Benjy, first slide, please. So begins Angela Woodward’s innovative and allegorical novel about, well, everything. We find ourselves in a lecture hall at some point in the twentieth century. The instructor, known only as Jonathan, whose specialty is “jaw measurement,” is giving a slideshow presentation for his introductory course on the earth and its prehistory to a befuddled group of note-scribbling students.
We learn in chapter two that Jonathan has died, and our narrator is his much younger wife Jenny, whose defining achievement is typing seventy-two words per minute. She was in the college’s typing pool when she met the much older Jonathan, and two months later they were married. Jenny describes the relationship as an “intersection,” a marriage based on impressions: “He found me soothing, and I believed he was kind.”
And yet, it’s Jenny who’s tasked with compiling Jonathan’s lecture notes into a book by a colleague who laughably hopes to keep her from “dwelling on the past.” But, as Jenny says, “It’s not easy to be his editor.” Jonathan’s notes are stained with coffee or cat vomit, some type of sandy goo. The truth is, despite his colleague’s claim that Jenny “understood him so well,” the manuscript she is putting together is not a true tale, but based on Jonathan’s often incoherent notes and told from the perspective of a wife who feels she didn’t know her husband: “After months of living in his house, I knew him less well, saw only what I didn’t understand about him.” Even Jenny questions her own reliability, softening her claims with statements like: “It’s hard to know” or “unless I’m wrong.” She is forced to interpret, to use her imagination, to make leaps that Jonathan’s students resist. They are like “trained seals,” waiting for the course to end, seeing Jonathan as nothing more than “an automaton.”
Bring the lights a little lower. No, no. Use the dimmer. The novel takes its structure from Jenny’s project, each chapter a lecture topic such as Astronomical Theory, Vegetarianism, and Man and Destiny. The lectures are comprised of seemingly small but lively anecdotes about scientists both famous and not, such as Wegener, Cuvier, and Serbian astrophysicist Milutin Milankovitch. Travelling from Peru to Mongolia, Buenos Aires to Paris, these tales give the novel a sweeping, global scope.
Many of Jonathan’s lectures focus on scientists meeting skepticism in the face of their discoveries, like in the case of Swiss doctor Louis Agassiz, who attempts to explain to English scientists that the earth was not, as they had concluded, created on October 26, 4004 B.C. at nine in the morning. Often they are funny musings on the “corruption” of language, religion, or the environment, which is frequently described in over-the-top anthropomorphized terms: “The whole system, they learned, from oceans to atmosphere was powered by that fucker, the sun.” Occasionally, these stories turn gruesome, as when a female botanist in Paris passes through a neighborhood populated by medical students practicing their technique on dogs: “binding them and slicing them up, laying bare their nerves.”
If the anecdotes appear random, that may be because, as Jenny says, “The content of his lectures was secondary, especially as he had lost whole sections of it.” Repeated throughout the book like a mantra is Jonathan’s affirmation that “the entire geophysical story has been one of plasticity and change,” a cleverly ambiguous sentence that could be referring to the earth’s systems or the story itself. One chapter, The Island of Doctor Montgomery, is composed of “whatever’s nearby,” including Jonathan’s children’s books or Jenny’s “own well-worn paperbacks,” for while she might be telling Jonathan’s story of the earth, her own story of their marriage seeps in, too.
Benjy keep awake up there. Woven into the lectures are small, intimate moments between the couple, which Jenny turns to again and again, much in the way she imagines Jonathan viewed time: “It seems to me Jonathan wanted to explain that time expanded and contracted, wheeling in and out, cast from the fisherman’s rod into the turbulence, drawn back for inspection—ah, the hook’s empty again.” Jenny’s musings on her marriage don’t move in a linear fashion; rather, she circles back on moments like their first date at a place called Puff’s or the time she denied him a kiss. “You’re so soothing,” Jonathan says repeatedly, as if recitation would make it true.
Take away the novel’s narrative device, Jonathan’s slideshow lectures, and you have the domestic tale of a failed marriage. But, while the anecdotes of exploration and discovery may carry Natural Wonders, it’s these brief glimpses into Jenny’s marriage that give the book its heart. Jenny is the only one left to examine their story, to explore what went wrong in their marriage, to imagine Jonathan back to life, but “patterns form, then disappear.” Her manuscript is a living draft, her analysis inconclusive, though that’s hardly the point.
“Let me explain geologic time,” Jonathan says to his students before launching into the story of a man who’s been bit by a mosquito, which begets the story of the mosquito that bit him, which, in turn, begets the story of a volcano: “Buried in the bottom of the exclamation point” and “in type so small you cannot read it.” Inside that story is the story of the earth’s formation, “over an uncountable stretch of time” with no one around to “read the tiny writing that told its story.”
The lectures have a meandering quality, which irritates and troubles the students, believing “imagination is not their job.” But, as Jonathan says, “the scale of it all takes some imagination to comprehend.” And in the case of Natural Wonders, the scope and shifts don’t break the narrative up, but bulge it. This is not a book about answers or even questions but everything, really, the story within the story, and the story within that, a book that is only limited by the imagination of the reader. Benjy, pack up please. We won’t need you next week for the exam.
Natural Wonders, by Angela Woodward. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Fiction Collective 2, April 2016. 152 pages. $17.95, paper.
Katie M. Flynn is fiction editor at the Indianola Review. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Flyway, Monkeybicycle, Paper Darts, Superstition Review, and elsewhere. She’s been nominated for a Pushcart prize twice and holds an MFA from the University of San Francisco. You can follow her on Twitter @other_katie.