Taken strictly as a work of popular science, The Secret House would merit great praise. David Bodanis’ lucid exposition bears comparison to the best of John McPhee or Stephen Jay Gould. The thrust of his work, however, is much different from theirs. At its core, The Secret House is a satire. Bodanis’ closest literary relatives are not nature writers or science writers; he has blood ties with the Russian Formalists, and certainly with Jonathan Swift, whose giant Brobdingnags resemble the occupants of Bodanis’ house.
Formalists such as Viktor Shklovsky delighted in what they called “defamiliarization” or “making strange.” Habit dulls perception; it is the function of art, Shklovsky suggested, to make the familiar strange, so that the reader or viewer might perceive reality afresh. As a device, “making strange” can serve various ends, ranging from irony to lyrical celebration. In The Secret House, the ends to which it is put are consistently satiric. Bodanis defamiliarizes not only the house and its appurtenances but also the experiences of its tenants. Their conversation is comically reduced to the physics of speech—explosions of sound bouncing off walls. The erotic is similarly deflated. A sequence of “heat images,” showing a woman entering a bath, soaking, getting out, and drying, defamiliarizes the nude, while the couple’s lovemaking is obliquely described via a virtuoso account of its effect on “bedspring molecules”; there is even a historical digression on Robert Hooke, the seventeenth century savant “who first described these laws of spring action.” Comical, yes, but Bodanis’ vision of humankind is generously laced with Swiftian disgust for the messy physicality of these creatures who go about their daily routines oblivious to perhaps 95 percent of reality.