An Oscillatory System: Pippa Goldschmidt’s ‘The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space’
Pippa Goldschmidt, The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space (Glasgow: Freight Books, 2014)
by Charlotte Morgan
Pippa Goldschmidt has been commended for offering in her collection of short stories a unique vision of the everyday realms of the laboratory, the lives of extraordinary scientists, the absurd quality of a career spent gazing at stars. Her writing, unexpected and poetic, certainly merits in places the esteem it has been granted (her collection has been longlisted for the Frank O’Connor short story competition). Whilst the longer biographical stories lack the sensuality and immediacy that characterizes Goldschmidt’s best writing, the shorter pieces hinge on brilliance.
Tucked away in this collection, an astute reader will find short stories akin to poems, dazzling vignettes which subvert the structures of scientific language, and inject a searing sensuality into portraits of domestic unhappiness, and frustration within a male-dominated workplace. Goldschmidt possesses a very unique breed of irony, which comes to the fore in those stories which steer clear of biography and place female experience at their centre – contemporary pieces, which expostulate on frustration, sexuality, and desire.
The collection begins, for example, with an absorbing exposition on a student-teacher affair. Charting the initial attraction between these two bodies and the increasingly disappointing trajectory of their affair – the piece is written from the second person, in terse mathematical form. In some ways, it feels as if the narrator is constantly trying to abstract herself from the position she has found herself in – using the frustrating and desensitized logic of a physics problem to skirt between the theoretical mechanisms of the physics hall and the equally unfeeling extramarital “experiments” taking place on the floor of the lecturer’s office. The piece makes for an extraordinary read. With its tones of absurdism and post-modern logic, the narrative smacks of Italo Calvino (his short story collection The Cosmicomics) and is as expertly crafted. There is a deep pain, and sense of estrangement beneath the surface of this piece.
This kind of writing continues throughout the collection in certain short pieces. Highlights include – ‘The Search for Dark Matter’; ‘The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space’; ‘Identity Theft’; ‘The Nearest Help is a Million Light Years Away’ – in which the themes of anger, subordination, and fantasy are wrought out through the vivid and extraordinary geometries of space, of burgeoning stars, racing trains, bodies falling and disappearing into one another. These are deeply sensual pieces, which build on (and develop) a fascinating female character clearly attempting to abstract and re-configure her physicality within, and outwith the language of science.
There is a strained passivity, an anger with and inability to exceed domination by the bureaucracies of scientific institutions which is never resolved. In ‘The Search for a Dark Matter’, the protagonist confesses “I used to fly apart all the time” – like a pendulum, the protagonist races through the story, up and down stairs, back and forth in trains, and tumbling by night to the end of her garden to lie in the shed with an anonymous Mr X. Over and over again, Goldschmidt figures the mechanisms of affairs through cagy and dreamlike pieces, in language coloured with the cold corridors and machinery of labs and observatories. Always, a female persona lurks behind the writing – watching, analysing, revolting silently against the pain and confinement of male domination, failed affairs, the strange scientific labour, the repetitive logic of counting stars or breeding fruit flies.
It is a tremendous shame that these kinds of stories did not form more of a thread, or thematic progression within the collection. By comparison to these rich and inventive pieces, the longer stories about Bertolt Brecht, Alan Turing, the legacy of Robert Falcon Scott, and Robert Oppenheimer, were empty – like puffs of nicely scented air. Certainly, the lives of Alan Turing, Einstein, Oppenheim, and Brecht deserve illumination. Yet, Goldschmidt’s attempts at rendering these infamous lives are the weakest items in a collection which is otherwise impressive. Her attempts at dialogue are dull; her characters are neither here nor there; the men in these vaguely biographical stories are slightly-horny barely-distinguishable everymen, poorly imagined halflings with nothing much to them. Undoubtedly the sentences are polished, the prose is good – and Goldschmidt has selected surprising and pivotal moments in the lives of her subjects – nuclear physicists committing adultery, computer scientists being persecuted for their sexuality, playwrights being seduced into communist witch-hunts – yet there is no strong sense of anything truly of interest happening at all. There was nothing behind the men, and no real significance added to the events by the act of simply writing about them. They felt kind of like those sponsorship advertisements you see on television right at the end of a commercial break. Almost funny, almost entertaining, but nowhere near as good as the film you sat down to watch.
In another world, Goldschmidt would have developed in her collection of story-poems the ironic geometric constructs, the absurd sense of time and space, the female fury which salvages this book. She would have focused on reifying the poetics of individual abstraction, instead of half-investigating the legacy of others. Certainly I wonder why not a single female scientist lives or speaks within her stories. What of Lise Meitner? Or Sally Ride?
Despite the scattered shortcomings, this book is well worth a read. In particular, the beautifully structured ‘No Numbers’, and the iridescent title story ‘The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space’ offer something wonderfully inventive, and moving. I look forward to following Goldschmidt’s literary career, and feel certain that there are even better things to come from this extraordinary talent.