Long For This World 

One of fiction's virtues is its ability to know the world in ways that science cannot (or has yet to) uncover. Much of the plot in Michael Byers' first novel Long For This World revolves around a disease of Byers' own creation that causes premature aging in children. By a coincidence straight out of any book publisher's fantasy, some actual real-life scientists discovered a genetic cause for a similar phenomenon this past April. Though there is bound to be some discussion over the prescience of Byers' scientific imagination, let's hope that it doesn't overshadow the novel's more important achievement as a many-hued portrait of millennial America's emotional landscape.

Henry Moss is a doctor who's set up his scientific shop in the medical cul-de-sac of Hickman disorder, a genetic hiccup that accelerates the mutation rate of cell replication and kills affected children as teenagers. Only a few dozen children ever have the disorder at the same time worldwide, causing a maddeningly slow pace of scientific understanding. That is, until Dr. Moss stumbles upon the radiantly healthy older brother of one of his patients. Turns out the sibling has a corrective mutation in his DNA. Moss believes the proteins his body is producing might successfully treat the Hickman kids, as well as anybody else who'd like to stave off aging.

Oh yeah, and if he can produce a treatment that works, he'll be pretty damn wealthy. The setting for Byers' novel is dot-com era Seattle, so Dr. Moss and his family are acutely aware of the money growing on trees all around: Amazon, Microsoft, Kozmo, and a zeitgeist of infinite possibility are all setting pretty lofty expectations. Why not a vaccine for eternal youth?

Byers is smart to keep his prose nearly invisible and let the characters drive the story. Everyone in the novel is interesting, and well worth getting to know: Dr. Moss, his wife (a Austrian émigré), their two adolescent children, the Hickman patients (who are bravely characterized) and their families. The novel even finds the time to make its patent lawyers compelling. The omniscient voice takes Updike's brand of intelligence about individuals' competing motivations and cultures it for use in a social canvas not attempted since The Corrections. Buy it and read. SETH COLTER WALLS

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