A Review of Lulu Miller’s Why Fish Don’t Exist
June 11, 2020 § Leave a comment
By Virginia Marshall
When you spend all day in your apartment, the little creatures that you normally cohabitate with peacefully suddenly become a big deal. Take ants. Perfectly harmless. If I were the same busy person I was two months ago, I would brush them aside and move on with my day. But because of the Covid-19 pandemic, I am spending twenty-three hours a day in my apartment, along with the rest of New York City. So, the ants, you see, are an issue. I have taken to spraying the counters with a mixture of white vinegar and water every chance I get. I have even started spraying the molding on the floor and the space under the fridge where the ants seem to congregate. It is a battle to keep control over the small amount of space I have left. It is a battle I am losing.
“Chaos is the only sure thing in the world,” writes Lulu Miller at the start of her book Why Fish Don’t Exist. It’s a stellar opening. With the assuredness that comes from over a decade of science radio reporting (she co-founded the NPR show Invisibilia), Miller plunges her readers into the first scene. It is just after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and a taxonomist named David Starr Jordan, the star of Miller’s book, is staring at utter chaos: the grand total of his work, the result of years spent capturing new species of fish, smuggling them home and putting them in delicate glass jars in his Stanford laboratory, lies completely destroyed in front of him, shattered by the earthquake.
“It was carnage,” Miller continues. “Fish flesh splayed as far as the eye could see.… It was like an act of Genesis in reverse; his thousands of meticulously named fish had transformed back into a mass of unknown.” Rather than throw his arms up in despair like a caricature of a mad scientist, Jordan reaches for a sewing needle and decides to stitch the name tags strewn across the laboratory floor directly onto each preserved fish body. It’s an obsession for order and control to which I can relate, as I stew in an apartment overtaken by ants. Jordan’s craze for order is, in fact, what initially attracts Miller to his story. “Are you a cautionary tale?” Miller wonders at the start of the book, “Or a model of how to be?” These questions take Miller and the reader on a journey from Stanford’s campus in Palo Alto, to rocky beaches in New England, to a fledgling university in the Midwest, to a Hawaii resort, and finally, to a former sterilization facility in Lynchburg, Virginia.
Miller picked an interesting if controversial subject for her inquiry: Jordan, an oddball scientist, traveled the world trying to find new species to name and classify. Miller follows his progress with all the flourishes of a radio reporter: “It is now that the music montage begins,” Miller writes at the start of one chapter. “Cue the jaunty sea shanties and roll back the sleeves of David Starr Jordan and put him on the deck of a giant sailboat alongside a dozen men in bowler caps.”
Jordan becomes the first president of Stanford University, and then, halfway through the book (perhaps too late in the narrative to come across as a genuine discovery), Jordan becomes enamored with the idea of eugenics. The book takes a turn: Miller investigates the darker philosophy behind Jordan’s obsession with naming and order. Her star character becomes sinister. One chapter reads like a murder mystery, as Miller traces the rumors that Jordan poisoned the wealthy founder of Stanford University in order to maintain his control over the school.
Miller’s quest becomes more urgent. Jordan, she writes, “remained an ardent eugenicist until his dying day… it was chilling. His brutality. His remorselessness. … I felt sick. I had been fashioning myself after a villain, after all.” Searching for clues, Miller talks to some of the people who were directly impacted by Jordan’s philosophy. She visits a woman named Anna who grew up in the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded and was forcibly sterilized there at age nineteen, in 1967. Miller becomes enamored with Anna and her housemate Mary; they are charming, kind-hearted women who live with a hamster named Sugarfoot and two pet birds. Anna carries around a doll, perhaps a stand-in for the child she could never have, and their apartment is decorated with hand-painted pictures. To Jordan, Miller writes, Anna would not have fit into his obsessive classification of living things. To Jordan, the only thing to do was stop genes like Anna’s in their tracks.
To put the nail in Jordan’s coffin and his obsessive ordering of what she comes to see as beautiful chaos, Miller ends on a fantastic turn. According to scientists and taxonomists, the entire category of fish does not exist. Based on their characteristics, species like lungfish and salmon and sharks are more closely related to non-fish-like creatures than they are to each other. The concept of a group of creatures called fish is a lie. Miller is simply gleeful when she reveals this. “I have come to believe that it is our life’s work to tear down this order, to keep tugging at it, trying to unravel it, to set free the organisms trapped underneath. That it is our life’s work to mistrust our measures.”
In the end, Miller finds beauty in chaos. She falls in love with a scientist, a woman, and embraces a new definition of family and love. She and her partner take a trip to the Caribbean and swim naked among the tropical water creatures (not fish, I suppose). It’s a wonderful passage to end on, and a gift to read when you are quarantining in the middle of an urban sea, frantically trying to keep the wild, natural world from spilling onto your counters. So, closing Miller’s book, I decide to watch the small colony of ants wandering in senseless loops at the base of my stand mixer and around my vase of spoons and spatulas. I try to admire their chaotic lives, and instead of reaching for the vinegar, I watch them scurry. My home is your home, I suppose. Chaos wins again.
Virginia Marshall is a writer and radio producer in Brooklyn, New York. Her work can be read and/or heard in Catapult, The Harvard Review, Atlas Obscura, The Millions, Essay Daily, Brevity, The Normal School, NPR’s Only a Game, and on WBUR. She tweets @vrosemarshall.