Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Pg. 69: "The Genius Factory"

The first thing that struck me about David Plotz's The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank was that the title undersells the story.

"Curious?" This story is bizarre.

From the book's official website:
The Genius Factory is the story of the most radical human-breeding experiment in American history: the Nobel Prize sperm bank. It opened to notorious fanfare in 1980, and for two decades, women flocked to the bank from all over the country to choose a sperm donor from its roster of Nobel-laureate scientists, mathematical prodigies, successful businessmen, and star athletes. But the bank quietly closed its doors in 1999--its founder dead, its confidential records sealed, and the fate of its children and donors unknown. While researching Nobelist William Shockley, a donor to the bank, award-winning Slate columnist David Plotz kept coming across references to the Repository. He realized that no one knew how this audacious venture had turned out. So in early 2001, Plotz set out to solve the mystery of the Nobel Prize sperm bank. [read more here]
I asked David to subject his book to the "page 69 test." Here is what he reported:
I’ll say this much for my page 69: It does toss you right into the middle of the action: A mother thinks she has discovered her son’s long-lost sperm donor, and schemes about how to get him to acknowledge paternity. The Genius Factory is full of lost fathers, obsessed mothers, and curious children, so in this sense, 69 is a representative page. But 69 doesn’t even mention The Genius Factory’s central subject: an eccentric California gazillionaire’s audacious effort to breed superchildren by establishing a sperm bank for geniuses. Page 69 wouldn’t tip you off that Donor Coral, Samantha, and Alton were all involved in the weirdest human genetic engineering experiment in American history.

That’s my rational reaction to page 69. My visceral reaction is that I’m embarrassed by it, and by two words in particular. The passage comes at a point in the book where I’m trying to race through a lot of very complicated events. Too many events, too quickly, apparently. It feels too much like a soap-opera plot summary. (Samantha discovers that Dr. Jeremy Taft, the “celebrated, talented Miami plastic surgeon” is the genius sperm donor father of her prodigy son Alton…) “Celebrated, talented”—oh, how those adjectives make me cringe today! I don’t think I’m self-delusional when I say that the rest of The Genius Factory is funnier and sharper than page 69.

Page 69, The Genius Factory

After a year and dozens of failed letters, she uncovered a lead. In late 2000, a few months before she saw my article on Slate, she got an unusual reply to one of her letters. A Dr. Jeremy wrote back saying, “It’s not me, but I think I know who it is: Dr. Jeremy H. Taft.” Samantha followed the clue. She surreptitiously checked out Jeremy H. Taft. He was a celebrated, talented Miami plastic surgeon, and he was a perfect match for Donor Coral. He had an interest in math, significant musical ability, and the correct number of kids of his own (three). He had written a book, just like Donor Coral. Still Samantha was ambivalent, because Jeremy H. Taft was sleazy. He had a huge practice, largely because he advertised his services on city buses, on billboards, and in magazines. On the other hand, Samantha discovered he ran a scholarship program for needy kids.

Whatever he was, he was definitely the right guy. He was the right age, had the right hair and eye color, the right marital status. He even looked like the picture of Coral she had seen. His personality fit. A man who would erect a billboard of himself advertising face-lifts was the kind of man who would go on television to brag about donating sperm.

Samantha told me she had written Taft two letters, and so far received no reply. But she wasn’t sure she had sent them to the right address, and she wondered if the letters had been vague. She had also left a couple of phone messages at his office that had gone unreturned, but again, she suspected they had been too opaque. He might not have understood the communications because she’d never said straight out that she believed he was Donor Coral and had plenty of supporting evidence.

Samantha revealed this to me right at the time Alton and Tom started corresponding. She asked for my advice. She was sure Jeremy Taft was Coral, she said, and she believed he would be glad to hear from her and Alton, as long as he was sure they were legit and not seeking money. So how could she reach him? She decided to write a much bolder, clearer letter.
Many thanks to David for his input.

So page 69 doesn't work very well for this book--damn you, Marshall McLuhan!-- but not to worry: click here to read an excerpt from The Genius Factory.

The Genius Factory attracted a lot of critical praise.

"The Genius Factory is a riveting account of a truly bizarre episode in American history--Robert Graham's crusade to save the human race. David Plotz has written a superb book about the quest for genius, and, ultimately, family."

--Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point and Blink

"One part detective story, one part cultural snapshot, and one part just plain weird, the tale of California's infamous Nobel Prize Sperm Bank is unexpectedly enthralling. David Plotz gives us the science, the business, the ambitions, and most especially the people: from founders to donors to mothers and children. A marvelous and thoroughly engaging read."

--Atul Gawande, author of Complications

And there are many more similarly effusive endorsements and reviews for the book here.

That bounty of praise for the book will be no surprise to regular readers of Slate where David, having been there since its launch in 1996, is now Deputy Editor.

Currently, David is "Blogging the Bible": reading the Bible, he writes, "for the first time as an adult," and blogging about it as he goes along. Click here to browse the complete Blogging the Bible series.

Bargain-conscious book buyers are in luck: the paperback edition of The Genius Factory came out yesterday.

Click here to visit the official website of The Genius Factory.

Previous "page 69 tests":
Michael Allen Dymmoch, White Tiger
Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Civilizing the Enemy
Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Libby Fischer Hellmann, A Shot To Die For
Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm
Bob Harris, Prisoner of Trebekistan
Elaine Flinn, Deadly Collection
Louise Welsh, The Bullet Trick
Gregg Hurwitz, Last Shot
Martha Powers, Death Angel
N.M. Kelby, Whale Season
Mario Acevedo, The Nymphos of Rocky Flats
Dominic Smith, The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre
Simon Blackburn, Lust
Linda L. Richards, Calculated Loss
Kevin Guilfoile, Cast of Shadows
Ronlyn Domingue, The Mercy of Thin Air
Shari Caudron, Who Are You People?
Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
John Sutherland, How to Read a Novel
Steven Miles, Oath Betrayed
Alan Brown, Audrey Hepburn's Neck
Richard Dawkins, The Ancestor's Tale

--Marshal Zeringue