The Evolution of Inanimate Objects
The Life and Collected Works of Thomas Darwin (1857 – 1879)
Insomniac Press, 2010
Paperback, 214 pages
Review by: Kerry Riley
…as astute readers of this review may already have intuited, there’s a small problem with the facts of Thomas’ existence.
On first (and second and third) glance, Harry Karlinsky would seem to be an obvious and ideal individual to introduce the reading world to a little known, but fascinating bit of Darwinian arcana. With a Masters degree in Neuroscience from the University of London, England, and a position of Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia, who better to explicate the short, curious and little-known life of Thomas Darwin, 11th son of the Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgewood, whose tragicomic existence played itself out on both sides of the Atlantic and was driven by a curious obsession with eating utensils?
Preconceptions neatly activated by Karlinsky’s credentials, the gentle reader of The Evolution of Inanimate Objects, is further prepared to be initiated into the fascinating mystery of Thomas Darwin in an entirely plausible preface to the story proper, in which Karlinsky explains how:
what was intended to be a (lively!) academic account of Canadian asylums circuitously and with growing momentum (…) evolved into a biography of Thomas Darwin and a repository for those images, letters, and manuscripts that unfold his story.
This diversion resulted, apparently, from a chance encounter with the name Thomas Darwin (of Down, England) in the casebook review of admissions to the London Asylum (that’s London, ONTARIO) in 1879.
A biography of the most academically reserved and scrupulously unassuming sort then proceeds, with impeccable annotation, to explore the unlikely history of Thomas, the sad details of whose life drew their poignant fascination from their association with his famous father. Let me be the first to admit that academically reserved and scrupulously unassuming biography, while potentially amusing, is not an obvious source of powerful fascination, while at the same time insisting that this book is a source of powerful fascination . Why? – one is forced to wonder. Well, to begin with, and as astute readers of this review may already have intuited, there’s a small problem with the facts of Thomas’ existence. In short – he didn’t – exist that is. Thomas Darwin is an entirely fictional creation of Mr. Karlinsky and the book an intricate literary prank – although “prank” does not quite capture the exact spirit of the thing.
As Karlinsky in his role of narrator explains, “According to Darwin family lore, an otherwise healthy Thomas tragically and abruptly died of tuberculosis while travelling in Canada following his second year at Cambridge.” The records of the London Asylum corroborated the cause of death but the bigger question was, of course, what was Thomas doing in the asylum in the first place?
And so we are pulled irresistibly along as Karlinsky presents us with what is, purportedly, the result of exhaustive research into a scanty record of Thomas’ increasingly deluded life. Karlinsky rides the knife-edge interface between plausibility and silliness with considerable elan. The tone of the narrative is one of charmingly disarming earnestness. The author seamlessly weaves small domestic details of Thomas’s childhood into the real Darwin family history. References to Thomas appear in some of Darwin’s later publications (observations of an infant Thomas, for example, are reported to have been incorporated into The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animal) He was, it seems, a quiet and unremarkable, if somewhat solitary, child. A penchant for collecting buttons throughout his school days did nothing, apparently, for his social life and his mother Emma is reported to have commented, “Charles and I were not surprised that his efforts to start a Button Club failed to attract a single fellow.” Note is taken, however, of his early perspicacious affinity for cutlery and serving utensils and his obvious (considering his family) exposure from a young age to the idea of classification and specification. Thomas’ pathology develops chronologically, beginning, perhaps, with early ruminations about the changes seen in ancient coins and progressing to musings about the evolution of form in various types of cutlery, culminating, finally, in the disastrously embarrassing submission of a paper to the distinguished journal Nature, the contents of which caused the editor to contact Charles Darwin directly, with concerns about his son’s mental stability. This crisis seems to have precipitated Thomas’ abrupt departure for the colonies.
The fictional biography continues along, amiably and entertainingly enough, but as Karlinsky is no doubt acutely aware, what is really driving the reader is a curiosity about how Thomas’ life managed to catapult, in a few short years, from a mildly eccentric English idyll to incarceration in a colonial mental asylum, and the exact nature of Thomas’ mental disturbance. Details which throw light on these pressing questions are doled out with quite cunning economy. Because the premise is all so deliciously intriguing and we so desperately want to proceed, any whiff of whimsy, wonky eccentricity, or subterfuge, can, at this point, easily be blamed on the cat – or, in this case, Thomas and his times. Victorian England and privileged, indulged loopiness are practically synonymous terms and there is certainly no shortage of factual accounts of gently mad Victorian aristocrats. Why should this be any different?
In fact, what Mr. Karlinsky has so handily pulled off here is an ages-old storytelling technique, the pseudo-documentary frame-story – the stuff of many of the most successful ghost stories and often used to distance an authoritative narrator from weird (and therefore enticing) “facts,” synergistically affording both the facts and their teller increased credibility. Thus, an ordinary soul tells of discovering an ancient book of secret knowledge, or a narrator passes along details of a mysterious incident, told to him by an elderly man who has kept it secret since his youth. More recently, a video camera found in the woods recounts the last horrifying days of a paranormal research team – the camera here standing in for the neutral narrator. Karlinksy, instead, uncovers tantalizing tidbits from within historical records and academic archives. The narrator’s refusal to do more than meticulously lay out the facts of the case, paradoxically, make the implicit message easier to believe and speculative leaps easier to perform. (Just to be clear, this is not a ghost story. Mr. Karlinsky has simply used a technique often employed in ghost stories to lower our resistance to the implausible.) The new twist here is that the fiction is skilfully woven into the historical facts, blurring the boundaries between the two. Although most of us are familiar enough with some of the facts of Charles Darwin’s life, few of us are expert enough to know exactly where the boundary lines reside. This is easy to see from a safe distance but, in the midst of the story, the author so effectively disarms one’s resistance that Thomas continuously threatens to become real
At this point, I must assure those readers who are exasperated with me for having ruined the impact of the book by giving away its secrets, that this is, quite intriguingly, not the case. Having done some preliminary research, I approached the story fully aware that it was fiction, and, in fact, it is clearly identified as “a novel” on the front cover. Nevertheless, I found myself in a continuous state of confusion, as I progressed through the story, as to whether Thomas had, in fact, been a real person or not. Usually, a confused reader indicates problems with the writing, but the exact opposite is true here. The confusion does not arise from the details of the story, but from the battle erupting in one’s brain. Such is Karlinsky’s skill in inserting Thomas, Zelig-like, into the realities of the Darwin family history and times, that despite what my rational mind knew to be true, I often found myself succumbing to the sheer veracity of the tale. At times it felt that my subconscious, wherein resides all those other ways of knowing, and which was convinced of Thomas’ existence, was at war with my rationally conscious mind, and emerged for variable periods of time, entirely victorious. This lively tussle between what one knows to be true, and what one feels to be true, is part of the adventure of this book and contributes significantly to its fascination. No doubt aware of his book’s ability to disorder one’s sense of reality, Karlinsky goes to some trouble in his “Authors Notes and Acknowledgements” to debrief readers, reiterating that “The Evolution of Inanimate Objects: The Life and Collected Works of Thomas Darwin (1857-1879) is (emphatically!) a work of analogy and fiction.”
The experience of reading this book also comments, tangentially, on the dangers of our misinformation-saturated internet existences. I, for one, am quite certain that, ten or twenty years from now, long after I can no longer trace its source, I shall be quite convinced that Charles Darwin did have an 11th son, who suffered from delusions regarding the reproductive abilities of household implements, and who died in a London, Ontario asylum. If misinformation that transparently admits to being misinformation can be this powerful, what of all the other, less conscientious misinformation that I am, no doubt, absorbing daily, and which must inevitably interfere with my future ability to know what I know? In fact, what past fictions are warping my understanding of reality at this very moment?
The old adage warns us not to judge a book by its cover. In the case of The Evolution of Inanimate Objects, I would extend the advice and recommend that you not even judge this book by its content – not, that is, until you have become fully engaged with the content. Not quite historical fiction (in which, it seems to me, the fact and the fiction are far easier to separate) nor creative non-fiction, The Evolution of Inanimate Objects is a genre-stretching work and reading it is a new sort of experience. The pseudo-biography is really only a skeleton on which is hung the by far greater experience of the intricate interplay between the readers’ own conscious understanding that Thomas never existed and a more subliminal, created sense that, indeed, he did. Be prepared for some mind bending!
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