Why Fish Don’t Exist by Lulu Miller (2020)

Kimberly sends Jane a book with the message, “this is a fast read.” Hahaha, she’s joking.  Jane comes back, “you could spend a lifetime with this book.” And so it goes, if fish don’t exist, what else do we have wrong? 

KC: Lulu Miller is a scientific journalist who found herself hiding away at a friend’s house after a break up with a man she loved over her impromptu kissing of a woman on a whim. While nursing her heartache she poured herself into the study of a man named David Starr Jordan, which would inform her writing of the book Why Fish Don’t Exist. The publisher’s summary describes: “Starr was a taxonomist who was possessed with bringing order to the natural world. In time, he would be credited with discovering nearly a fifth of the fish known to humans in his day. But the more of the hidden blueprint of life he uncovered, the harder the universe seemed to try to thwart him. His specimen collections were demolished by lightning, by fire, and eventually earthquake yet he persistently rebuilt them each time. At first, Miller took Jordan for a foola cautionary tale in hubris, or denial. But as her own life slowly unraveled, she began to wonder about him. Perhaps instead he was a model for how to go on when all seemed lost. What she unearthed about his life would transform her understanding of history, morality, and the world beneath her feet. Part biography, part memoir, part scientific adventure, Why Fish Don’t Exist reads like a fable about how to persevere in a world where chaos will always prevail.” I fell head over heels for this oddly remarkable book.

JAS: I, too, was completely struck with the clever connection that Miller made between the enormous philosophical subject of order and chaos and her devastating breakdown in her own personal life. At first I thought it odd that she was thrown into emotional chaos when her husband was aghast and rejected her for affectionate licking another woman’s neck. Instead of wondering about herself and the desires that led her to such an act, she was preoccupied with the chaos the break up caused in her life and desperate to restore order. Hence, her priority on following Starr’s pursuit of order in his self-induced chaotic life and writing a fabulous book. I was as drawn into her story as much by her writing as I was with the unusual nature of her subject. Every paragraph was engaging, egging me on to join her in an effort to restore order that felt more and more personal. I’ve known the overwhelming feelings of chaos and the longing for order she wrote about. “Chaos is the only sure thing in the world…a smart human accepts this truth…a smart human does not try to fight it…” and yet we do.  How did you come about finding this author?

KC: She wrote a short story for Catapult Magazine called Me and Jane about hermit crabs in love, that is up there as one of my favorite pieces of fiction of all time. I would read ANYTHING she wrote because I am absolutely captivated by how she is able to marry scientific fact with literary narrative in a way that makes it interesting. Miller was raised in a world of science and her father was a scientist. Very early on in the book, she recalls his joie de vivre and talks about how he would do these crazy things like jump into lakes from cliffs and how he had a very devil may care attitude about life. To him, life was full of facts that provided a security blanket myth that order was possible, but it was also full of chaos, that could strike randomly and completely derail that order. So he taught his daughter to take risks and live life to the fullest. Which she obviously did by kissing that woman and threw her own life into a temporary chaos.

JAS: And as she’s figuring her own life, she soothes herself researching and writing about Starr. He mirrored the chaos she was fleeing, the search for order. From a very young age, an age fraught with distress, Starr was obsessed with fish and managed to catalog a vast scope of specimens, becoming well known for his endeavors. The fact that his collection was completely ruined three times and that he persisted in rebuilding them, was a trait that gave her comfort as she processed the chaos induced by her husband’s rejection.  Through ruin and failure, Starr still sought order in his work.

KC: It says a lot about living for the present and not basing all your value on the future. But there is also a balance that is needed with that notion.

JAS: Well, more to the point, not expecting things to proceed in one’s life in an orderly way. People have written profound words about things falling apart – Yeats’ The Second Coming poem for one. Paying attention to the seesaw up and down of order and chaos over which we have no control can be very liberating and comforting. I remember when I was a young mother with little kids; I would be constantly on the go. By the end of the night, I would feel completely overwhelmed, as if there just weren’t enough hours in the day to keep things together and I still had so much to do. I cultivated an interesting ritual then. I used to go a nearby supermarket and just walk the aisles. The sight of all these perfectly arranged and categorized products lent me an odd sense of inner peace. I think studying Starr did a similar thing for Miller. She was able to find some calmness in her self by following his persistence effort to categorize fish in the face of repeated upheavals.

KC: Yes, and then toward the end of the book, we learn that it has become a pretty well known fact, that fish aren’t really a unique species. After years of research and study, of which Starr contributed massively, it came to light that fish resemble mammals on the inside. Yet the world was not going to be suddenly told that fish are no longer fish. The world was – is – still stuck with the idea of fish being real, in the world. And that brings about a thought for me that this book is also about finding out who you really are and going for it, because there are no guarantees about anything, so you might as well find out who you are and what you want to do, and take comfort in the simple enjoying the hell out of it regardless of what it garners you in the bigger scope of things.

JAS: Ha! Well, it raises the issue of finding out who you are may not be as different as you might have thought. And, even if the world persists in a particular identity for you, it may be wrong. Identity may be as false as it appears to be solidly true.  That’s a conundrum that lends itself to the play between chaos and order in the psyche! 

KC: Yes.

JAS:  I’d like to talk a bit more about Miller’s writing. You mentioned earlier about how you felt about reading anything she wrote after reading her short story, Jane and I. I was also completely captivated by her voice, so conversational, insightful and easy to apply to physical and psychological realities.  

“Imagine seeing thirty years of your life undone in one instant. Imagine whatever it is you do all day, whatever it is you care about, whatever you foolishly pick and prod at each day, hoping, against all signs that suggest otherwise, that it matters. Imagine finding all of the progress you have made on that endeavor smashed and eviscerated at your feet.”

Earthquake or marriage?  Her style of ‘a foot in two worlds’ drew me into a feeling of excitement as she ventured into a world of research so unknown to me to talk about a subject, order and chaos, so close to my heart. Why Fish Don’t Exist reads like fiction. It took me awhile to realize that Starr was a real person. David Starr Jordan really was the president of Stanford with the history she writes about.  Her way of inviting readers into a poetic, femininely imaginative investigation of facts converted an esoteric subject, often presented as a dry, academic and linear biography, into a meaningful, personally relevant story with a universal truth sticks like non-fiction. She had me at the title. I wanted to know and I wanted to know why she thought I’d want to know.  If a fish wasn’t a fish, what else did we have wrong? And what can I do to counter the chaos of not knowing what I know?  Now that’s a subject I love. 

KC: Yes, and we are seeing this more feminine lens more and more. Remember we recently said this about the movie Honeyland, a documentary about a woman surviving by harvesting honey in the wilds of Macedonia that we didn’t “watch” like a true story but more like a dramatic movie. With Why Fish Don’t Exist, I had the sense of being in a fairy tale, with Miller sitting alone in a tower spinning gold from straw.

JAS: I’d love to see more reporting like this. Showing how our fairy tale human imaginations enhance real life, isn’t an isolator but a connector. This might be a good time to mention My Octopus Teacher, another testimony to a pursuit of order after an emotional breakdown that leads to a renewal of spirit and relationship – and a fabulous film as fabulous as Miller’s book. 

KC: Me, too. And I think the genre of Creative Nonfiction has held a very beautiful position for this kind of writing that excites me and has become very loved. Weaving narrative beauty into “telling it like it is” leaves room for morsels of magic. And metaphor. I loved the end of this book when Lulu goes to Hawaii with a woman she will end up falling in love with. Unbeknownst to her, both she and this woman end up snorkeling way out in the waves at the same time. Lulu is underwater when she encounters the sight of this woman underneath the water as well.

JAS: And there is that unexpected moment when she sees her friend tug off her bikini bottom underwater and frog-leg away from her.  In her own words, “I knew then I was done. I never want a life without this person.” It wasn’t a life she’s envisioned but it is the life she wants. She broke through the category in her head. “Saw the world for wht it is, a place of infinite possibility. All categories imaginary. It was the best feeling in the world.”

KC: Yes, in the same way I feel when I look at Gustave Courbet’s painting The Origin of the World. Lulu finds her true self and comes to claim her life’s dance between chaos and order in the very same place that Starr found his.

JAS: It also reminds me that we have to keep opening up to complexity and nuance as integral to the whole. Simplification and stereotypes are losing their influence, as is judging people based on appearances or prior knowledge alone but I think Lulu Miller is reinforcing a growing awareness that there’s an underlying similarity amongst humans that’s closer to truth than the identities that separate us.  Stepping back, Why Fish Don’t Exist accepts the rhythm of things falling apart and order being restored as the human backbone of hope. Odd as Starr was, his effort to restore order after chaos wiped him out wasn’t a vertebrae away from Lulu Miller’s. In fact, they ended up in the same book, transmuting shame to belonging.

KC: I love where my thoughts are ending in this conversation. What we think and what we are will never be as true as that which we don’t know that we don’t know. How marvelous!

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