Particles and Luck

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

At the tender age of twenty-seven, Mark Perdue has beenappointed to a prestigious professorship at the Berkeley campus ofthe University of California.He is fortunate in being married to awoman who is not only beautiful but also intelligent. AudreyPerdue has to do a lot of her husband’s practical thinking for him,since his mind is hopelessly preoccupied with the most advanced andcontroversial speculations about the nature of matter.

When Audrey, a patent lawyer, leaves town to attend aconference, Mark is drawn into the orbit of a nearly bankruptpizza-restaurant proprietor named Roger Hoberman, who claims thata big corporation plans to seize parts of their adjacent suburbanproperties under a claim of adverse possession. This odd couplestays up all night getting drunk and preparing to defend their backyards against a nebulous assault by agents of the hostilecorporation.

Mark gets involved in Roger’s complicated domestic problems andeventually comes to the conclusion that human relations are chaoticand inexplicable because the fundamental building blocks ofmatter— the hypothetical bits and pieces that are smallerthan protons and electrons—are themselves chaotic andinexplicable. Human life—and everything else that passesfor “reality”—is a matter of invisible and unknowableentities falling into random patterns: in other words, “particlesand luck.”

Like most second novels, PARTICLES AND LUCK is a step down fromthe author’s first novel. Jones’s ORDINARY MONEY (1990), anotherbook about the zany behavior of suburbanites in Marin County,California, received praise in THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW andother leading periodicals. PARTICLES AND LUCK is, however, animpressive performance for such a youthful author. It is full ofwit and humor, and it often surprises with incisive observationsabout human life— though most readers will have difficultyfollowing the hero’s overly long interior monologues about theultimate nature of reality.

Sources for Further Study

American Libraries. XXIV, July, 1993, p.680.

Booklist. LXXXIX, March 1, 1993, p.1156.

Chicago Tribune. June 14, 1993, V, p.3.

Kirkus Reviews. LXI, February 1, 1993, p.84.

Library Journal. CXVIII, November 15, 1993, p.128.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. April 11, 1993, p.3.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, April 18, 1993, p.12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXL, February 8, 1993, p.77.

San Francisco Chronicle. March 28, 1993, p. REV4.

The Washington Post. April 14, 1993, p. B2.

Particles and Luck

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Second novels are notoriously wobbly bridges for young writers to cross. They tend to use up their best material on their first effort, get acclaimed as future Hemingways or Faulkners, and then find that their life experience is too shallow to be mined again so soon. Like the young John Milton, they may sense that they are shattering the leaves of their laurels and myrtles before the mellowing year.

Nevertheless, they are under pressure to produce that second novel. Publishers do not want to deal with “one-shot” authors; they even write contracts specifying that they have the first right of refusal on the next novel and the one after that. There is also pressure from relatives, pressure from friends, and pressure from friendly enemies who invariably ask that awful question: “What are you working on now?” There is the pressure of bills piling up on the kitchen counter, a condition with which characters in both of Jones’s novels appear all too familiar. There is also considerable internal pressure to prove to themselves that they are capable of surviving in an occupation of which John Steinbeck said in his acceptance speech for the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature: “The profession of book-writing makes horse racing seem like a solid, stable business.”

Louis B. Jones’s Ordinary Money (1990) met with as much critical acclaim as anyone had a right to expect for a first novel. The New York Times Book Review called it “an uproariously satirical book, the product of an opulent imagination.” Ordinary Money deals with life in the suburbs of Marin County, California, and Jones has wisely chosen to set his second novel in the same place. He lives there with his family and evidently grew up there. He belongs to a new generation of Californians who actually have roots in California, who went to school together and know one another’s secrets. This is something fairly new in a state that grew from a population of fewer than three million before World War II to a population of about thirty million at the 1990 census (give or take a few million undocumented aliens). Jones’s characters sound different from the reclusive immigrants who populated much of California’s suburbia during its period of mushrooming growth. They do not have to grope for things to talk about, since they have many acquaintances in common and can discuss births, marriages, divorces, and deaths just like people in Faulkner novels.

The hero of Particles and Luck is an absent-minded professor. The only thing that makes him unusual is his extreme youth. At the age of twenty-seven he was appointed to a coveted endowed chair in theoretical physics at the University of California at Berkeley. Mark and his wife are doing very well indeed. She is a patent attorney. They have bought an expensive new semi-detached unit”-in other words, a townhouse-in Marin County and are living the recession-proof, upper-middle-class life that seems so enviable to the submerged and submerging ninety percent of the American population.

Mark spends most of his time thinking about the ultimate nature of matter. Many pages of the novel are taken up with his interior monologues, and these abstruse speculations threaten to capsize Jones’s fragile second novel with their ponderous textbook prose. Here is an example of the soliloquizing in which the hero, like a sort of high-tech Stephen Daedalus, indulges far too often.

Unintentional events can be kindled in the low-density spaces between human intentions, in this mist world mostly invaded by an interpantiele vacuum where massive immanent particles hover to be born, shimmering between materiality and immateriality and stuffing all empty space full of infinite possibility for blooming “mass.” One would almost rather live according to the old classical physics, where outer space pours in between every particle, a world simplified by the hygiene of isolation.

Fortunately, the whole novel does not read like that; otherwise it would be of interest only to physicists-and they themselves might find the theoretical speculations trivial or muddled or out of date.

All this speculation has a purpose. It is intended to lead to Mark’s realization that human life seems chaotic and inexplicable because the fundamental building blocks of the cosmos are themselves chaotic and inexplicable. If one builds a house of lopsided bricks, one will end up with a lopsided house. It is an interesting idea and seems to provide a plausible explanation for the crazy lives many people lead. It sounds like predestination. The title...

(The entire section is 1896 words.)