Fittingly for a novel set in late 1920s Russia, Jocelyn Parr’s Uncertain Weights and Measures is obsessed with dialectics: between the state and the individual; between the head and the heart; and between lovers in a dangerous time. The book is narrated by Tatiana, a young scientist whose mentor specializes in the study of cerebellums; their institute’s prized inventory is a collection of brains whose carefully preserved grey matter will hopefully yield the secrets of genius.
At the beginning, Tatiana believes in the link between scientific progress and revolution – an optimistic certainty just waiting to be demolished. The conceit of empirically minded people working earnestly and anxiously under the shadow of ascendant totalitarianism (and with it, anti-intellectualism) is powerful and even timely; Uncertain Weights and Measures also gets ample symbolic and emotional mileage out of Tatiana’s passionate, difficult love affair with Sasha, an artist coping with his own encroaching marginalization.
Again, the romance is conceived dialectically, with Tatiana’s right-brained orientation affected by Sasha’s poetry and creativity. The pair’s meet cute in a book store seconds before it gets bombed is beautifully suggestive – literature and poetry under attack – and the way Parr threads fault lines of competitiveness and resentment into their otherwise desperately codependent relationship hints at the impossibility of true solidarity and intimacy amid such far-reaching upheaval (an authentically tragic theme treated with unsentimental seriousness here).
Beginning with Tatiana’s detailed accounts of her work and extending through its name-checking of real people and events, Uncertain Weights and Measures (which has been shortlisted for a Governor General’s Literary Award) is a heady book. Parr is attempting to blend probing, full-access psychological interiority with sweeping, referential historical realism. There are moments when the ratio feels off, as when the intrigue around the mysterious death of one of Tatiana’s colleagues threatens to trivialize the author’s chosen big-canvas mode.
But flaws borne out of trying to do too much are hugely preferable to the cozy successes of novels that don’t risk anything. Uncertain Weights and Measures goes for it and gets there.