cover image Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life

Lulu Miller. Simon & Schuster, $23 (226p) ISBN 978-1-5011-6027-1

NPR science reporter Miller, in her scattered debut, relates the life of influential taxonomist David Starr Jordan (1851–1931) to struggles in her own life. During early adulthood, as “I made a wreck of my own life,” she became fascinated with Jordan’s “stand against Chaos,” in a career which saw him collect and name many thousands of species of fish. Her account of Jordan’s boyhood passion for science conveys gentle naïveté: “In the privacy of his room he’d sit... discerning which flower was which, unbuttoning its genus, its species.” As Miller discusses her teenage depression, which culminated in a suicide attempt, the writing turns raw: “I woke to bright lights... the humiliation of a nurse, paper sheets beneath my ass.” The narrative then—rather jarringly—turns back to Jordan, as he scours the Pacific Coast for new fauna and becomes president of Stanford. Covering the darker chapters of Jordan’s life, Miller discusses his murky involvement in a possible cover-up around the death of the university’s “founding mother,” Jane Stanford, and, following his dismissal from Stanford, his key role in popularizing the racist pseudoscience of eugenics. Jordan is a fascinating figure, but Miller’s rapid shifts in subject and perspective result in a frustratingly disjointed work. Agent: Jin Auh, Wylie. (Apr.)