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Intuition: A Novel

by

Intuition: A Novel Cover

 

 

Author Q & A

Your previous novels and short story collections have centered on religious and spiritual issues as well as various aspects of the Jewish experience, yet your latest novel moves away from those themes to explore faith in a scientific sense. Was this shift in focus premeditated or did it happen organically as the story took shape?

I had long been interested in writing about scientists and their particular beliefs and doubts. I've also long been interested in writing about community. Like Kaaterskill Falls, Intuition is a novel about faith, ritual and community. Like The Family Markowitz, Intuition is a book about trying to define and express yourself in a family–except that in this new book I am exploring scientific faith, experimental ritual and the community in a laboratory and those professional families that develop in the workplace. Thematically there is common ground between this new novel and my other books. That said, "Intuition" is a departure for me in the sense that I am writing about a new milieu. I made a conscious decision to learn about work and procedures previously unfamiliar to me. I decided that not only did I want to write about researchers, but that I wanted to do research myself–in observing scientists at work in a laboratory. I went into a lab and talked to post docs and took notes and drew pictures. For example, I sketched the animals and their cages. I drew a mouse pinned down on the dissection pad. This process was new for me–and exhilarating.

Because the Philpott Institute is hungry for results, Cliff’s preliminary findings are immediately judged a success by his bosses while his colleague Robin just as quickly regards his results with suspicion. Though snap judgments can be dangerous, isn’t there an equal risk of becoming paralyzed by caution?

Yes indeed. Snap judgments are dangerous and excessive caution is paralytic. A researcher has to know where to push and where to wait. There is a fine line between understanding the significance in data and forcing that significance on data. The characters in this book must define that line for themselves. The choices they make are quite revealing!

 

In a world of few certainties, do you believe there’s merit to letting our intuition guide us in certain instances?  

Intuition is a tricky quality. That inner certainty, that almost instinctive knowledge can be a gift. A seemingly powerful intuition can also be misleading. Again, my characters have to decide how far to trust their intuition.

The protagonist in your previous novel Paradise Park was obsessed by a quest for spiritual truth, while Robin in Intuition is single-mindedly obsessed with seeking scientific and moral truth. Do you believe there are any absolute truths in life or is everything, including science, subject to interpretation and extrapolation?

I believe there is such a thing as truth. Scientists are truth seekers and truth interpreter. There are certainly many ways to describe the world, but I do think there is an objective external reality there to uncover. The truth is not a construct. 

As a fiction writer, your work is by definition subjective, yet your husband is a mathematician who dwells in a black and white world of absolutes. Did this contrast between your professional lives provide inspiration for the novel’s theme of moral ambiguity? If not, what inspired you to explore this topic? 

My husband is a computer scientist, my sister is an oncologist, her husband is a computational biologist, my mother was a population geneticist, and I have several friends who work in labs. I live with scientists all around me, and so I've developed a natural curiosity about what scientists do and how they think. My work has also been informed by first hand experience of the pressures scientists work with–the constant applications for funding, the jostling for lab space, and the pressure to finish experiments before getting scooped by rivals. Over the years I've also seen the collaborations scientists develop, and as a solitary novelist, I've envied the camaraderie, and intellectual give and take my husband and other friends develop with their colleagues. I've observed the intense joy and sibling rivalry, the fights, the respect, the fun that characterize close collaborations. When I began "Intuition" I knew that this was a great subject for me: the complexity of these work relationships. 

What were the particular challenges in learning about the intricate, behind-the-scenes politics and protocols involved in the high stakes world of scientific research, which you portray with such remarkable insight?

Perhaps the greatest challenge to me in writing about scientists was to dramatize their work in a concrete way. I chose to write about biologists doing animal research because I felt that experiments with animals showed the reader scientific process in a concrete, immediate, visceral way. 

In addition to exploring the human side of the often nameless and faceless scientific community, did you set out to make a broader statement about the ways in which money and politics can negatively interfere with experimental research?

I'll leave it to the reader to infer broader statements about money, politics and experimentation. As a novelist I specialize in narrow statements–always the particular, and not the general–always the sweeping questions.

The mystery element of the novel is extremely suspenseful, fueled by the shifting narrative perspective that continually casts doubt on what the "truth" really is. What drove your decision to show the story unfolding from four such seemingly unreliable points of view, each colored by their own agenda?

There are many ways to tell a story. I think the contribution I can make is to tell a story from several sides, and beyond that, to tell the story from the INSIDE of several sides. This has always been my artistic interest–a kind of interior geometry. In the case of Intuition I found that my shifting point of view heightens suspense, and also implicates the reader in interesting ways. We identify with first one character and then another; we can see each more fully, and the experience is richer. 

Besides being compelling characters in their own right, lab co-directors Sandy Glass and Marion Mendelsohn share a unique bond that’s a fascinating study in contrasts. Were there any real-life role models for their distinctive relationship and do you think it’s a mistake to put too much faith in another person?

Is it dangerous to put too much faith in another person? I suppose there is always a risk there, but without risk there are no rewards of friendship, and intimacy. Sandy and Marion have enriched each other's lives. When it comes to Marion, Intuition asks several related questions as well–What happens over time when we lose faith in ourselves? Where can we find the strength and generosity to keep working with others?

In the past you’ve cited classics such as Middlemarch that inspired you to become a writer. Who are your modern inspirations and did any of them influence aspects of Intuition?

The two contemporary books I've enjoyed most in the past year were Marilynne Robinson's Gilead and Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. But I had already finished writing Intuition when I read these. While writing Intuition I did a lot of rereading, much of it aloud to my oldest son: Dickens' Great Expectations, Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, Swfit's Gulliver's Travels. All of these were far darker and more moving than I remembered! Closer to my own subject matter, I reread Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith which seemed rushed in places, but also rang true in its propulsive all-consuming manic energy.

Have you began thinking about or writing your next novel and how do you see your future work continuing to evolve in terms of subject matter?

I am indeed thinking about my next book. I keep future plans secret, but I can say that I'll use what I learned in Intuition: to set the bar high, to look out into the world, and to work patiently to tell my story.

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kek315, April 10, 2006 (view all comments by kek315)
This was an interesting look into the world of scientific research. I was afraid it would be too scientific for me (a history and literature person for sure) but it wasn't. The author focused more on the characters and events than the science. The characters are diverse and fascinating. It was surprising that it wasn't just the researcher seeking the high profile discovery who got caught up in the problematic findings. The careful, conservative Mendelssohn was also drawn in. Well written and original.
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Product Details

ISBN:
9780385336123
Author:
Goodman, Allegra
Publisher:
The Dial Press
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
Research
Subject:
Psychological fiction
Subject:
Research -- Moral and ethical aspects.
Copyright:
Edition Number:
1st
Publication Date:
February 28, 2006
Binding:
Hardback
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Pages:
352
Dimensions:
9.78x6.22x1.03 in. 1.35 lbs.

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Intuition: A Novel Used Hardcover
0 stars - 0 reviews
$6.95 In Stock
Product details 352 pages Dial Press - English 9780385336123 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Allegra Goodman is well known for her skillful, nuanced, and irreverent prose from such novels as Kaaterskill Falls and Paradise Park. Although the prose is just as strong in Intuition, the story and characters are so engrossing it's hard to slow down enough to notice. Rich and mysterious, Intuition explores science, ethics, and morality with equal parts wit and grace.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "In another quiet but powerful novel from Goodman (Kaaterskill Falls), a struggling cancer lab at Boston's Philpott Institute becomes the stage for its researchers' personalities and passions, and for the slippery definitions of freedom and responsibility in grant-driven American science. When the once-discredited R-7 virus, the project of playboy postdoc Cliff, seems to reduce cancerous tumors in mice, lab director Sandy Glass insists on publishing the preliminary results immediately, against the advice of his more cautious codirector, Marion Mendelssohn. The research team sees a glorious future ahead, but Robin, Cliff's resentful ex-girlfriend and co-researcher, suspects that the findings are too good to be true and attempts to prove Cliff's results are in error. The resulting inquiry spins out of control. With subtle but uncanny effectiveness, Goodman illuminates the inner lives of each character, depicting events from one point of view until another section suddenly throws that perspective into doubt. The result is an episodically paced but extremely engaging novel that reflects the stops and starts of the scientific process, as well as its dependence on the complicated individuals who do the work. In the meantime, she draws tender but unflinching portraits of the characters' personal lives for a truly humanist novel from the supposedly antiseptic halls of science." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Review" by , "Vivid, incisive, and funny...Goodman not only tells a psychologically dazzling and covertly archetypal story but also conducts a timely inquiry into our society's problematic matrix of science, money, and politics."
"Review" by , "[R]ich, intricate....Top-notch in every respect. A superlative novel."
"Review" by , "No one writes 19th Century novels about 20th — and now 21st — century America better than Allegra Goodman....[A] delicate analysis of how an ethics scandal filters through the sensibility of brilliant and brilliantly realized characters. (Grade: A)"
"Review" by , "Goodman has laced Intuition with mystery and failed romance, and both are compelling, significant elements of the overall story, but it's the strength and complexity of her characters that really carry the novel."
"Review" by , "Self-knowledge and scientific knowledge eddy and swell in this novel in pleasing parallel to each other, making the book not only satisfying as a story of self-discovery but, in a deeper sense, a richly conceived novel about the rewards of work."
"Review" by , "[Ms. Goodman's] characters so live and breathe on the page that they could get up and make you a cup of coffee....Her writing is rich, so rich it would be easy to miss how skillful is the prose itself. Exciting...a stunning achievement."
"Review" by , "Intuition is so character-driven that the plot occasionally sinks beneath the press of its personalities. Yet Goodman's subject...is timely and intriguing....Goodman presides over her universe with a light and sometimes funny touch."
"Review" by , "Goodman pulls off an almost Victorian dedication to character in this novel, entering the minds of a diverse cast, men and women of all races. The result is a compelling hybrid: a morality tale that is old-fashioned but, in its own resplendent way, remarkably contemporary."
"Review" by , "What a feat, to pull off a large story of science and politics in the here and now, with beautifully drawn and compelling characters, with all the large and small details of their lives. What a gift not to pass judgement on any of them, to love each character equally and fairly. The ending is perfection."
"Review" by , "This brilliant novel shows a world of labs and researchers which seems unfamiliar to some of us, yet it's a world intimately relevant to our existence — our fallibility and vulnerability. Page by page the story shimmers with insights into the subtlety and complexity of human psychology and relationships. Allegra Goodman writes like a master."
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