About A Girl: An Excerpt

My third book, About A Girl, comes out next summer, and, like all of my books thus far, is about love and death and magic and growing up. This one is also about astronomy and Medea and a little town on the Olympic Peninsula where I used to live a long time ago, and it is really, really gay. On Monday the whole world will get to see its cover; in the meantime, here’s a little taste of the book:

“Tonight is my eighteenth birthday party and the beginning of the rest of my life, which I have already ruined; but before I describe how I arrived at calamity I will have to explain to you something of my personal history, which is, as you might expect, complicated—

If you will excuse me for a moment, someone has just come into the bookstore—No, we do not carry the latest craze in diet cookbooks—and thus she has departed again, leaving me in peace upon my stool at the cash register, where I shall detail the particulars that have led me to this moment of crisis.

In 1969, the Caltech physicist Murray Gell-Mann—theorist and christener of the quark, bird-watcher, and famed perfectionist—was awarded the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the field of particle physics. In his acceptance speech, he referenced the ostensibly more modest remark by Isaac Newton that if he had seen farther than others it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants, commenting that if he, Murray Gell-Mann, was better able to view the horizon, it was because he was surrounded by dwarfs. (Newton himself was referring rather unkindly to his detested rival Robert Hooke, who was a person of uncommonly small stature, so it’s possible Gell-Mann was making an elaborate joke.) While I am more inclined to a certain degree of humility in public, I find myself not unsympathetic to his position. I am considered precocious, for good reason. Some people might say insufferable, but I do not truck with fools. (“What you’re doing is good,” Murray Gell-Mann told his colleague Sheldon Glashow, “but people will be very stupid about it.” Glashow went on to win the Nobel Prize himself.)

—What? Well, of course we have Lolita, although I don’t think that’s the sort of book high-school teachers are equipped to teach—No, it’s not that it’s dirty exactly, it’s just—Yes, I did see the movie—Sixteen-eleven, thanks—Cards, sure. Okay, goodbye, enjoy your summer; there is nothing that makes me so glad to have escaped high school as teenagers—

My name is Atalanta, and I am going to be an astronomer, if one’s inclination is toward the romantic and nonspecific. My own inclination is neither, as I am a scientist. I am interested in dark energy, but less so in theoretical physics; it is time at the telescope that calls to me most strongly—we have telescopes, now, that can see all the way to the earliest hours of the universe, when the cloud of plasma after the Big Bang cooled enough to let light stream out, and it is difficult to imagine anything more thrilling than studying the birth of everything we know to be real. Assuming it is real, but that, of course, is an abstract question, and somewhat tangential to my main points at present. And though much of astronomy is, and has always been, the management of data—the recognition of patterns in vast tables of observations, the ability to pick the secrets of the universe out of spreadsheets thousands of pages long—there are also the lovely sleepless nights in the observatory, the kinship of people driven and obsessed enough to stay up fourteen hours at a stretch in the freezing dark tracking the slow dance of distant stars across the sky; those are the people whose number I should like one day to count myself among.

I am aware that I am only one day shy of eighteen and that I will have time to decide more carefully in what I will specialize as I obtain my doctorate and subsequent research fellowships, and I will be obliged as well to consider the highly competitive nature of the field—which is not, of course, to say that I am unequipped to address its rigors, only that I prefer to do work that has not been done already, the better to make my mark upon the cosmos. At any rate I like telescopes and I like beginnings and I like unanswered questions, and the universe has got plenty of those yet.”