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A superb story told in elegant prose, the first half of The Doubter's Almanac is the story of Milo Andret, who grows up in the 1950s in Michigan. He’s a loner and average student, although he always knows exactly where he is on the plane of the earth, an ability that will purportedly serve him well in the field of topology (geometric properties and spatial relations). He is confused by the domain of human relations, and can “neither predict nor understand the behavior of others”, so he concludes that he’s “entirely alone in the world.” This axiom shapes his whole life. After working as a car mechanic, he eventually ends up in grad. school at Berkeley. He meets a girl named Cle, and with her discovers sex, alcohol, and LSD. Milo is old for a mathematician (they allegedly do their best work prior to age 40), and the sex, drugs, and alcohol seem to allay his fears and frustrations. Milo does go on to solve the fictional Malosz conjecture, win the Fields Medal (the Nobel Prize equivalent in mathematics), and become a professor at Princeton University.
There is an interesting incident in Milo's childhood that figures repeatedly in the story. When he is roaming the forests where he can always place himself, he finds a blown-down tree. Working by himself for weeks, he carves the stump into a 25-foot-long continuous, seamless wooden chain. It’s a beautiful thing, described so well by the author that I could easily picture it and want to possess one just like it. Milo does not readily share the chain with others, but it's a project closely linked to his future work and an interesting symbol.
The second part of the book is narrated by Milo’s son Hans, who chronicles exactly how horrible a person Milo really is – a nasty, drunken womanizer who alternately curses and ignores his family and demeans his colleagues, all without shame or apology. He seems to believe that the “curse of his own genius” entitles him to behave this way, but there will be a high price to pay. He has become a nowhere dense set – a set whose closure has empty interior. This second part also describes the ongoing struggle between Milo and his son. Milo insists that Hans has inherited the mathematical gift and seeing what this has done to his father and himself, Hans attempts to flee the curse in his own destructive ways. Hans must also warily watch his own children for signs of what he fears might befall them.
I was impressed with Canin's ability to write about number theory, submanifolds and differential equations, but always in a way that added to the story and was not distracting nor overwhelming to the reader. I loved his use of mathematical terms to describe ordinary things – “a mud-colored polytope of his mass shot glitteringly into the air”, “the twisted white catenary of the phone cord bridging the darkness from his desk”, “The cut edges of the glasses were projecting stellate tessellations across the mahogany.”
I'm not sure that I agree with the conjecture that genius (of any type) is a curse, but not being any sort of genius myself, I do wish I could have just a small taste. Not all people gifted with extraordinary ability repeatedly sabotage themselves as Milo and Hans do. I did wonder why Milo's family withstood his verbal and physical brutality, and then returned for more. I think Milo becomes utterly overwhelmed by the pressure to work, produce, and to achieve, in addition to the ever-present anxiety that whatever special mathematical gift he had been blessed with could just as easily disappear. There is also the more frightening realization that his supposed genius may not even be so. Knowledge can be a binary gift, something that the world needs and celebrates even as it ostracizes from the world those who possess it. This does not have to be mathematics; it can be any legacy, the qualities we inherit and, with any luck and wisdom, we can strive to improve upon.
8 of 8 people found this review helpful
I'm conflicted about the book, which is a good thing because it means I'll be thinking about it even having finished it.
It's a brave author who leads with a character who is so unlikeable. Milo has his doubts & character flaws, but the first portion of the book is a warts and all view that makes sympathy for Milo difficult. The interplay of genius, the compulsion to pursue the path of one's gift and the personality that resulted are an intense look at the effects of such an intellectual gift. The second part of the book is a let down, partially because it's unclear why anyone would feel the devotion to Milo that at least three characters have. Additionally, the positing that mathematical genius is hereditary (and pretty much a curse) isn't based on any reality, and plays into a kind of "you get math or you don't" way of thinking that research disproves since the children all have their math skills while being almost actively discouraged from following them.
Still, the examination of Milo's life (and mathematical gift) and how that plays out is fascinating. Also, great writing and kudos to any author who would make mathematics a base of a novel (and make it accessible).
3 of 3 people found this review helpful