If you stick to the meat of its story—from, say, pages 11 to 207—then Harry Karlinsky’s debut novel is an inventive, brainy look at the unintended side effects of Victorian science in the wake of Charles Darwin publishing his Origin of Species in 1859. Presented as a sort of anthropological collage, mixing correspondence, drawings, and lightly academic narration, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects tells the clouded life story of Darwin’s youngest son, Thomas. It’s a perplexing one, moving from a quiet childhood to a promising stint at Cambridge to (of all places) an asylum in London, Ontario, where a sudden bout of tuberculosis ends Thomas’s life at just 22 years old.
After Origin, many scientists realized that Charles’s theories about evolution could also apply to other fields of study. What seals Thomas’s fate, however, is his unique decision to investigate how natural selection affects the world of cutlery. He studies, purchases, and catalogues hundreds of “hybrid objects” like olive spoons; he thinks long and hard about one certain tine on a pastry fork, even going so far as altering his diet so as to use the utensil at every meal.
Thomas gets so focused on his work that he doesn’t notice the crucial, spectacular flaw in his logic: the manuscript he submits to the influential journal Nature argues that spoons, knives, and forks actually procreate with one another. (According to his skewed theory, an olive spoon is the evolved offspring of a spoon and fork.) Faced with rejection, Thomas is already so mentally fragile that he up and flees to Canada.
The rub, as it were, is that Thomas doesn’t exist. Charles and Emma Darwin had ten children, not eleven. In today’s culture, though, this can hardly be considered a spoiler; five seconds on Google will show you a family tree that directly contradicts the one that prefaces Karlinsky’s book.
And up until page 207, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects uses this one obvious falsehood to gleefully smudge the broader historical record. It takes a much more thorough e-investigation to figure out that almost everything else in the book really did exist, in some capacity. All letters and diary entries mentioning Thomas are fakes, but the people who wrote them and the collections they’re supposedly taken from are real. Even a scholarly book with a title as cartoonish as Victorian Lunacy, slipped into the easily skimmable bibliography section at the back, checks out. There are virtually no seams showing.
It’s curious, then, that Karlinsky inserts a lengthy author’s note at the end, one that effectively smothers all of the preceding merriment. In the note, he writes that the “open acknowledgement” of the complete fabrication of his protagonist “distinguishes it from those rare publications which are presented as if true, and whose falsification remains concealed.” But surely he’s playing by science’s rules here, not literature’s—the book is shelved in the fiction section, after all. So much disclosure is, frankly, a bit of a drag.
So if he’s not out to throw a wrench into the wheels of history, what exactly is Karlinsky’s project? Thomas’s misguided project could be seen as a dark riff on the scientific method gone awry, but the book has too much reverence for Charles and science generally. The main trouble is that for all the peripheral documents associated with him, Thomas himself remains a shell of a character. He is described exclusively by others, and not in much detail; there are no photos of him included, obviously, and one of the few private letters we see from him is an unbalanced note written from the asylum, mere days before his death. The cause of his madness, too, is largely unexplored.
The closest we get to an underlying subject is one that’s closely connected to evolution itself: the long shadows cast by our forbears. And in Thomas’s case, his biological and scientific ancestors are one and the same. It’s therefore telling that one of the things that pushes him over the edge is his father’s gentle reminder to remember to cite those scientists whose work he builds off of.
It also may explain why the novel’s final figure is an image not of Thomas but of an aging Charles himself, his expression severe, his face equally obscured by a long white beard and the shadow cast upon his eyes by the brim of his hat. For his youngest son, notions of heredity and succession were a decidedly mixed blessing.
Insomniac Press, 232 pp, $19.95, paperback
(review originally appeared, in slightly different form, in the Maple Tree Literary Supplement, January 2011)