After enjoying Christopher Meeks' cleverly self-deprecating short story collection The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, I decided to pick up his novel Love at Absolute Zero. I was not disappointed. The story, focusing on good-natured, if haphazard, physicist Gunnar Gunderson's search for love (utilizing the tried-and-true tenets of the scientific method, natch), is an absolute rip. Here are some of the finer points (spoilers ahoy):
1. The premise itself already had me hooked, but the introduction is remarkably strong. The use of a dramatic flashback to begin the story in the middle of a dire scene is brilliantly pulled off, immediately getting the story's meat hooks into the reader and never letting up.
2. All the portions of the book spent explaining and analogizing scientific concepts into layman terms seemed particularly inspired, given the difficulty of the ideas. The section detailing Gunnar's course introduction for non-science majors felt honest and *alive*. If I had been in his class, he definitely would have convinced me with that lecture to stay.
3. The moment Gunnar realizes that his old school crush Ursula is "the one" exemplifies the ability of Meeks to really create a moment on the page. "She looked pleased, and as he stared into her blue eyes, he fell into their wonderful vortex, a swirl of feeling and meaning as if he was in another person's entire nervous system." Holy s***. That gave me goose bumps, and reminded me of exactly what it feels like to be in love.
4. There are also tons of hilarious moments. One of my favorites of these is when Gunnar attends a party with old friends and goes into the explanation of his atomic work on absolute zero. The snarky rejoinder, "Hey! Gunnar's been within a billionth of a degree of destroying the universe!" made me laugh out loud. Likewise, the scene in which the three scientists whisper ominously about seeking the answers to love in the dreaded Humanities had perfect tone, timing and word choice that made me outright guffaw. Yet another scene involves Gunnar fumbling through a speed-dating event, where he mingles awkwardly with his meat-headed competition and no-nonsense prey. "He nodded to the women first, both in dresses, then the guys next, in shorts and sandals with socks, and he stood there, his head still bobbing as he tried to relax and appear genetically attractive." I just about fell out with that priceless imagery.
5. The book also had many moments that served as wonderfully subtle foreshadowing. One of them was Gunnar's preliminary insistence on the aforementioned speed-dating. He's already supposedly given up on "the one," Ursula. But, of course, he keeps thinking about her and he keeps thinking speed-dating is the answer to his love mission -- never admitting to himself that chemically, psychologically, his insistence on the latter is the groping manifestation of his obsessions with the former. It's the kind of artful nuance Meeks handles deftly. Another of those wonderful, quietly foreshadowing scenes is when Gunnar makes it to Denmark, devastated by the betrayal of his exotic, Danish love-interest Kara, and then has a quick look in her parents' medicine cabinet. That mere act of picking up a bottle of Zopiklone 7,5 mg, opening it and simply observing, "One handful" ... spoke magnitudes. Great writing.
6. A formatting gimmick worth noting because it worked quite effectively in the context: Gunnar's "bullet-point" affirmations concerning the most basic truths of his new life in Denmark ("- Beds are good. - Comforters are good. - Kara is bad. - Love sucks. - Denmark sucks. - Sleep is good.") cut like a knife to the heart of what it feels like to be freshly brokenhearted in this or any other country. Then, coming right on the heels of that chapter closer, the scientifically-based quote leading Chapter 15 (all chapters lead with such an introduction) summarizing the third law of thermodynamics felt expertly chosen. We see Gunnar at what seems to be his lowest point here and are reminded that "absolute zero cannot be reached." It's a message at once hopeful and preparatory to the real rock bottom Gunnar is yet going to slam into.
7. Again, the science bits are written very accessibly and without impediment to the flow of the story -- in this case, I refer to the chemical underpinnings and forms of attraction put forth by the biological anthropologist known simply as "Pete." It was an excellent idea to save this conversation for the end, as it *finally* feels like we're getting the straight dope (or dopamine, as it were) on what makes love work in scientific terms. It's a turning point of awareness for both Gunnar and the reader.
8. Thus, finally (without ruining the ending), I felt the crowning achievement of the novel was Gunnar's speech on fermions and bosons, death, and love. This blew me away. Shoehorning advanced science into comprehensible metaphors is never easy, but this almost-soliloquy on the relevance and relation of our modern (often esoteric) research into the subatomic world to our age-old concerns of loving and dying was genuinely moving, skirting the precipitous cliff edge of evidential unsubstantiation and dancing on balletic pointe.
The story has much else going for it. On the whole, an absolute winner.
To see it on Amazon, click here.
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