The Beautiful Miscellaneous…
Nathan Nelson is the average son of a genius. His father, a physicist of small renown, has prodded him toward greatness from an early age—enrolling him in whiz kid summer camps, taking him to the icy tundra of Canada to track a solar eclipse, and teaching him college algebra. But despite Samuel Nelson’s efforts, Nathan remains ordinary.
Then, in the summer of 1987, everything changes. While visiting his small-town grandfather in Michigan, Nathan is involved in a terrible accident. After a brief clinical death—which he later recalls as a lacklustre affair lasting less than the length of a Top 40 pop song—he falls into a coma. When he awakens, Nathan finds that everyday life is radically different. His perceptions of sight, sound, and memory have been irrevocably changed. The doctors and his parents fear permanent brain damage. But the truth of his condition is more unexpected and leads to a renewed chance for Nathan to find his place in the world.
Thinking that his son’s altered brain is worthy of serious inquiry, Samuel arranges for Nathan to attend the Brook-Mills Institute, a Midwestern research centre where savants, prodigies, and neurological misfits are studied and their specialties applied. Immersed in this strange atmosphere—where an autistic boy can tell you what day Christmas falls on in 3026 but can’t tie his shoelaces, where a medical intuitive can diagnose cancer during a long-distance phone call with a patient—Nathan begins to unravel the mysteries of his new mind. He also tries to make peace with the crushing weight of his father’s expectations.
The Beautiful Miscellaneous is an extraordinary follow-up to Dominic Smith’s critically acclaimed debut, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre. This dazzling new novel explores the fault lines that can cause a family to drift apart and the unexpected events that can pull them back together.
There is so much to say about The Beautiful Miscellaneous yet I find myself struggling for words. I am no stranger to the work of Dominic Smith. Last year I read The Last Painting of Sara De Vos and absolutely loved it. The Beautiful Miscellaneous is not a new novel; it’s new to Australia, but it was actually published in the US in 2007. It’s interesting to note this, because you would think that being an earlier novel – I think this was his second – it wouldn’t be as good as his more recent work, but this is not the case.
I adored The Beautiful Miscellaneous. Really loved it in a want to see it turned into a movie and give every one of my friends a copy kind of way. It’s profound and touching and exquisitely written. Dominic Smith paints with words. He strings them together and creates a masterpiece that you can see and feel, the imagery is so vivid. I felt that with The Last Painting of Sara De Vos, and I felt that with The Beautiful Miscellaneous as well. It’s not something you can learn; you’re either a literary artist or you aren’t.
Very early on in this novel I had occasion to ponder over the prose.
“I wonder if we all carry our deaths packaged inside us – the time, the date, the manner – bundled and inert. Maybe what I carried all those years until the accident was not shrewd intelligence or the strange light of genius but the glimmer of my own death. Maybe that was what my parents were really looking at when they stared into my eyes and sensed something extraordinary.”
Nathan Nelson’s parents want him to be a genius. But he’s not. When he is seventeen, he is seriously injured in a car crash and he wakes up from a coma different. His brain is no longer the same. He’s developed what doctors suspect is a condition that attaches sensory experiences to his thoughts and consequently he has enhanced memory skills. His father now believes this is Nathan’s chance to be the genius he was always destined to be. Of course, without even reading the novel, you know this is not going to be the case, but that’s not the point. The point is the journey: the relationship between father and son, and the transition of Nathan from boyhood into adulthood. Both of these are defining factors of the novel, separate but also intertwined because Nathan’s relationship with his father, and his mother to a lesser extent, are serious inhibitors to his ability to grow up and get on with his life. We see this build throughout the novel and as Nathan’s life enters a stagnant phase, much to his mother’s distress, as an observer looking in from the outside, we see all the reasons why he reaches this point with perfect clarity and the deepest of sympathy.
There are shades of John Green that come through in this novel. Given this is the story of a seventeen-year-old boy, there are scenes that remind me a lot of Paper Towns, particularly those that include Nathan’s close friends. Dominic is spot on with the teenage wit and sarcasm, the emotional incompetence and the struggle of being loyal to your parents even when they are crushingly embarrassing. There is a scene towards the end of the novel when Toby, Nathan’s blind musical prodigy best friend, jumps up (carefully, because he’s blind) onto the roof of Nathan’s car. They are stuck in a traffic jam, caused by Nathan’s car stalling due to old age, and are being assaulted by a barrage of horns and insults. Toby stands on the roof of the offending vehicle and with his cane (remember that he’s blind) he begins to conduct the bleating horns. This is one of those scenes within a novel that you never forget. It’s brilliant, funny, poignant, all the things a memorable scene should be and it’s entirely representative of what this novel is all about.
I was a bit nervous about reading this novel, despite also being excited to have received it. I was concerned that it might be overly scientific, given that Nathan’s father is a physicist and the subject matter is all about kids who are gifted and geniuses. It does lean heavily into physics, but in an entirely accessible way, and I have to say that I simply do not understand physics at all, but I still wasn’t overwhelmed by the content of this novel and the inclusion of so much physics did nothing to detract from my enjoyment of the story. I can’t say I learnt anything physics related, my brain just seems to refuse the subject as if it’s a completely different language, but I sailed along happily just absorbing the details within the context they were intended.
After Nathan had his accident and his new memory skills emerged, Dominic Smith began to include throughout the text at key moments somewhat random facts that Nathan had memorised. Yet their randomness was very much by design; each ‘fact’ was directly linked to an emotion Nathan was feeling within that moment, ready for you to decode. I thoroughly enjoyed how Dominic did this. It was clever and complimentary and really stood out to me as a unique little ‘extra touch’.
To finish up with, I want to share this line, one of my favourite from the entire novel:
‘The night felt cracked open, alive with possibility.’
How divine. So much said with so little words, but like I said above, a literary artist. Dominic Smith is firmly cemented in as one of my favourite authors. After two exquisite reads, I have full certainty now that any novel of his that I pick up I am sure to enjoy. I highly recommend this novel to readers who appreciated stories about life, family relationships, friendship, love and the universe. It has all of this and more. It’s also set in 1987 and has some pretty cool 80s moments that fellow children from that era will appreciate.
Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of The Beautiful Miscellaneous for review.