Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Origins of the Universe and What It All Means

By Carole Firstman

Reviewed By Lisa Van Orman Hadley

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universe
noun

1. All existing matter and space considered as a whole; the cosmos.
2. A particular sphere of activity or experience.

So, if I understand these two definitions from Google correctly, the universe is the comprehensive and the particular, macro and micro, distant and intimate. In her memoir, Origins of the Universe and What It All Means, Carole Firstman manages to work within both of these definitions, contemplating the whole of the cosmos and human existence while unabashedly delving into her own particular sphere of experience. These two universes—the particular and the catholic—collide and expand in interesting ways throughout the book, resulting in a rich and nuanced story with an impressive scope. The narrative flows seamlessly through time, traveling backward and forward through the recent past, the distant past, and the extremely distant past (aka the origin of the universe).

The main subject of the book is Firstman’s relationship with her father, Bruce Firstman, a biologist known for his research on the evolution of scorpions. Their relationship is sometimes cool and distant and sometimes intimate. When she was a newborn, Firstman’s father set up a tent in the yard for her and her mother during the day because her baby noises were interrupting his work. She says, “I know this may be hard to believe, but I shit you not, dear reader.” We do, in fact, believe her. Her voice is so likeable and straightforward; she doesn’t seem capable of shitting us. She says, “There on the dry Bermuda grass, with a lawn chair inched to the edge of a Woolworth’s plastic wading pool, a pair of foot-high camping cots, and a floor fan powered by an extension cord stretching back to the house, my nineteen-year-old mother tended me during the days, her red-faced newborn, cooing, crying, nursing, and sleeping through the summer heat.” Her father forgets her birthday, even though it is the same day as his. Often absent, he is portrayed as a womanizer and a narcissist.

But we see Firstman and her father on trips together to Mexico, and the scenes are almost romantic in their adventure—like if Indiana Jones had a little daughter sidekick he took around with him. We see the author with a sweater tied around her head like a turban, watching her father expertly slide scorpions and tarantulas into jars of formaldehyde using index cards scribbled with grocery lists and scientific notes. We see them riding out the 1971 San Fernando Earthquake together, her father wedging himself against her bunk bed with an almost-superhuman strength to keep it (and her) from toppling over. We see him as a brilliant scientist who worries about not having accomplished enough and, in his older years, someone who makes himself vulnerable in excruciating ways and, as a result, women often take advantage of him.

“No, he wasn’t exactly cruel, at least not intentionally,” she writes. “He just wasn’t all that interested in fatherhood . . . Does this prove him one or the other, either a good or bad father?” Of herself she writes, “I traversed the line between intimacy and emotional distance, empathy and resentment, self-serving voyeurism and objective observation. Good daughter or bad?”

Her refusal to cast her father as villain or protagonist (or perhaps her ability to cast him as both) makes us both like and detest him. He’s a complex character. The same could be said of the author, I suppose, although the reader can’t help but be enamored with her. She’s funny and smart, able to describe complex concepts in simple terms—something her father was never able to do. She says, “My father’s speech patterns—his vocabulary and syntax—are unusually formal. Classic Asperger’s, from what I understand, albeit undiagnosed.” Her vocabulary and syntax are, by contrast, relaxed and intimate. Her elementary schoolteacher background shines through as she steps back from the narrative to teach us about the universe without feeling didactic. We learn about Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution, the hypothalamus, the big bang theory, the paradox of human curiosity, mortality, liminality. She uses charts and graphs, dictionary definitions, analogies, handout packets, and outlines. “Please note—,” she says, “Mathematical formulas will NOT be on the test. So relax.” Both because she is covering material germane to her father’s studies and because she is such a good teacher, these digressions always feel relevant and return us to the narrative with more context and insight than before. She gets at the particular through the universal and at the universal by way of the particular.

Positioning herself within the context of the universe allows Firstman to delve into some very dark places without wallowing in self-pity:

I suppose we all carry some sort of grief—opportunities missed, friendships lost, attractions forbidden, relationships uninitiated, risks untaken. It’s the human condition. Everyone casts a shadow, short at noon, long at four o’clock. Turn your body north or south, yet the shadow always falls opposite the sun—darkness stretches toward more darkness . . . We find ways to enlighten our shaded side—equalize light and dark by pivoting toward the sun and then back again . . . Or maybe it’s the sun that does all the work, and we need only surrender to a certain state of intellectual or emotional transparency. Perhaps if we stay in the light, and if we can manage to preserve our skin from deadly radiation, we will emerge enlightened.

That’s how reading this book felt. It did all the work, but I emerged enlightened. It pulled me into its universe and collided with what I already knew, my preexisting universe, and I expanded.

Lisa Van Orman Hadley graduated from the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers. She was the recipient of the Larry Levis Post-Graduate Fellowship and a Barbara Deming Memorial grant for her novel-in-progress, “Irreversible Things.” Her stories have been published in Epoch, New England Review, The Collagist, and Opium Magazine, among others, and have been shortlisted in Ploughshares and Glimmer Train. She lives in Salt Lake City.