In Praise of Curiosity: Chrissy Kolaya’s “Charmed Particles”

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Yet another of my amazing writer friends, this time fellow 2007-2008 Loft mentee Chrissy Kolaya, has a book out this month: Charmed Particles. For Kolaya, it’s a debut novel, and a novel novel it is, folks. In her own words, in response to a question posed by Kim Ukura of the Morris Sun Tribune, Kolaya says “The book is weird and difficult to explain concisely.” Ukura sees through Kolaya’s modesty and inveterate humor to suggest that Charmed Particles is a book about family, ambition and community. Agreed, and I would add one more thing: I think it’s a book about curiosity.

The story in Charmed Particles comes to us through two families in the fictional town of Nicolet, Illinois, where a local employer is a laboratory conducting high-energy particle physics research. Physicist Abhijat Mital and his (mostly) stay-at-home wife Sarala were born and raised in India; their daughter Meena, is born and raised in Nicolet. The other family we meet and get to know are the Winchesters: Randolph, an Englishman who likes to think of himself as the “last great gentleman explorer;” his wife, Rose, a native Illinoisian with political aspirations and their daughter, Lily, who becomes Meena’s best friend. The ultimate conflict in the story is whether or not the particle acceleration lab will be allowed to expand, literally under the feet, of Nicolet residents.

Although that battle is hinted at, early on, it doesn’t become central until well into the book. What occupies the reader until that time is a study of the two families and the growing friendship of the girls. Right from the start, the members of each family have unique relationships with curiosity, and, of course, the eventual lab/no lab showdown is also a disputation about  intellectual curiosity vs. a community’s desire for assurance of the status quo.

Randolph is described as a “polymath”–I had to exercise my own curiosity there and look that word up (it means a person of wide-ranging knowledge or learning); as an adventurer and explorer he travels to all corners of the earth and is subdued only by “the spell” of young, naive Rose’s “bright and curious eyes.” Rose shares his adventures until the birth of Lily, when all of her considerable intellectual curiosity is channeled into the gaping maw of Lily’s frank genius. Abhijat’s intellectual curiosity might be the most apparent, given his line of work in theoretical physics. Sarala’s curiosity is piqued by American culture. Meena’s intellect is no less than Lily’s but is deepened by social skills her friend lacks.

The answer to the question of whether or not the physics lab will be allowed to expand won’t be given away here, nor does Kolaya give it away early in the book. Rather, curiosity is made to do battle throughout. Randolph’s pursuits are ethnocentric at best, racist at worst. Rose’s curiosity bangs a U-ey at the first political challenge. Abhijat’s search for the ultimate physics knowledge may be more of a search for fame. Sarala’s yearning to belong is hijacked by a false, or at least outdated, version of American history.

It’s the girls, Lily and Meena, we have to look to for any kind of real and fruitful intellectual curiosity, and they hand it to us in spades. I particularly love their self-selected 4th-grade research topic (eschewing pre-selected topics like “The Shrimp” and “Good Nutrition”): “the life and times of Lady Florence Baker, explorer of central Africa and co-discoverer, with her husband, of Lake Albert.” The assignment, writes the ever tongue-in-cheek Kolaya,

…had been to produce a three-page report and a five-minute presentation, including one optional visual aid…Meena and Lily’s report, “Lady Florence Baker: The Journey from Slavery to Exploration,” weighed in at twenty pages, not including end notes, bibliography, and [a carefully prepared index]. This Lily and Meena presented to the blank stares and confusion of their classmates and teacher.

Even Lady Florence Baker is trying out this idea of intellectual slavery vs. curiosity. And although Lily and Meena are most likely to get it right, in my opinion, they are led astray by Kolaya’s keenly described American educational system: one that doesn’t quite know how to handle children of genius (and maybe particularly children of color and of genius). Add that to the sometimes hysterical, sometimes poignant, clearly inevitable teenager-ization of Lily and Meena, and here Kolaya draws curiosity with some (in my opinion of Kolaya’s opinion–not always easy to discern because of that unflagging irony of hers) regrettable shade, too.

I think Kolaya, her agent and Dzanc Books are to be commended for writing, championing and publishing, respectively, a book that breaks a few rules and gives the reader an opportunity for a thought-provoking, curiosity-stimulating read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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