Dzanc Books. 263 pp.
In the first chapters of her memoir, Origins of the Universe and What it all Means, Carole Firstman packs up her father’s old house. According to his specific instructions, she organizes boxes to send to him at his new home in Mexico, and while doing so, steals a scorpion suspended in formaldehyde—a specimen she may have helped him collect during their many family trips to Baja, California. She takes this token from a man who was an accomplished academic, but not an accomplished father. We come to understand very quickly that his imprint upon her is tangible, but diluted by his consuming self-centeredness. Her theft reveals an adult daughter desperate for connection. The scorpion carries significance, but does not provide relief; Firstman knows stealing can’t reconcile the history of a difficult relationship. It cannot erase or rebuild a fragile past.
Origins of the Universe and What it all Means is a meditation on difficult familial relationships and expands outward with greater philosophical questions: How do you measure a life? Does an attempt to reconcile estrangement make us greater for it? Does it even matter? Firstman’s journey through these questions is more than a recounting, though it’s that too. She brings us along for a difficult attempt at reconciliation with an absent father, deftly handling the rocky territory of reconnection, and the realities we face when we choose to do so.
Firstman introduces the concept of liminality to guide the reader’s understanding: “The condition of being on a threshold or at the beginning of a process…to inhabit an intermediate ambivalent zone. In a liminal phase an individual experiences a blurring of social environment and reality, occupies the in-between stage. The liminal space represents a threshold of physiological or psychological response.”
The liminal space is where Firstman is best, nestled comfortably in the threshold of judgment and experience as she navigates her relationship with her father and its implications for the universe of her reality. The liminal space is where Firstman frequently treads and retreats when the art of analysis gets too rough. It also serves as an entry point for Firstman’s memoir in essays; micro-chapters within greater sections where we return to re-examine, to witness, to reinterpret. We revisit several key moments: a drive in Death Valley, a house in Visalia, and a cave in the desert of Baja. Firstman returns more than once to each scene—they are not stuck in the chronology of a life, but evolving and changing as memory fades and new questions arise with the benefit of time and reflection.
The last third of the book reveals more of the man with whom she is trying so hard to reconcile, and delves deeper in the decision to do so. Firstman vacillates on the potential for reconnection: “The thing is… to understand someone—to know where his interests lie—can be a risky deal. We don’t always like what we find.” Here, is the liminal in action.
Her father is portrayed as a brilliant, eccentric academic whose life was dedicated to studying evolutionary biology through the lens of scorpions. Selfish, self-absorbed, misogynistic, and emotionally detached (in the first few pages Firstman admits that she has diagnosed him with Asperger’s), he gives Firstman a bar of soap one birthday when he forgets to buy her a present, even though they share the same birthday. When Firstman was just a newborn, he insists she and her mother sleep in a tent in the backyard and endure the hot winds of a southern California summer so he can focus undisturbed on his work – in a room strewn with pictures of half-naked women.
And just when we’re ready for the pendulum to swing toward kindness and proper parenting, Firstman reveals details that would make even the most sexually laissez–faire parent take note: In vivid detail he implores his seven-year-old daughter to not be a “frigid” woman, to let men do things to her when she turns 18, and to be open to posing in Playboy.
The feminist in me bristles, the reader in me is conflicted, and the daughter in me hurts. And yet, what is Firstman to do? This is the father she was given.
At one end of this memoir we witness a woman eager to explore a second chance, and at the other, bitterness, humor, and grief. It is this pendulum of searching that guides the book, and the questions about what and who constitute a life. Her father concedes that there is so much he wants to tell her about the meaning of life and the creation of the universe, so he begins with a familiar overture: rattling off details about the physical characteristics of the Sun—photosphere, diameter, light-years, magnetic fields, ionized iron, solar flares, white dwarf, red giant, black hole—quantifiable facts and theorized algorithms.
Firstman is also consumed with the bigger picture, though without the scientific detail: What is a life lived, if without an attempt at loving those the universe strongly suggests we should love? Beneath this broad question ricochets the subtle echoes of Firstman’s individual enquiries: How did my father measure his life? How should I measure mine? Why wasn’t he there for me? And most central: what kind of daughter am I going to be now? Good daughter or bad? “If I were a better person,” she muses, “if I weren’t such a self-centered ingrate, would this transition be easier?”
We see no such self-flagellation from her father, but in her meta questioning, Firstman’s prose remains aware of the bigger questions at play and the very large impasse separating us from satisfying answers. Bittersweet at times, but also graceful, Firstman guides her queries with a self-correcting gaze: “Like my father,” she admits, “I’m caught in a conundrum of attachment and detachment.” Attachment out of duty, and detachment from her father’s egotism, Firstman never needs to expound on the pain of that pendulum. It stays with us—haunts us in the spaces between her words, exposes a pain that lurks in the liminal space of our hearts, and never leaves.