Fictional research: a quick tour of seven contemporary novels

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Today I am delighted to welcome debut author Anne Goodwin to my blog! I stumbled upon her blog Annecdotal while reading her illuminating post on the Black Fox Literary magazine, and ever since I’ve been a fan of her and her writing. Her debut novel Sugar and Snails was out last week.

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I’ll hand it over to Anne to tell us about research in fiction:

When fiction writers mention research, they’re generally referring to the fact-checking and reading around the subject required to accord their imagined scenarios verisimilitude. When scientists talk of research, however, they tend to mean setting up the conditions to test whether a given hypotheses is likely to be true. For fiction writers, research implies collecting information which certain others already possess; for scientists, it’s about building on existing information to discover something new to us all.

What happens when the two come together? Do novels that address scientific research make for a good read? I will argue that they do, with reference to seven novels across different genres, two focusing on the subjects of research endeavours and four following the perspective of the researcher, while one gives us both. Each of these novels raises issues about the human condition which take us well beyond dry academia.

What’s it like to take medication you don’t actually need? Virtually penniless, and with the student loan collection agency on his back, Billy Schine thinks he’s found the ideal solution to his problems when he comes across an advert for volunteers for a drug study. He’ll have free food and board, and a generous payment at the end, as long as he doesn’t mind taking a hitherto untested antipsychotic medication and being closely monitored for a fortnight. David Gilbert fills The Normals, with comic set pieces on the routines of blood tests, urine samples, and petty rivalries between the research participants with little to do but watch each other for signs of the drug’s effects.

What’s it like to be the subject of an experiment from your earliest days? In We Are All Completely beside Ourselves, Karen Joy Fowler also explores the impact of being a research participant, in this case many years after the research has come to an end. Rosemary’s father is a psychologist who used the family home as a laboratory for a naturalistic study of child development. A team of graduate students recorded the behaviours of Rosemary and her sister, Fern, almost from birth, comparing their achievements across various milestones. While the experience has left Rosemary a little weird, she’s much more concerned about the fate of her sister, whom she hasn’t seen since the experiment ended when they were both five years old.

Are researchers as objective as they should be? The pressures on ambitious young researchers are the subject of Allegra Goodman’s novel, Intuition, set in a high-pressure cancer research lab. When one young man’s experiments begin to show promising results, everyone feels the excitement. But suspicions are aroused when his colleagues fail to replicate the effects. With the outside world already primed to expect some good news, the novel explores the morality of the research endeavour and how human emotion can contaminate the quest for truth.

A comical take on the same question arises in Jonathan Coe’s The House of Sleep, set, as you might expect, in a sleep research lab. The lead researcher, Dr Gregory Dudden, perceives sleep is a waste of time and will go to any lengths to see it eradicated. His assistant, on the other hand, has joined the research team in order to get access to a former friend who has dreams so vivid she mistakes them for real events.

Do Western researchers exploit the less developed parts of the world? There’s another maverick researcher in Ann Patchett’s novel, State of Wonder. Annick Swenson is also on the trail of a new wonder drug, but her laboratory is deep within the Brazilian jungle. When she refuses to produce the required progress report to her investors, Marina Singh, her former student, is sent to investigate. What she finds beside the muddy waters of the Rio Negro takes her into her own heart of darkness and life will never be the same.

Is the research endeavour a means to understanding ourselves? Roopa Farooki, in her novel The Good Children, has also deftly employed the research topic as a way of reflecting character. Although the psychological research featured here is only one of many elements within this wide-ranging family saga, the novel opens with what appears to be an experiment on memory. But this is an experiment with extremely serious consequences for errors and, rather than being about memory, it’s part of Stanley Milgram’s vast research programme looking into obedience to authority. For Sully, a junior researcher on the team, a childhood regime in which brutal punishments were handed out for the slightest misdemeanour has prepared him for the role all too well.

Do the researcher’s insights transfer across to their own lives? In my own novel, Sugar and Snails, I’ve also used an actual (but less well known) methodology from psychological research to highlight my main character’s internal struggles. Diana Dodsworth is a psychology lecturer whose PhD in adolescent decision-making required participants to make a choice between two alternatives. Tainted by her association with a researcher suspected of fiddling his results, instead of following up her own promising initial findings, Diana took a sideways move into another area. Life becomes challenging when circumstances force her to reconsider the topic, not only from an academic perspective, but in a deeply personal way regarding the momentous decision she herself took at the age of fifteen.

Thanks for reading. Have you come across any other novels that feature research? What aspects of the human condition is fictional research best placed to explore?


Links are to my own reviews of the novel in question to the author’s website.

Anne Goodwin

Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, and blogs about reading and writing, with a peppering of psychology. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last month by Inspired Quill. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.


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