The Biology of Luck

The Biology of Luck 

Jacob Appel
Elephant Rock Books (2013)
220 pages; $16 

Reviewed by Kristin Fitzsimmons

With a title like The Biology of Luck, I half expected this to be the book version of the 2001 film Sweet November starring Charlize Theron and Keanu Reeves in which (SPOILER ALERT) Theron’s character has an incurable disease and thus the claustrophobic romance is heightened to epic levels (see poster below)

“All we are is dust in the wind, dude.”

For better or worse, neither of the two the main characters in The Biology of Luck has an incurable disease. Unless you count Manic Pixie Dream Girl as a terminal illness, in which case, I stand corrected. Instead of a romantic drama, The Biology of Luck is more like a Woody Allen movie, starring the awkward and self-described unattractive sad sack Larry Bloom, a New York City tour guide and writer who’s just received a response about his submission, a novel titled The Biology of Luck, from a publisher in an envelope. Like it’s 1999, which it might be since Larry does not own a cell phone and refers to a fellow character’s contraption as a cellular phone.

The meta The Biology of Luck alternates between Larry’s reality and chapters of his identically named novel. The heroine of Larry’s book, Starshine Hart, is a girl who catches a lot of breaks. She’s a beautiful, seemingly carefree spirit whose sparkly exterior hides a young woman with a dark past and, perhaps because every man in Larry’s book wants to fuck or marry her, a strong fear of strange men.

Both narratives take place in the span of a day, at the end of which is planned a dinner date between Larry and Starshine. Whether Larry’s date is with a real woman or pen and paper remains unclear. Larry’s day is taken up by his job as he leads a group of sleepy Dutch tourists through several New York neighborhoods and everything’s working against him: his charges seem more annoying than usual, and every attempt at being heroic or an authority figure of any kind fails. In his mind, the only thing he’s got going for him is his impending date with Starshine and the answer inside of the publisher’s envelope.

Starshine’s day, also hurtling toward her date with Larry, is equally full. She must swindle her credit union to be able to afford a fruit basket for her invalid aunt, canvas for the Cambodian Children’s Fund, and gently let down all her lovers before going to dinner with the only man that she’s not remotely attracted to. The blurb on the back cover of this book says that this is the day Larry wins Starshine’s heart, but I didn’t get the sense that she was into him, or anyone, enough to give him her heart unless he takes it from her chest, like that high priest did in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom .

At some point during each of their days they will enter a flower shop run by an Armenian florist who will inform them that both of them are lucky, as he is an appreciator of the “genetics of fortune.” Mysterious foreigner, rambling homeless person, aren’t these always the ones who have the answers? It’s no surprise that Starshine is lucky—she lucks out time and time again in her chapters. The big question is, is Larry? So far his day’s been shit and this date is the only thing he has to look forward to. Without giving the actual events of the ending, I’ll just say that I think Larry will wake up the next day and be exactly the same. He’s neither succeeded nor failed. Even in his own novel, he fails to imagine greater things.

If it seems like I’m being hard on Larry, it might have more to do with New York than Larry himself. I came to The Biology of Luck knowing it was set in New York, which automatically raises the difficulty of my impress-o-meter. Since the market is saturated with novels set in New York, not to mention artists/writers as main characters, it’s incredibly difficult to present a New York that’s actually new. The Biology of Luck does have an eclectic gathering of minor characters, but its two main characters feel too familiar. As a tour guide, Larry knows the city inside and out but gets no apparent joy from it. Starshine, on the other hand, rides her vintage bike everywhere and goes on job interviews barefoot. She embodies that quirky city girl—a poor woman’s Carrie Bradshaw—poor in the sense that she doesn’t have a whole lot of money for shoes. If one doesn’t like Starshine, it’s easy to write her off. She is, after all, a figment of Larry Bloom’s imagination, a character in a novel within a novel.

Eye-rolling about Larry’s old-fashioned vocabulary and lack of proper technology aside, it’s clear that Appel takes great care crafting the language of this book. His phrases soak the novel in nostalgia, present a New York that’s timeless, and create a meta-novel with a heroine who is anchorless. If you like Zooey Deschanel, the film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and genetically superior pineapples, this book may be for you.

Kristin Fitzsimmons is the author of a chapbook, all these empty bone bowls (dancing girl press, 2013) and a co-host of the web series What Did You Look Up on Wikipedia?