Book Review: The Astronomer

Book Review: The Astronomer

The Astronomer by Brian Biswas is several things. It is a magical realism-verging-on-speculative novel, though it is comprised of short stories that have been strung together and bracketed with other short stories that give a Victorian-style faux-outsider perspective. The story (which contains everything from Greek mythology to existential considerations) is told in short bursts that are more emotion than plot, even though the text is riddled with science and real places and times (and even at least one real person). But the plot makes it a story of (lost) love and pain wrapped in a couple other-POV chapters that attempt to tell us the truth of the thing. Then again, none of the POVs are completely reliable, or so I think. It’s an incredibly calm book. Two readers can walk away from this book with different readings, different realities, but each of them will be thinking.

From the back of the book: “Franz Herbert suffers from epileptic seizures; are they a curse that takes him away from his wife, family, and friends, or a gift that allows him to explore the depths of the cosmos?” In a slim volume (252 pages), we jump back and forth between Franz’s supposed history (from the 1920s to the 70s) and his trips into outer space to explore the astronomy he studies at work in a way no one else can study it—first-hand. Surely his spaceship to Pluto is just an epileptic episode. But it’s real enough to threaten what the people around him call “real.” Or is everything in Franz’s head?

As Dumbledore says (in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) when Harry asks if his near-death experience is in his head, “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean it is not real?” Though I highly doubt that Biswas has read any Harry Potter, this quote is basically the thesis statement for The Astronomer. You’ll want to start the book with reading the Prologue, because you’ll soon learn that a major part of the reading experience here is to decipher what is actually happening (in a fiction universe, but you understand what I mean) and what is part of Franz’s disease. (And what is wrong with him? And who is part of his real world and who his fantastical?) And then, inevitably, you’ll have to ask yourself if it matters which is which (and also who it matters to.) Is the space (pun) inside people’s heads (or their dreams) just another type of reality? And do we have to distinguish between them so religiously?

After reading the book, I wasn’t totally sure what was what. Then I went to a book club where the author spoke, and I am a little more sure about the author’s intentions, but I am also more sure that Biswas would like me to come to my own conclusions, indeed, that he doesn’t feel himself the ultimate authority on what the “truth” of the text is. Did Franz have epilepsy (as the back copy would have us immediately believe), or was he an alcoholic with a traumatic brain injury imagining the seizures into his past? Or both? Who does or doesn’t exist? Does his son even exist? Is the second-to-last chapter the final word or just another case of an unreliable narrator? Are even the lies a lie? Does Biswas even care if we figure it out?

I think a good place to begin with this book would be to learn a little astronomy and a little history of astronomy. I have been interested in astronomy my whole life, so I already knew some things (including from my college Astronomy class). However, understanding who Clyde Tombaugh is and about the discovery of Pluto could really give the reader a ton of clues as to where Franz ends and his imagination or hallucinations begin. I’ll give you the super-short version: Tombaugh was a farmer and amateur astronomer who built home-made telescopes and a makeshift observatory in his back yard and was employed by Lowell Observatory for 20 years after sending them drawings (and then he did go to school, too). He discovered Pluto (the first object observed of the Kuiper Belt) and a number of asteroids while he worked at Lowell. He was also famous for seeing a series of UFOs in one night, and while some people have said he saw “spaceships,” Lowell was overwhelmingly in favor of an impossibility of extraterrestrial, intelligent life and thought the sighting was likely an atmospheric, optical phenomenon. Still, all this info plays out in the book. So pay attention.

Another interesting thing to consider before reading The Astronomer is that Biswas was inspired by himself in writing it. He had experiences with seizures when he was 14 and some of the details were written in to the book. However, the seizures faded for Biswas, while the idea of Franz, the character, haunted Biswas insistently for decades until he finally wrote him out (first in short stories). Or maybe that doesn’t matter to you. I enjoy info like that when I’m reading and trying to put a story in its context, understand writer-intent (which does matter to me, though I suppose it’s not the be-all end-all).

I do have a small stake in this book, just FYI. Biswas was the friend/co-worker of a friend/co-writer of mine who passed away a few months ago. I was introduced to him by her at a reading of The Astronomer last summer, the last time that I saw her essentially healthy, in fact. I bought the book at the reading, happy to support a local author but also very curious since I love magic realism, thought the premise of the book was really interesting (combining health/mental health with magic realism), and I enjoyed Biswas’s voice as he spoke to us. I decided to read the book when a nearby book club scheduled it, and when I showed up for the club, there was Biswas. First of all, that was a really cool way to discuss a book: with the author right there. Second, I say all this to let you know I may not be totally unbiased with my review. I have a connection and experiences. But don’t we all?

If you like to read magic realism or you have an interest in astronomy, those are both great reasons to give The Astronomer a (pretty quick) read. There is a lot to consider here, to wonder about and puzzle out. Or you could just let yourself ride along on Franz’s trippy adventures, unconcerned about some silly thing like facts.

Brian Biswas is a Chapel Hill writer. He has had sci-fi shorts (some of which became The Astronomer) in Skive Magazine, Perihelion, Penny Dreadful, Iconoclast, Lost Worlds, and The Café Irreal, among others. The Astronomer is his first novel. He has two collections of short stories and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His website can be found HERE.

Here are some of the things he said at the book club meeting that I jotted down:

  • As a writer, you don’t get to choose your audience. You don’t know who they’ll be or what they’ll “get”
  • “So much of writing is subconscious.”
  • One of the hardest things you do as a writer is to cut what slows the plot.
  • Writers must develop a thick skin, or they give up.
  • When you write, you’re creating something that never existed before.

“You could be here. You could be there. And in reality you’re neither place—or rather, you’re in both places simultaneously. Twilight worlds that flash in and out of existence” (p12).

“No physical object can travel faster than the speed of light, but the human mind can and often does” (p51).

“I am composed of subatomic particles that wink in and out of existence. I am oblivious to reality much of the time. I don’t know why Isabella didn’t leave me long ago. She must love me more than I ever imagined. More than I deserve. I am a half-husband” (p54).

“…could we travel to these civilizations—given the bounds of time and space? / All that’s needed is the right fuel, I maintain, which is dependent on the civilization type. For a Type Two civilization it would be feasible, for a Type Three it would be child’s play” (p161).

True love is not to be confused with infatuation which, though true, does not endure” (p196).

But in our haste we discover too late we have misrepresented the problem, misstated the goal. It was not love but the fulfillment of our own desires that we were after” (p196).

“’In a very real sense, there’s no such thing as Time. You know this intuitively—sometimes the days pass fast, sometimes slow—though intellectually it is a concept few can grasp. We seem ruled by time, though we are not” (p213).

“Who are they but two Charons to guide me across the river to Hades which lies on the other shore?” (p231).