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Lillian Gilbreth, Fictional Character

A noted novelist, Tom McCarthy, has just published a new novel—which wouldn't have much to do with things Gilbreth except that Lillian Gilbreth is a significant supporting character, along with the Gilbreths' motion study work.

Well, actually... a character named Dr. Lillian M. Gilbreth is in the novel, but while she is mostly recognizable as our favorite mother and engineer, the details of her life and work are somewhat misrepresented. So the capsule review is Yay! for recognizing and remembering her, but Arrgh! for presenting her so curiously it's probably an honor that should have been skipped.

Let's back up. McCarthy's novel, The Making of Incarnation, is very loosely about the making of a CGI-dripping space movie (Incarnation) in the model of Star Wars, and even more so about the depths of the technology (mostly motion capture) used to make such films in the current era. And depths they are: any Cal Tech undergrad will be thrilled with the technical details and terms. Readers who attended lesser technical schools... may be lost very quickly. A large amount of the novel reads like a feature article for a high-end science magazine; my impression was Tom Clancy Writes a Tech Novel. (Instead of his usual military novel that includes complete weapons manuals etc.)

It is, in pretty much every respect, a science fiction novel. However, in these days of high literary aspiration and disdain for that moldy old literary ghetto, very few name writers who issue novels that would have once been shelved with Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke allow the term to come anywhere near their Booker Prize-candidate works. (McCarthy has been shortlisted for several of these very prestigious awards.) Thus, works from Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale to most of Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem's books are literature, not sc**nc* f*ct**n. And here we have what is all but an archetypal sf novel, but presented as a new entry in the distinguished capital-L category instead. But that's something of a side discussion that's best taken up by the smoldering rage of the noted science fiction and fantasy writers I know.

Being an extraordinarily literary work from a literature-award nominee and a major literary publisher, it is of course written in literary style. There are various ways to describe styles such as this, but my touchstone is none other than science fiction writer and generally incredibly insightful and erudite polymath Isaac Asimov. He was aware of his own faults as a writer—a very, very plain style, mainly—and he once described the difference between the ends of the spectrum as "plate glass writing" —such as his style, which had no color of its own but clearly showed the story beneath—and "stained glass writing," in which the language and style and writing is often the main character of the work, with the story more of a framework to hold it.

I read and admire both styles. My preference is for very clear writing telling a superb story, but I can very much appreciate the best in literary writing. Both Atwood and Chabon, for example, tell fabulously shaped stories of the first rank, and in language so gorgeous it's not uncommon to hit a sentence or paragraph that literally makes me gasp, pause and re-read it just for the pleasure of doing so. But neither author ever lets their deft and artful style and language-play get in the way of telling the extraordinary story of Offred or Meyer Landsman.

When I get a chapter into a novel and realize I've spent more time waltzing with the style than following the story, I often apply the rule of yet another science fiction writer of my one-time acquaintance, Steven Brust; Brust's Law boils down to "Life is too short for bad books." To brust a book—that's "broost," by the way—is to toss it without finishing it, and without apologies to the author, fellow readers, the library or the thrift store to which it is donated. There's about a year of online discussion behind the nuances of the Law, but we'll skip onwards here.

I would have brusted The Making of Incarnation within the first two chapters, returning it for the next eager library patron, had I not the need to see how McCarthy addressed Lillian Gilbreth. (I was alerted to her presence in the novel by a grandchild of Frank and Lillian, and of course instantly went to my library's hold page to snag a copy, less than a month after its issue.) With all due apology to Mr. McCarthy and all literary writers, I found his style nearly unreadable, especially when the vocabulary was tomorrow's jargon in MIT and Cal Tech research labs. It is, beneath the smothering style and language use, almost impossible to follow the actual story line. Indeed, the story seems to be something of a sketch, almost an afterthought, just a means to use this bewildering combination of distant third-person narrative and technojargon—and use it to Present Ideas.

And something of one more aside before we get to the main topic, here. The more or less focus of the novel, as said, is a hyper-advanced space action movie called Incarnation, loosely described as something like Star Wars, with super-science space ships and galactic princesses and so forth. McCarthy spends a fair amount of time and space (see what I did there?) outlining the movie from a script and production viewpoint, describing characters and the main spaceship and the techno-action in some detail. Now... I am willing to credit McCarthy with perhaps having a little fun with the sf crowd, especially the media/film sf crowd, from which he and his publisher so strenuously wish to distance themselves. But then again, given his somewhat tin ear on other points, I suspect Mr. McCarthy has never seen, or at least much appreciated, a Star Wars movie or any of its many kin (he references recent films such as Interstellar as well). His description of the plot and characters—which his own characters are using extraordinary, bleeding-edge technology to make as real as possible—is that of a high-school student who dislikes science fiction, has never seen any of these movies, and whose research was three quick paragraphs from Wikipedia and disdainful conversation with fellow sf-haters. I myself am indifferent about all the Star Wars movies, despite having seen the original some 13 times in its first year of release, and my sf writer acquaintances will likely be quick to categorize McCarthy, this novel and especially these clumsy passages of 'movie treatment' as the ineptitude of someone who wants to play in the science fiction sandbox without either the grounding to do so nor any wish to get sand in their socks. (If that's too remote and encapsulated for you, dear non-sf-reader, imagine it as a parallel with an author who wants to write the ultimate gay romance novel without knowing anyone who is gay, trying strenuously to avoid any taint of the "romance" genre and doing everything to establish that they themselves are not and never will be gay.)

The TL;DR summary here—that's "[Your Post Was] Too Long; Didn't Read [It]"—is that, again with all due apologies, Mr. McCarthy's novel is nothing I would read, recommend or think of in any terms but as another international literary prize lottery ticket. Best of luck to him. Seriously. We all have empty spaces on our mantels holding dreams.

But we're here because McCarthy chose Lillian Gilbreth as his make-real anchor for a major part of the story's development and dilemmas, and we're kind of all about the Gilbreths here, so let's turn to that aspect.

To summarize the reason for Lillian's presence, a great deal of the novel is taken up with ultra-advanced motion capture technology that allows filmmakers to use scanty sets, stand-in body actors and massive CGI to create "sci fi"—*retch*— worlds of dazzling complexity, with the named actors merely contributing spoken lines and scans of their faces to be pasted on the CGI characters. (McCarthy's not too wrong in presenting this wryly; it is where movies have been increasingly headed.) In wishing to patent some of the new techniques, the team is feverishly researching prior patent art that might invalidate the claims. (McCarthy has long asides about 1930s actors who successfully defended copyright infringement on technical grounds, decades later, and the like.)

Which leads, of course, all the way back to Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and their pioneering use of photos and then film to record worker motions in the endless quest to find The One Best Way to do every task. So one of the main characters begins to deeply investigate the Gilbreths, looking for hooks that might drag down their present-day patent claims.

Well, not "the Gilbreths," exactly, since the work was all Lillian's, with Frank's unschooled and inept help in some early days.

What, you didn't know that?

It is of course both fair and common game to weave real persons into novels, whether they are carefully used in their proper place and with historical authenticity, or turned into Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. We can enjoy the latter because we are pretty sure Abe wasn't a vampire hunter, and separate the fun fiction from the careful framing facts. President Ulysses Grant shows up in every post Civil War setting, especially TV shows from The Wild Wild West to Hell on Wheels, and is often bent whichever way that week's episode demands, with little respect paid to authenticity. We might not be quite as familiar with Grant, but the misuse is either inconsequential or obviously fictionalized. The poster boy for this treatment is probably Nikola Tesla, who has been slowly elevated from being the fearsomely brilliant inventor of AC power (and, honestly, very little else) to being the secret/suppressed inventor of every technology to come for the next century and a half, possibly even an alien or time traveler. Most people probably have very little idea which stories about Tesla are true and which are the creation of his goshwoggled fans and fictioneers. (Hint: they're mostly the latter.)

So when McCarthy takes a real figure, Dr. Lillian M. Gilbreth, and installs her in his literate technothriller mystery, there is the problem that she is—unfortunately—not as well-remembered a figure as she should be, and very few readers are going to be able to distinguish her real history from McCarthy's inventions and changes. Many will carry away a very distorted notion of not only her, but Frank Gilbreth and the nature of their groundbreaking work together.

To summarize the biography of Lillian Gilbreth, fictional character [McCarthy, 2021], she was a motion studies pioneer who used film, finger lights and wire motion models (of which she made uncounted hundreds) to advance the vague notions of her short, fat, uneducated husband, who had a few inspiring ideas in that direction. She then unlocked the secrets of the universe and stored them in box #808 of her vast archives, a box which was then whisked away to Indiana Jones' government warehouse (or Lafayette, Indiana) as too dangerous for mortal men to possess. But she continued to use the film-based processes for years after Frank was kind enough to get out of the way, as part of her distinguished career helping, among others, the handkerchief girls of Hermann, Aukam.

Where to begin. How about... nowhere in this sad mess of nothing-trues? Except to say that McCarthy, in structuring his tale of lost secrets and pointillist, bead-mosaic writing, managed to turn Lillian into an unrecognizable figure, the very sister of Prometheus, and complete the reduction of Frank to an annoying roadblock of no importance.

I have read perhaps three novels that centered on a subject in which I have a high degree of expertise, and like most in that position I could clearly see the lines of the author's research; more to the point, I could see the unexplored edges, the limitations of real understanding and often pinpoint the exact page from which a character's exposition was taken. It's kind of fun to be there, and it's been even more fun to needle the author a little about it. I suppose, in a long career, I've written researched things in which a real SME—subject matter expert, to use this week's jargon—would find equal hilarity at my obviously cribbed knowledge, and I'd never try to bluff my way out of any such challenge.

I have to get in one of my favorite stories about this. Sometime in the 1940s or 50s, a famous editor—maybe Bennett Cerf—had an interview with a potential author whose field was... oh, say, 12th century Chinese porcelain. Not wishing to seem too stupid, Cerf quickly read up on the topic and felt he acquitted himself well during the interview. As the expert/author was leaving, though, he turned to Cerf and asked, "So, tell me, Bennett... what time today did you read my encyclopedia article on Chinese porcelain?"

In reading McCarthy's novel, I can easily spot his influences, down to the likely chapter each facet of Lillian, Frank and the family history was taken. (Quite a bit from plain old Cheaper by the Dozen.) To his credit, though, it seems very clear that he visited the Purdue archives and read at least some small sampling of the unpublished correspondence, finding passages that support his fanciful fabulation of the fictional Lillian. (Some could be invented, too, as well—but that I don't recognize the specific source of most of this correspondence is still a point to McCarthy's credit.) For one thing, a character makes such a journey to Purdue and some spooky story twists aside (such as being thrown out when she gets Too Close to The Truth), it reads very much like an autobiographical account; he was there.

However... all of the quotes from Lillian's correspondence are from letters written to... her sister Vera.

Lillian had five surviving sisters, none named (or even nick/family-named) Vera.

It is baffling to me why McCarthy would go to great lengths with the material, and then assign it, pointlessly, to a fictional correspondent. Why not just her sister Elinor? Or her father or mother? Or one of her professional colleagues, some of whom are quite distinguished names that would add a keen gloss to the telling?

In the same way, McCarthy weaves in details that are well below the casual-research, Wikipedia-at-midnight level. He notes the couple had thirteen children... "of whom twelve survived." Both halves are true, as far as the narrow statement goes, and the first part not widely known, but really, there were only eleven survivors. It feels like McCarthy missed the turn there, following the facts off a cliff.

And finally, as hinted above, McCarthy completely and totally rewrites the history of Frank and Lillian's collaboration on motion studies. In his telling, Frank was that short, fat, uneducated bricklayer who had developed some monkey-sense ideas... but all development and refinement of those ideas was Dr. Lillian M. Gilbreth, Ph.D., gifted psychologist and trained literary writer, etc. She developed the film methods of motion study, the refinement of finger lights to track motions, and created uncounted hundreds of wire motion models now scattered across multiple archives. Frank... well, Frank finally just died and got out of her way.

It is fairly clear to me that McCarthy read only, or focused on, the late, feminist-revisionism biographies of Lillian and took them at face value, with their arguments that Frank contributed little, suppressed her real abilities, blocked her career advancement and nefariously saddled her with continual pregnancy. Whether from that influence or his own choice to structure this oddly solo protean figure he could praise and then marionette through his complex narrative, it's not clear. But the Lillian of his novel is a Vampire Hunter, a Future Space Alien, not an efficiency engineer; she is a noble Jeanne d'Arc or Marianne, not a wife, mother, partner or acolyte of a brilliant man who was smart enough to include her on his journey into new lands and see her begin to surpass him even before his premature death.

And again, my concern here is not that McCarthy has written a novel—even a vastly artistic, style-driven, prize-seeking novel—or that he was not doggedly accurate about Lillian, Frank or their work. It's that he's created a high-profile portrait of a real person that is somewhere between highly fictionalized and borderline nonsense, and the real person underneath is both important and worthy of better remembrance... and unknown enough that most readers will not be able to sort the thin reality from McCarthy's wild fabulizing. This is a 21st Century example of Mencken's bathtub hoax, and could become just as cemented into the wall of Everybody Knows.

My only comfort here, as one of a relatively small number of writers seeking to fully restore Lillian, Frank, the entire family and all their contributions to our modern world to a much wider understanding, is that McCarthy's novel, prima facie, is just too unappealing to find a very wide audience that will be misinfluenced... and I don't really care what the literary judges might believe.

The punch line, to me, is this: McCarthy could have woven in Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and their work with fanatical attention to historical accuracy... and his story would have worked just as well. Just as with the revisionist biographers, there was simply no need to turn either partner into something they were not; the reality is fabulous and enlightening enough.

Something I hope to tell the world someday soon, on at least as large a stage as McCarthy's.