Cover image for The genius of the world
The genius of the world
Lichtenstein, Alice, 1958-
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Zoland Books, [2000]

Physical Description:
305 pages ; 21 cm
Format :


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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Abby Stein, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, was present when Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Gita as they detonated the first atomic bomb: "Now I am death. Destroyer of worlds". Twenty-six years later he attends his grandson, dying of cancer at the age of twenty-one, and can find no solace for him in his heart. Ira Stein was a brilliant, troubled boy who repudiated everything his grandfather stood for -- science, reason, a life of the mind -- and turned to Buddha. Ira's sister Phoebe is the fulcrum on which these two poles of the family teeter back and forth. The Genius of the World is a spiritual and sensitive novel of faith and reason.

Author Notes

Jane Holden Kelley, a professor of archaeology at the University of Calgary, is the author of Yaqui Women: Contemporary Life Histories (1978), also a Bison Book. Her father, William Curry Holden, a trained historian and anthropologist, met the Yaqui narrator of this chronicle, Rosalio Moisés, in 1934. They remained close friends until Moisés's death in 1969.

Reviews 1

Publisher's Weekly Review

From Princeton, N.J., to Berkeley, Calif., and a Buddhist ashram in San Francisco, Lichtenstein's slow-moving memoir-style debut novel chronicles the emotional dynamics of a mid-20th-century Jewish family. Alternating between the first-person perspectives of college-age Phoebe Stein, middle child and family peacemaker; her grandfather Abbey, Nobel-winning physicist and authoritative family patriarch; and her older brother, 22-year-old Ira, who, as Phoebe informs the reader in the first chapter, is dying, Lichtenstein weaves a heartfelt but dated tale. In endless back story, the reader learns of Ira's childhood learning disability and inexplicable attraction to the Buddha room in a local museum, of Phoebe's worship of Ira and Abbey's arrogance and long-term extramarital affair with the beautiful Diana. Like many of his '60s contemporaries, Ira searches for meaning in his life through drugs, and rebels against the establishment. When a friend has a bad trip, however, Ira calls the police and gives his real name. As a result, he is arrested and plea-bargained to a private drug-rehab facility. Escaping to San Francisco, Ira meets a group of bluegrass-playing Buddhists who live communally and invite him to join their band and share their religion. Ira at last finds purpose and peace, but his salvation is short-lived when he is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Ira's death and Abbey's redemption are handled movingly, but the overly familiar and tediously detailed story of a dysfunctional family prohibits the reader from engaging emotionally in the lives of the characters. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved



Chapter One PHOEBE, 1976 This is my theory: everyone everywhere is lying almost all the time. I am anyway.     Example. Wrote to Ira today. Told him I was happy. Told him I was beginning to see the Buddha nature, the good, in everyone and this was making me feel good.     Bullshit. I'm not seeing the Buddha nature. I'm seeing everyone's alive and oblivious to the privilege. I see that they're alive and he's going to die. I can't forgive all these blind people; can't forgive Ira for going about so calmly as if it's all a lie.     I DON'T WANT YOU TO DIE. That's what I should've written.     No one here to talk to. No one. Joanne tries, but I can't stand her tucked up in her desk chair like a cat, elbows on the desk and those reading glasses with the narrow rectangles reducing me in their lenses. Extending her forearms, she clasps her hands, leans her elbows on her propped thighs and peers at me over the rims. I swear it's some shrink trick she learned from her father. So obvious, so fake. She's only nineteen.     "How is your brother?" she asks in that whispery, throaty voice she's been cultivating all semester ("People tell me I sound like Greta Garbo," she says. In your dreams).     That's my cue to cry, I know. To eject myself into her waiting arms, pay her her due. I stay put. None of your damn business. Feeling so evil, so angry I could sink a dagger. Buddha nature, huh.     And she sits there still blinking, still compassionate in that clinical way of hers. Still gazing, waiting for me to break. Which I won't.     Finally she pulls her arms in, settles back in her chair. "If you need anything, you know I'm here."     I hold my silence as she swivels back to her desk, back to her open textbook. We're both taking Bio 1. Final's tomorrow morning.     I hate her perfect handwriting, her perfect notes, her line of admirers salivating down the corridors, panting in her wake.     How can she help me?     This morning my father called from San Francisco to tell me they've found a new tumor in Ira's brain.     After my father told me the news, a period of silence elapsed when all I could hear was light static falling across the wires. Last night I dreamt I was wheeling Ira down shiny corridors, metal doors opening one after another, just as we reached them, just as it seemed we were about to crash.     Should I fly out there? I asked.     Not necessary, my father told me in a smoothed-over voice. He, Michael Stein, would stay at the hospital until the tests were completed. That could be a few days or maybe longer. Would I be all right until then?     I sat on the bed. I could almost see my father hunched over the pay phone in the hospital, his address book open on the ledge in front of him. You can always count on my father to be efficient like this, to make all the difficult calls. He had flown to California for a business trip, not specifically to see Ira, and then this crisis had happened.     Are you all right, honey?     Of course, I snapped. I'm not the one with cancer. I remember when my brother first announced his new name. My father was listening on the phone, his lips a small volcano of concern. He was agreeing to something with the deep drawling syllable he used when listening to a business client. It was a syllable that didn't actually confer agreement so much as the fact that he was listening. A tinge of skepticism in that purr.     Suddenly, he was motioning. "Pencil," he hissed. "Paper." He sounded irritated. "Say again," my father said into the receiver. "Spell it."     And so we hung on each letter of the new name, not knowing at all what we were piecing together until we heard him say, "Milarepa. I don't know if I can always remember it, but I'll try."     Ira was seventeen then. Sixteen when he left home for Berkeley. Occasionally, we'd get a postcard, the tourist kind, picturing the Golden Gate, stretched disappointingly orange across the bay, or the impossible S-curves of Lombard Street. His messages in flailing scrawl told us he was going to free school, selling Berkeley Barbs on the corner of Euclid and Hearst and living with a woman named Rita, ten years older than he.     Then, out of the blue, he'd found a guru named Rinpoche. He was leaving school; he was leaving Rita.     "As far as I'm concerned, he'll always be Ira," my father announced when he'd hung up the phone.     I felt sorry for him. As you would for a captain sinking bravely with his ship. I was more practical than my father. I knew Ira better. "I'm calling him what he wants to be called." I wasn't going to be jettisoned easily.     When I saw Ira last summer at his ashram, he'd changed completely from the brother I knew. Before, he seemed to blaze along a trajectory, paying no heed to the trail of fire behind, those falling sparks that would scorch the known landscape to make way for another. Acid-tongued, brilliant, he preached Revolution.     Now he spends hours each day in meditation. When he isn't meditating, he's busy doing chores: polishing the altar brass, sweeping the temple room, writing prayer sticks. I followed him around like a dog. I felt completely lost in the place unless I was with him. Even with him I felt lost.     I kept wanting to ask, What are you feeling? What made you change?     Instead, I sat beside him for hours until my legs grew numb and my head hurt. We sat in front of the moon mandala, a yellow circle of felt glued onto a black square of felt. Ira told me that if you're enlightened you see the Buddha in the center of the moon. I saw only black dots. At ten o'clock, the snack bar's almost empty. The boy studying behind the counter doesn't look up when I place three brownies and a slice of apple pie on my tray. He doesn't notice when one brownie, then another, disappears into my knapsack. A voice in my head sings a thin song which I try to ignore: Why're you doing this? Who are you? And the response: Don't know. Just feels with everything wound up so tight, only stealing and eating can get me to the place where everything's blank.     Thank God the booth in the far corner is empty. I slide my tray across the Formica table. Then, settling myself onto the bench, I unwrap the brownies, chewing them down so quickly I can't taste them. For a second I think, Save the pie for later. Pseudonormal thought. But I devour the pie, too.     Back on line, I see someone's put out butterscotch brownies and blueberry pie. The boy behind the counter's disappeared, so I put two brownies in my sack and pay only for the blueberry pie. All my life Dad's told me college is a "four-year interim devoted to the mind." He says he never worked harder or learned more than he did as an undergraduate. This scares me because he works all the time anyway. How could he have worked any harder? How could I ever work as hard as he?     I hate college. Boys hurling footballs down the halls. Girls talking about how to lose their virginity. I stay in my room, hermit, until one night, the boy next door knocks on my door and asks me point-blank if I know everyone in the dorm hates me.     I didn't. I'm devastated. Legs. Shit. Why can't I ever find privacy? I've come to think of this as my bathroom, four stories underground, tucked away in the back corner of the library floor, past shelves and shelves of old, unread books, books that terrify me. All this stuff I'll never know, never understand, millions and millions of words, dead now between the rotting leather covers.     I can see Grandpa Abbey, flexing his tented fingers, beetling his brows: What did you learn this semester?     Grandpa Abbey, who doesn't suffer fools gladly, who says that women are incapable of great science, who is paying for my education though I am a fool.     Nothing, I would like to tell him.     Once I loved books. Now they make me feel like I'm standing in a vast cemetery, dead, dead, dead, and futile. No one will read these books a mile under. Trapped in cages. Dimly lit. Not a step stool in sight.     But back here safe, unused (I thought), empty (I thought), a bathroom, a woman's bathroom, the serif letters pasted onto a pane of smoky glass. Ancient decals rimmed in black and gold. WOMEN. Fooling no one, I thought. No one used this bathroom. Except me, I thought. This is where I come to void everything. My cubicle of peace and torture, my chamber .     The legs, of course, have feet. Hiking boots, corduroy cuffs. A knapsack sagging against the center wall. A student. Like me. Desperate. Like me.     The toilet flushes in a roar as I duck into the empty stall. Watching from the crack, I see a woman, not a girl, a graduate student, perhaps, thin as a stick, her corduroys sagging in the rear.     The woman bends to the mirror and coughs. Gathering courage to face those books, to go back to her cage. I watch as she grasps the doorknob with all her might, gives a real pull, aggressive and sure, and I envy her.     Then I'm alone. Working with the deftness of a surgeon, I press my middle and index fingers deep into my throat, deeper, until I gag and my stomach lurches responsively, as I've trained it to do. First comes bile, burning, sour, then a great clot of sweetish food. It's started, the river flowing backwards, engines reversed, working against gravity. Then the great blankness, no thought, no light, a dead place in which I'm numb to all. Numb to the horrific grossness of the act, numb to taste, to sight, to smell. A moment's peace, exactly like death.     Ira told me a bardo is the gap between things, between events like being born and dying, like dying and being reborn.     This then is my bardo, the gap in which I disappear. For seconds. Or whole years.     The roar of the water churning and dismissing, dissolving and disappearing as I stare at my shame roiled in the waters of the toilet bowl, then washed clean away as I'm cleansed for those moments anyway. I'm sick. Crazy, insane. I pluck a square of toilet tissue, pat the seat dry.     Stepping from the stall, I face myself in the mirror. A pale, miserable face. Don't like to look too closely or too often. I'm not mesmerized by my face as some are mesmerized by theirs. I would prefer to think I didn't have one, can't be seen. A bland little face, as misleading as the title down the spine of a book, not a good basis for judging the contents.     The floor seems deserted again. As far as I can tell, the corduroy woman has left or has been absorbed completely into those dark stacks. It would be nice just to curl up somewhere, tuck myself in a corner and sleep, but I have to study.     The picture of the cerebral cortex looks to me like an overgrown cauliflower or a boxer's glove, the temporal lobe, a folded-in thumb. Ira's brain looks like this and mine, too. Only his is filled with tumors fitted snug as orange pith against its sweet globes.     For the exam, I'll be expected to name the parts of the brain and how each part functions. I'll be expected to describe the structure of the axons and how the synapses cascade one to the other sparking thought.     I try to concentrate on the text, on those strange antlike words, but since this morning, since my father called, I cannot think at all. Copyright © 2000 Alice Lichtenstein. All rights reserved.