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Novels set in Washington, D.C., tend to be political thrillers and satires. But plenty of people in the private sector also lead rich inner lives, as Mary Kay Zuravleff suggests in her debut, The Frequency of Souls. In this curious and witty tale, a complacent refrigerator designer named George finds himself irresistibly attracted to his awkward, brilliant new officemate, Niagara. George’s midlife crisis coincides with Niagara’s, well, afterlife crisis. Niagara has taken the engineering job in Rockville only to fund her research, in which she hopes to use satellite dishes to eavesdrop on the dead.

Zuravleff’s plot—and her settings, which range from Cleveland Park to Rockville Pike—has a peculiar resonance in the District and its suburbs, home to so many frustrated bureaucrat-philosophers. In a quiet room of the Freer Gallery, the museum where she has worked as an editor for eight years, the 36-year-old author discusses her fiction. “As I was writing, I asked different people, what do you think happens when you die?” she says. “I really expected a lot of people to talk about life after death….I mean, I’m from Oklahoma, which is fundamentally Christian. But people kept saying it’s over when it’s over, and I kept being surprised by that.”

Zuravleff incorporated this skepticism into her book, but she agrees somewhat with Niagara’s theory of the soul. “To me,” the author continues, “there is this feeling that if there are electrical synapses, and if electric blankets can change your electromagnetic being, then energy has to go somewhere [when you die].” A few tourists, viewing the Freer’s collection of Asian art, stroll into hearing range. Zuravleff gives them a wary glance, as though she’s been caught describing a vision of the Virgin or an abduction by aliens, rather than secular metaphysics. “I wanted to just think about [an afterlife] and use it as a metaphor for the question of how does anybody know anything,” she explains.

The author balances her esoteric ideas with a practiced pragmatism. Like her father and brother, both engineers, Zuravleff studied engineering before completing a degree in math and English (and an M.A. at Johns Hopkins, where she studied writing with John Barth). She argues that logic problems and storytelling have a lot in common. “In math, you create this little world and you say, if two plus two is four, then all these things must be true,” she says. “It’s the exact same thing with fiction….You build a little universe, and within that given universe many things must be possible. If it doesn’t work, you have to scrap it and build another universe.”

—Nathalie op de Beeck