I think it’s safe to assume that if you’re reading this, you’re probably familiar with Other Press author Simon Mawer. We’ve published his two most recent novels—The Glass Room and Trapeze—and both have been New York Times best sellers. My introduction to Mawer’s writing, however, did not come from either of these books, but from Mendel’s Dwarf, originally published in 1998 by Penguin and now out for the first time as an e-book. The story follows Dr. Benedict Lambert, a brilliant geneticist, the great-great-great nephew of Gregor Mendel, and a darkly humorous and warm-hearted man. He also happens to be a dwarf. Let’s just say I was completely smitten and soon found myself banging on all of my coworkers’ doors, desperate to find someone to whom I could declare my love for this beautifully written and imaginative book.
Back when I first started college, I was a biology major. I was drawn to the sciences because they were straightforward and could be conquered with diligent study of formulae and memorization of things such as ADP and cytokinesis. Eventually, however, I decided that I preferred learning about what made a person a person, besides cells, and switched to English. At the time, there seemed to be a clear dichotomy between the two subject areas, but books like Mendel’s Dwarf show that there is no such distinction—that calculations and experiments do not distance us from our sensitivity, but can enhance and even sharpen it.
Ben uses science to find concrete answers to his own genetic problems, attempting to locate the gene that determines achondroplasia. While pursuing this research, he connects with a woman named Jean, a shy librarian. Ben also tells the story of his ancestor, Mendel, thoughtfully extrapolating when history doesn’t fill in the blanks. What appeals to me most about this book are the ways in which Mawer builds walls of logic around his characters, only to find that humanity still seeps through. Ben hides behind his dry wit, his genius, and even his dwarfism. And yet, Mawer has depicted a character that is complex, one who uses his scientific genius not to dissect his experiences, but to inform them. The novel is filled with science, but through Ben’s eyes, science is poetry. Feelings of isolation become evident in rundowns of phenotypic differences in members of his lecture audiences. The mating of Mendel’s pea plants is described in a way that can only be called erotic. Even Ben’s love for Jean must include data collection. She has heterochromatic eyes (two different colors)—an observation, but also a way for Ben to bridge the gap between them, for he believes that “in her own modest manner” she is a “monster” like him.
In response to his headmaster’s claim that dwarfism is a problem Ben must live with, he thinks, “It isn’t a problem I live with, as I might live with a birthmark or a stammer, or flat feet. It is not an addition, like a mole on my face, nor a subtraction, like premature baldness: it is me. There is no other.” Ben’s thought process is logical. If he is not one thing then he is another. He is left, after his deductions, only with what he is. He sees himself as no more and no less than a dwarf, but his reasoning is flawed, for the reader can see that Ben is much more than a logical conclusion. It is Ben’s habit to break things down, to make them more palatable and easier to understand. And yet, there are always more layers to discover.
Simon Mawer has done a remarkable thing with Mendel’s Dwarf. He has written a well-researched and insightful book about the ethics of genetic engineering, and has also written a passionate and powerful love story. It’s truly inspiring to see how well these two seemingly disparate threads work together. Aside from a riveting plot, well-drawn characters, and absolutely fascinating writing, I really loved the novel for the way it changed my thinking. What could be more comic and tragic than the human genome, after all?
Marjorie DeWitt is Assistant Editor of Other Press.
This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue of the Other Press e-newsletter. Sign up here.