As he rides in the back of the cab, Joe reflects on how quickly his feelings toward Parry have changed. The previous day, Parry represented “the unknown” and was a source of potential “terror.” Now, Joe sees in Parry a pathetic figure whose “inadequacies and emotional cravings rendered him harmless.” Moving on to other thoughts, Joe recalls the scene at Heathrow airport when he picked up Clarissa on the day of the ballooning accident. Joe believes that he might be able to compose an essay about the human smile—many versions of which he saw while waiting on Clarissa’s flight to arrive.
Joe’s attempt to come to terms with Parry’s behavior using observation and analysis is reminiscent of the Scientific Method. Yet, in Joe’s case, such a methodology merely serves to fling Joe swiftly from one way of thinking to another; it provides no ultimate answer. Joe cannot reason his way to a solution to his Parry problem, and so he chooses to abandon the matter altogether, thinking instead about the work that he will do that day.
Joe’s thesis, which he reflects upon as he rides, is that the smile is an evolutionary feature with which infants learn to secure a greater share of parental love. Such an argument will be well received, Joe thinks, because science book editors have largely moved beyond their previous craze, Chaos Theory, and now want nothing but evolutionary psychology, into which Joe’s smile theory neatly fits. As he considers the matter, Joe remembers that Clarissa has “generally taken against the whole project” of evolutionary psychology and finds it to be “rationalism gone berserk.” An infant’s smile matters, in Clarissa’s opinion, because of “the unfolding love” between parent and child.
These paragraphs neatly illustrate the tension between Joe’s rationalism and Clarissa’s more emotional and intuitive way of looking at the world. Both characters were likely correct—a smile is an evolutionary feature, but it does have an important non-scientific meaning—yet neither was willing to give in to the other’s perspective completely. This tension highlights the novel’s determination to show the benefits and limits of both worldviews.
Fully immersed in the memory of their conversation about the human smile, Joe recalls his counter-argument: that by increasing the world’s understanding of a phenomenon, science can increase its appreciation of that phenomenon, as well. He remembers, too, however, how Clarissa claimed that he was misunderstanding her—that she was talking about “love” rather than any particular evolutionary reality. Joe’s ultimate conclusion about the remembered conversation is that the entire argument was actually a veiled examination of “the absence of babies from [their] lives.” Though Clarissa was sincere in her objection to evolutionary psychology’s view of the world, that objection masked in part a deeper sense of loss.
Joe’s belief is that Clarissa’s attitude about the human smile, during their long-ago conversation, was due largely to her obsession with her own childlessness, as was the tenacity with which she insisted that she was being misunderstood. On display in these paragraphs is the potential of obsession to warp one’s responses to the world, as well as the notion that love, an emotional phenomenon, stands apart from the colder realm of science. For Clarissa, an intuitive character, the two have nothing to do with each other.
Arriving at his destination, Joe purchases a book, browses briefly, then returns home. Parry is waiting for him, and Joe chides himself for believing that Parry would “vanish” simply because Joe was “thinking about something else.” Parry insists, falsely, that Joe asked him to wait there, and Joe pushes past him and retreats into his apartment. Once inside, Joe hears the phone ring. He answers, thinking that Clarissa might be calling, only to find Parry on the other end once again. Hiding behind his curtains for a moment, Joe watches Parry before hanging up, turning the ringer off, and “set[ting] the answering machine.” As Parry begins to leave a series of messages, Joe retreats to the phone connected to his fax machine and calls the police.
Joe’s occasional susceptibility to irrational thinking is on full display when he allows himself to forget, however briefly, that Parry exists merely because he wants that to be the case. Once again, Joe the rationalist is unable to maintain such a commitment without an occasional lapse. The curtains featured in these paragraphs, meanwhile, are an important symbol in the novel. Joe uses them in an attempt to veil himself from Parry—to render incomplete the other man’s knowledge.
Reporting to the police a case of “systematic harassment,” Joe is made to answer a series of bureaucratic questions about the specifics of Parry’s behavior. Though Joe tries to take comfort in “having [his] story assimilated into” a crime with which Parry can be charged, he quickly learns that Parry’s behavior is “not a police matter.” That Parry is trying to “convert” Joe, as Joe eventually tells the police officer with whom he speaks, is insufficient to merit an investigation.
Joe cannot rid himself of Parry using the inherently rational mechanism of the State. Indeed, Joe’s attempt to do so is met with irrational bureaucratic inefficiency. Joe is attempting to solve his problem using a reasonable method, but the novel suggests that such a strategy will not be sufficient to thwart Parry’s unreasonable behavior.
Joe returns to his living room and looks out the window again. Though Parry is no longer speaking into a telephone, he is still lingering outside Joe’s building, and Joe realizes that Parry has ruined his concentration for the day. Rather than thinking about his essay, Joe finds himself drawn back to “an older dissatisfaction.” Though Joe has a talent for explaining scientific ideas in laymen’s language, he misses the excitement and sense of discovery that accompanies real scientific work in a laboratory.
Once again, Joe finds that Parry’s irrational behavior has drawn him away from the rational world of work, and particularly of science. More importantly, it has drawn Joe into an irrationality of his own. Joe ought to be satisfied with the work for which he has a clear talent, yet he cannot help yearning for the work of his early adulthood.
Reflecting on his early adulthood, Joe recalls the events that left him “too old” for the “very competitive game” of serious science. Leaving college, Joe had felt restless “after seven years’ disciplined study.” He had nearly become wealthy after inventing a technological device with a friend, but the time spent working on that project had left a “hole” in his résumé. Unsure how to proceed, he had written a book about dinosaurs at a time when “no dinosaur book could fail,” and he had, as a consequence, stumbled into a career as a science writer. Yet beneath this ostensible success lay dissatisfaction, as Joe slowly realized that “no scientist” would ever “take [him] seriously again.”
Joe chases these memories with a doggedness and a specificity that make clear that he has an obsession of his own. The obsession is irrational—losing the professional regard of scientists has been no impediment to Joe’s success—but he cannot help but feel it, nonetheless. Obsession, here, has the potential to strike both those whose actions are based on reason and those whose actions are the result of unreason. It is, for that reason, one of the novel’s most powerful forces.
Taking a cup of coffee and a plate of sandwiches into his study, Joe tries to work while simultaneously getting up at regular intervals to check on Parry. By five o’clock in the afternoon, Parry is gone, and Joe checks the answering machine to find that Parry has left him twenty-nine messages. Among them is a claim by Parry that Joe has succeeded in leaving Parry a message “with the curtains,” an assertion that is clearly a product of Parry’s imagination. Returning to his study, Joe sits and broods until Clarissa returns home, promising himself that he will find a way back to “original research.”
Joe’s inability to concentrate is another example of the limitedness of his rationality: he can do nothing about Parry, yet he cannot help but check on the man constantly. Parry’s messages, meanwhile, speak to the strength of his own obsession, as does his delusional misinterpretation of Joe’s curtains. Joe has left Parry no message with them, but Parry’s obsession cannot be defeated with mere fact or reason.