nevermoreraven: Photo of ravens sitting in rafters (Default)
The book is A Book of Common Prayer.  The narrator, Grace Strasser-Mendana.  The title is the last sentence of the book.  As the narrator, Grace's role is to be the observer.
She had two failed careers, one as an anthropologist, one as a biochemist.
The author is a journalist.  Which might explain a few things.  If you're writing something short, you don't have to be an expert.  You can do a surface amount of research.  (This doesn't apply to books.  Always research.)
Either all the problems are on purpose, in which case, that's masterful, or it's all an issue of 'I didn't do my research', in which case, shame on you.
"I am an anthropologist who lost faith in her own method, who stopped believing that observable activity defined anthropos," Grace says, and yet she spends most of the novel questioning her own ability to be a good observer.  The last sentence is one such occasion, but "I no longer know what the real points are" is another.  That would entirely explain her failing at her careers.  (She's still supposedly a biochemist, but you never hear about her publishing any results.  If you don't publish any experimental results?  You're not much of a scientist.)  Both of those require good observation skills.  If you don't have them, then of course you're not getting the answers you desire.  Further, she says that she turned to the disciplines for sure answers.  "...took up the amateur study of biochemistry, a discipline in which demonstrable answers are commonplace and 'personality' absent." 
If she wanted a discipline with stable right or wrong answers, she chose the wrong professions.  Both had been undergoing significant changes throughout the 1900s.  If your knowledge was a decade old, it'd be like a significantly different field.  If this is meant to demonstrate that Grace makes bad decisions and is not good at observing so can't even get that out of her professions, then it's well done.
A lot of the issues seem like surface impressions, generalizations that people make when they don't actually know anything about the subject.  It's a very shallow approach.  'I read a few magazine articles and are now an expert'.  Track down a few anthropologists and biologists and ask them about what you need to know.  Or just ask them to talk, then you might get things you might need but not know.  Or choose a different field.  A failed journalist, maybe.  You're still required to observe, and a bad observer would fail.
Didion doesn't bother with much of the trappings of the anthropologist.  The bad biochemistry sounds cooler, I suppose.
On the second page, she mentions that "Fear of the dark is a protein".  That was a bad experiment in 1960 quickly debunked.  It should have been known to be bad science by 1977 when the book was written.  (Or earlier, when it was being written.)  It's entirely possible that several proteins are involved, and there have been several experiments recently showing that there's a protein that alters the expression to make fears phobias (2000), but we don't fully understand the expression or how the brain works.  It's not as simple as 'there's one cause, one effect'.
People in my class said 'she's always in her laboratory'.
There's only one time I saw.  And she mentions that she's studying a gram-negative bacteria (that's a real thing) and that Victor came to see her.  Maybe she feels it's not relevant to the story about Charlotte, but absolutely no scientist I know just says "I was in the lab".  They mention something else about it.  It's like a student randomly announcing "I was in class!" or a cubicle worker saying "I went in to work today!"  Pointless and absurd. 
You mention something about what happened.  Whether it was going well, or poorly, whether you solved any problems along the way.  Mention something about an instrument misbehaving, or needing to get more of one of the chemicals, or something substantial.
Square helices...exist.  But they're a protein, not a DNA or RNA molecule as mentioned.  I'm guessing that she just used it to sound cool.  And that's the issue.  Yeah, things can sound cool, but make sure you know what you're talking about.
There were some things she got right, too.  But the glaring errors make you sound like you don't know what you're talking about.  It's easy enough to read a little on how DNA works.  It's different to find out how a day in the lab works or what being in the particular scientific field is like.  And there's no true indications to say the mistakes are on purpose, that the author is actually messing up things to make Grace not a credible witness.  That's the true problem, here.
So, in the end, it's less of what she said.
And more of what she didn't say.
Aside from all the stuff about the reality of being a biochemist.
Note to self: in the future when you're writing novels, make sure to find someone and ask them about what their day is like.  These little details matter.

(unrelated, there's a lot of antibacterials prescribed all over the place in this book.  They mentioned that there were a lot of parasites.  Antibacterials don't work on parasites.  But then, this is third world medicine, and it's not like idiots don't prescribe antibacterials for viruses because of of complainy people.
The fact that she doesn't comment on this is...even if you're going with tradition, as a scientist I'd still at least comment on it)
("Nausea is controlled locally by a few drops of 1:1000 solution of adrenaline in a little water, taken by mouth with sips of iced champagne.  Neurasthenia is controlled locally by a half-grain of phenobarbitone three times a day and a temporary removal to a hill station."
Adrenaline causes nausea.  However, the dilution is high, so it's not like you'd notice.  It's almost on a homeopathic dilution level.  In any case, adrenaline is ineffective when administered orally.  Champagne, from what I read, is usually causing nausea and hangovers.
Neurasthenia is better known as nervous exhaustion, and diagnosis was waning by the 1930s.  Phenobarbitone is an epilepsy drug, which may help or may not, but given that neurasthenia is described more like depression than anything and the drug seems more likely to cause depression than alleviate it.  The dosage is at least not too much, since a half a grain is 30 mg and the daily limit is 300 mg.)
(also, was the Claude McKay thing an easter egg?  Because that was the author of Home to Harlem)This science was like watching one of the not-even-entertaining Syfy movies.
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