to the inevitable direction of the plot.
Larry and Starshine are depicted as somewhat normal people from the start, which would actually come as a comfort if they didn’t remain as such for the entire novel. Larry’s storyline (that is to say, the main text) is unceasingly pessimistic, continually reminding readers that Larry is unattractive and thus destined to failure. During one of the many self-loathing portions of the novel, Appel writes of Larry:
“His book will fail. His date will fail. It is all carved in stone. Men like Larry Bloom don’t win the love of women like Starshine Hart. Men like Larry Bloom don’t publish epic novels to literary acclaim. When you get right down to it – and Larry doesn’t think he can go much lower at the moment – men like Larry Bloom don’t do much of anything.”
This passage does not bring the reader to empathize with Larry, but rather sigh and exclaim, “I get it!” Larry’s melancholy is such that when he began contemplating suicide, I didn’t quite realize it since this negative sentiment is echoed so many times throughout the book as it is.
In fact, the negativity surrounding Larry transcends the framing narrative, and permeates the text he himself has written. His novel is centered on Starshine, yes, but he becomes a character within his novel as well. One would think that the process of writing yourself would draw out some positive details, but it is possible Larry writes himself as more of a “loser” than Appel. In his novel, Larry describes himself as “a bit too pliable, a bit too attached to [Starshine] for comfort.” He continues the foreshadowing of his own inevitable shortcoming by stating, “Some woman – but decidedly not Starshine Hart – will see his inner beauty.” These descriptions come rather early in the text, which led me to hope for a transformation and newfound confidence appearing later, but that expectation didn’t pan out, turning into one of many build-ups leading to anticlimactic results.
Starshine is an interesting bird in her own right, continually dissatisfied by male objectification, yet being completely blind to the fact she’s encouraging such actions. Growing up a not quite desirable girl but flourishing into a beautiful twenty-something, Starshine briefly appreciated but now laments the desirous glares and catcalls she elicits from men. This, I imagine, could be a pitiable situation if it weren’t so clear that she purposefully uses her body and female charm to coax men into performing her will. In fact, she nearly erupts in tears when she is unable to persuade a credit union employee to credit her account $45. Not to worry, he ends up handing her $60 of his own money not many pages later.
Improbably, we come to realize that we only ever encounter Starshine through Larry’s novel. A meeting between the two, of course, comes to fruition, but not in the main narrative. Even then, their long-anticipated meeting is experienced through Larry’s eyes, never allowing us an “objective” view of the two of them together. This indicates that we are not actually seeing the end of the main narrative, but, rather, the end of Larry’s novel written months prior. At this point, the idea that the day you have just experienced through the eyes of the two main characters are in fact not the same day at all. Larry’s novel was written prior to the timeframe of Appel’s, and therefore we have no idea as readers what Starshine’s day was actually like. We, in plain fact, have no proof they even met for dinner at all.
There are shining moments within the text, and lines that illuminate Appel’s wit and sharp view of what it is to be a person living in today’s harsh society, but it ultimately ends with a final nod to Ulysses – only slightly less optimistic – and leaves you questioning the consistency of the timeline and the reliability of the narrator. While there are worthwhile moments, and definitely some fun to be had with dark humor and the cast of supporting characters, you’ll have to experience them as they come in an otherwise unremarkable novel.
The Biology of Luck
Jacob M. Appel
Elephant Rock Productions
234 pages, $16.00
Benjamin Perry is a founding member and editor-in-chief at Blank Fiction Magazine. He earned a couple degrees from Cal State Fullerton, but they’re still in shipping envelopes on his desk. Most importantly, he likes to smile and laugh.