The Beautiful Miscellaneous - Dominic Smith

My parents wanted a genius. My father had achieved a measure of fame in particle physics for his experiments with the quark, and my mother came from an old New England family of clergy and museum curators, men prone to loftiness. Together they waited out my early, unexceptional years, hoping for an epiphany.

I seem to gravitate towards books about altered mental states, books narrated by somebody who has a literally different view of the world. (See here, here, here, here, and here.) I'm interested in how others perceive the world, probably because I think I perceive it in a slightly different way than most myself, but also because I like to see things through somebody else's eyes. (Disclosure: when I was little I was one of those kids who asked the question: What if what you see as blue looks to me like what you call green, and we're not actually perceiving things the same way but we call them the same things because that's what they've always been called?)

Anyway, The Beautiful Miscellaneous is about Nathan Nelson, the slightly above-average son of a genius who develops synesthesia: a condition where senses get mixed, such as seeing colors or tasting sounds. Nathan describes his childhood as one long search for his particular area of genius, which is father is convinced lies dormant, just waiting for the right spark. On his tenth birthday, his father flies him on a surprise trip to California and Nathan allows himself the anticipation of going to Disneyland ... only to be taken to the Stanford Particle Accelerator. Although his mother finally resigns herself to her son's mediocrity, his father never gives up hope.

When Nathan is in an accident and recovers from a coma, he discovers he has synesthesia; words now have a texture and color, which gives him an incredible ability to memorize just about anything. He starts memorizing TV shows but is eventually convinced by his father to go to the Brook-Mills Institute for Talent Development, a place which attracted people of unusual talents and abilities. Toby is a blind musical genius; Teresa can give medical diagnoses simply by talking with somebody on the phone; Roger builds miniature cityscapes.

It's a poignant story, and while the synesthesia plays a big part, the book is essentially about Nathan's relationship with his father, the way that his father never quite gives his approval. It's about hopes and expectations and the illusive idea of success. Nathan's father, Samuel, is also a convincing character: he's the physicist who has no social skills and doesn't realize when he has offended somebody. Nathan says at one point that his father doesn't really believe that other people exist. But while it would be easy to make this a broad caricature (e.g. the TV show "The Big Bang Theory"), Samuel seems like a real person, distracted from the real world by his search for something the rest of us don't see.

It's not at the top of my favorites list, but I did enjoy reading it for the most part. The Institute made me think about the nature of talent and how we think about those with unusual talents, particularly savants: where is the line between guidance and exploitation? I'm in the middle of reading Culture Making (review forthcoming) and the idea of the culturally powerful and culturally weak was on my mind. Also, I don't think I came away with an especially vivid mental picture of synesthesia, but I did get a hint of it.

Fed to jonathan's brain | February 16, 2009 | Comments (0)


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