Lulu Miller’s expansive tale is a worth-whale read


David Starr Jordan discovered a fifth of the creatures we call “fish.” A full fifth. That’s thousands of specimens, years of painstaking work, all to better categorize the disorganized world we live in.

Author Lulu Miller was, understandably, intrigued by one man’s determination to sort out nature’s chaos, and it’s that intrigue that makes this book such an arresting read. Miller’s combination of clear writing and artful, emotional description creates one of those novels that, once read, you compulsively recommend to everyone you know.

After all, how could Jordan recover after losing all physical record of his life’s work? How did Miller find the strength in Jordan’s story to beat suicidal ideation? And — whoops! — was Jordan actually a murderer, in addition to the father of American eugenics?

It is incredibly difficult to put this book in a single category. It spurns genre’s borders even more than it does taxonomy’s. “Why Fish Don’t Exist” is part biography, part memoir, part nature guidebook and part philosophical crisis. The best definition I have is “nonfiction,” as it oscillates between investigating Jordan and the deadly impact of his ideology to exploring the author’s personal struggle with suicidal ideation and the existential question of whether any of us truly matter in a chaotic world. This may not be the book for readers who need a clear objective out of their novels — or for those sensitive to whiplash. Where else can you get sentences like, “…what do you do after letting go of hope? Where do you go?” and “Your mom? Absolutely. A fish,” in the same story? But regardless of category, it is exceptionally well-written. Miller’s comedic and dramatic timing is impeccable, with a narrative voice so clear you would think you’re listening to her at her other job — science reporting for NPR — while reading. Here’s a taste:

“If fish don’t exist, what else don’t we know about our world? What other truths are waiting behind the lines we draw over nature? What other categories are about to cave in? Could clouds be animate? Who knows. On Neptune, it rains diamonds; it really does.”

The moral of this story? Undefined; perhaps it is that chaos and disorder are inevitable, that black-and-white divisions can only get you so far before the earthquake comes. What I can tell you for sure is that you will take something new away from this book. It may be hope, it may be a sense of loss, or at the very least, it may be just some fun facts about fish and their nonexistence.

What, you thought I would spoil why fish don’t exist? No way; I’m still grieving. Do you understand how hard it is to describe NSERL without calling it “the fish-scale building”? All is lost.