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Engineer of Fictions

 
A posthumous McMahon novel

When Thomas McMahon, McKay professor of applied mechanics and professor of biology, died unexpectedly of heart failure on Valentine’s Day, 1999, the 55-year-old faculty member left behind an unusually bifurcated oeuvre. On the one hand were three patents and more than 60 scientific publications marking a precocious academic career: by the time the University granted him tenure in 1977, he had helped to found the entirely new field of biomechanics. On the other were the three critically acclaimed works of fiction that built and sustained his reputation as an adroit and whimsical novelist.

Following McMahon’s death, relatives discovered among his papers the 30-year-old manuscript of a novel composed while he was a graduate student at MIT. Now, after collaboration among his family, his agent, and a new publishing house, McMahon’s posthumous novel Ira Foxglove is on shelves for the first time.

Courtesy Brook Street Press

The title character of McMahon’s early foray into extended fiction is an inventor immured in a dark Cambridge house after a heart attack (a conceit some close readers have adduced as evidence that the author secretly anticipated his own heart problem). Ira’s wife, finding his new lifestyle unbearably dour, has walked out on him; she sends him surly postcards from London, which he diligently affixes to a bulletin board in his kitchen. Eventually emerging from his cockroach-ridden catacomb, he decides to travel to Europe, visiting his daughter (at Parisian mime school), his wife, and her new paramour. And, perhaps because this is a McMahon novel, a jet into Heathrow isn’t the transportation at hand. Ira proceeds to England via Iceland in a Goodyear blimp piloted by a crackpot businessman named Neptune. In Paris, he invents an artificial heart made from a tomato, finding a solution to his own health problems and ultimately reuniting his family.

It’s the sort of eccentric plot McMahon fans have come to expect. Principles of American Nuclear Chemistry: A Novel, published in 1970, the year McMahon finished graduate school, intertwines its narrator’s high-school coming-of-age story with the tense interpersonal dynamics of the wartime Los Alamos laboratory. McKay’s Bees, a comic novel published nine years later, gives an entirely fictional account of Gordon McKay, the benefactor of McMahon’s Harvard chair, as a West-bound New Englander working to earn a fortune through beekeeping. In McMahon’s 1987 Loving Little Egypt, which won the American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Rosenthal Award, a semi-blind physics student in the early 1920s discovers how to rig free long-distance telephone connections and uses the technology to form a network of blind people. William Randolph Hearst, fearing subversion, enlists the help of Thomas Edison to track down the blind vandal. At one point in the novel, McMahon describes Edison’s conception of memory as particles: “Arcing through the air, they would find a brain to alight upon and lived there for as long as harmony remained in that brain. They would join the swarms of memory particles already present, some of which might be very old, having been transmitted to the brain before birth by the parents. The man capable of great inventions owed his ideas to memory swarms of the highest quality and greatest vigor.”

McMahon’s prose is filled with similar blends of fanciful improvisation and scrupulously explained processes. His narratives delight so fully in the minutiae of their imagined worlds, it’s somehow no surprise that, according to his daughter Elizabeth, he was able to charm his young children to bed with off-the-cuff absurdist stories.

This imaginative reflex bridged the gap between his career as a novelist and his work as a scientist. Like many of his characters, he was an inventor. The field of study he helped to create, biomechanics, analyzes biological motion through an engineer’s mechanical understanding, and it enabled him to take on an eclectic series of projects. In the scientific context, he’s best known today for co-designing Harvard’s optimized indoor track, since replicated at three other sites, and for his published research on the “Jesus Christ lizard,” which can sprint upright over the surface of water. Within the last five years of his life, he garnered patents for an athletic traction shoe and a garment designed to help prevent hip injuries among the frail elderly by redirecting impact energy from exposed bone to the flesh that surrounds it.

Still, McMahon’s colleagues, whether literary or scientific, say they knew him best as a self-effacing man with a strong sense of humor. More than one alluded to the "simple farmer" image he cultivated — often confusing new acquaintances, who soon realized it masked incredible perspicacity and a sometimes impish independence. Professor Frederick H. Abernathy, who occupied the office opposite McMahon’s, said his colleague, who would arrive at the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences after a morning of writing, always had a particularly clear desktop. "I asked him, ‘How do you keep such a clean desk?’" Abernathy remembered, "and he said, ‘I will show you.’" McMahon sifted through the day’s mail, one item at a time. A laboratory equipment catalog went straight into the wastepaper basket. So did an unopened envelope from University Hall. "I said, ‘Tom, that’s University Hall!’" According to Abernathy, McMahon was unconcerned. "I have no business with them," the writer explained. "If they really have business with me, they will phone later."

Ira Foxglove, when rediscovered, was a combination of typed pages and handwritten notes. It had two endings. Harriet Wasserman, McMahon’s agent for Loving Little Egypt, enlisted Corlies M. Smith — who has edited Muriel Spark and Thomas Pynchon, among others — to touch up the manuscript. Initially leery, Smith agreed once he realized the novel would require only light editing. Debra Hudak, the novel’s project manager at Brook Street Press, wondered why McMahon had abandoned it at all. "It was so complete," she said, "and yet he wasn’t finished with it."

It’s been a big year for McMahon’s work. Last fall, the University of Chicago Press reissued his previously published novels in paperback, cementing his reputation. He never topped the bestseller lists, but his fiction has assembled a devoted cadre of readers and, in some cases, writers. “When I hit a wall,” the novelist Sue Miller said, “Tom is one of the people whose prose I turn to.”

Such praise is impressive for a scientist who spent every afternoon working with students and every evening in his lab, dining on a candy bar in between. But according to his sister Jean Humez, herself a writer, the orientation toward science and fiction was in his blood: his father was a physical chemist, while his mother was interested in literature. "I think she conveyed to the kids how exciting words were," Humez said. "[Tom] was always interested in creative writing." Even so, she never expected her scientific brother to publish a novel. "I was surprised," she explained. "He played his cards very close to his chest."