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An interview with Karl Iagnemma

Frank Diller

On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction: Stories
by Karl Iagnemma
Dial Press, 224 pages, $22.95.

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When Karl Iagnemma entered MIT's graduate program in mechanical engineering, he was required to select a minor outside his field. "I think the theory is that if you're a mechanical engineer, you'll minor in statistics or something," says Iagnemma. But he chose creative writing, a decision his adviser and his department chair supported. "I was actually pretty surprised that people took it seriously," he says.

Whether people noticed his minor is another matter. He says that after he had defended his thesis on rough-terrain mobile robots and had published several short stories, an engineering professor told him that he was surprised to read in a local magazine that Iagnemma wrote fiction. "I said, 'Well, you know that, because that was my minor, and you were on my thesis committee.' And he said, 'Oh, I thought you were studying friction.'"

Iagnemma's short stories may have flown under the radar of some professors, but they earned high marks from editors at literary journals such as Zoetrope and the Paris Review, and one was selected for inclusion in Best American Short Stories 2002. His debut collection, On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction, portrays scientists on the verge of intellectual breakthroughs and emotional breakdowns. Touching, and often extremely funny, these stories span centuries and disciplines, but all are pervaded by the doubts that can nag any trial-and-error effort.

Many of the characters are struggling to solve seemingly impossible personal and scientific questions. In "Zilkowski's Theorem," a mathematician examines his role in an equilateral love triangle that has produced dubious authorship of an important proof. "Kingdom, Order, Species" follows a forestry professor's obsession with a seminal book in her field as she tries to clear the academic and romantic deadwood from her life. And "The Ore Miner's Wife" imagines an immigrant miner spending all his spare time grappling with the classical geometry problem of squaring the circle, not knowing that there is no solution.

"Frustration and doubt are some of the very human characteristics of research that people don't think about when they think about science," says Iagnemma. The news and entertainment media regularly feature scientific breakthroughs, but research, he says, is really "about going down blind alleys and coming up with an answer that's close but not quite correct."

The protagonist of "The Phrenologist's Dream," which is set in the 19th century, embodies just such a quest for truth. As he struggles to come to terms with the accuracy (and legitimacy) of his profession, the phrenologist decides that a scientist's life is "like a midnight walk across an unfamiliar field, without a lantern, without even the moon's faint glow for guidance."

The collection's title story brilliantly embodies the nagging doubts associated with personal and scientific struggles in a former graduate student who remains on the campus of an engineering institute. The narrator works nights, providing computer support to the technically distraught, and worries about a pending meltdown with his live-in girlfriend. The charmless campus reinforces his sense of isolation and desperation as winter "white-outs shut down the highways, and the outside world takes on a quality very much like oxygen: we know it exists all around us, but we can't see it."

Writing fiction—even stories grounded in academia—offered Iagnemma a break from the tensions of his own graduate school experience. "I'd eat dinner and spend a couple of hours working on a story," he says. "And it would really let me decompress and forget about the other side of my life for a while."

Iagnemma explains that fiction provides a counterpoint to his engineering work because it allows him to raise interesting questions without having to offer any clean solutions. "In research," he says, "you're really trying to be precise and answer the questions. So there's not nearly as much room for flights of fancy or even interesting language."

Iagnemma plans to maintain both his engineering and writing careers. Now a research scientist in MIT's mechanical engineering department, where he helps design robotic planetary rovers, he's also at work on a first novel about a failed scientific expedition in the 1840s to find physical evidence of the lost tribes of Israel in Michigan. "I know there are people who write fiction full-time, and I think if I did that I'd probably go crazy," he says. Pursuing both interests, he adds, "ends up being a lot of work. But I think it balances itself because [they're such] polar opposites."

Iagnemma's future fiction may differ in tone from On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction. "It's funny how much things change when you go from being a student to a research staff member," he says. "I think if I were going to write these stories over again, they'd be quite a bit more optimistic."

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