“A Doubter’s Almanac” is a long, complex novel about math, which sounds like the square root of tedium, but suspend your flight instinct for a moment. Ethan Canin writes with such luxuriant beauty and tender sympathy that even victims of Algebra II will follow his calculations of the heart with rapt comprehension. And to be fair, although the story manipulates complex equations, “A Doubter’s Almanac” really isn’t about mathematics so much as a family of mathematicians wrestling with the curse of their own genius.
The plot focuses on the not-so-beautiful mind of Milo Andret, who grows up in the 1950s in Michigan. He’s a loner and a mediocre student; math bores him. Although he always knows exactly where he is in the forests around his house, he’s baffled by the terrain of human relations. He can “neither predict nor understand the behavior of others.” Perhaps for that reason, he concludes early on that he’s “entirely alone in the world,” an axiom that skews his life.
In these early pages, which move through Milo’s placid, middle-class upbringing, Canin singles out one incident that suggests the boy’s peculiar nature, an ability far beyond anything ordinary schoolwork could encourage or detect. During the summer of his 13th year, Milo finds a tree blown down in the forest. Working alone for weeks, he carves the stump into a 25-foot-long wooden chain that loops back on itself — without seams or glue. It’s beautiful, miraculous even, but there’s a touch of mania there, too — such devotion to a task of no practical use. He’s driven only by the pleasure of reifying shapes he can picture in his mind. It’s a project closely linked to his future work and, as we’ll see, it’s a strangely gorgeous symbol of what will fetter him.
How quickly Milo’s private, esoteric pleasure ferments in the anaerobic world of academia. Admitted to the math department at the University of California at Berkeley. Milo is regarded as “a savant from the woods.” His adviser tells him, “You’ve been chosen by God.” Knowing that most mathematicians accomplish their life’s work by 40, he must compete now, hard, against other equally brilliant, better prepared people around the world. His whole existence comes down to one all-consuming ambition: “He wanted to live so that he could solve a great problem.”
Canin’s previous novel, “America America ” (2008), was about an ambitious man, too: a civic-minded millionaire who dreamed of making a president. But “A Doubter’s Almanac” concerns a far more cerebral branch of ambition. Milo confronts problems that few people can even conceive of as problems. Fortunately, without subjecting us to more than a handful of arcane formulas, Canin re-creates the matrix of labor, luck and brilliance that sometimes produces the most thrilling mathematical breakthroughs.
There’s no reason to assume any particular autobiographical relevance to this story, but Canin has certainly conducted enough field research on academic strivers and stars. He’s the son of a celebrated violinist and professor of music, he graduated from Harvard Medical School, and he teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He’s well equipped to factor even the most complex expression of intellectual ambition down to its primes.
But this is not a novel of triumph. It’s about the paradox of an extraordinary man who repeatedly sabotages himself. Milo may be blessed with “pure mathematical ingenuity — the ability to ignore common understanding, to construct a world solely from derived principles” — but he’s also oblivious to the feelings of others. His “visual dexterity” in the field of topology can’t help him see how deeply he hurts those who love him. And, most disastrously, his relentless drive is somehow related to his susceptibility to addiction. By the end of the first part of the novel, “his logical brilliance, his highly purified arrogance, his Olympian drinking, his caustic derision, his near-autistic introversion, and his world-class self-involvement” drive the plot to a spectacular crescendo of humiliation.
Hurtling along the parabola of Milo’s storied career gives this first section a propulsive momentum that the second, much longer section lacks. But Canin is clearly pursuing something different in Part 2, which is largely a study of aspiration rotting in frustration, pickled in alcohol. His great discovery behind him and growing ever more obscure, Milo does nothing but nurse his pride. “His misshapen intellect had narrowed the world to a deadened, claustrophobic slit,” Canin writes. “It had given him a past far greater than his present or future.”
That present and future keep spooling out, though, and his “extravagantly sad family” must continue to endure the sometimes shocking rages of a man who believes, erroneously, that his mind is “his only friend.” His wife clings to her “imperturbable kindness,” while his son, Hans, studies himself for traits of his father like he’s watching for early indications of some genetic illness.
Milo isn’t an easy character to like or even to sympathize with, and Canin takes a considerable risk in plotting his slow demise to the millionth decimal point. But surely that devotion to this doomed genius is the point: Attention must be paid. Hans understands his father’s pain, and he’s determined to make us understand it, too. Indeed, his analysis of Dad is a touch too self-conscious and prolonged, but as a fellow mathematician (and addict), Hans knows that “words fail us, even the world fails us.” In pursuit of the mysteries of the universe, “we’ll always be in chase.” Spying on God’s secrets, standing in the whirlwind, a mind like Milo’s is damned to the perpetual dissatisfaction of incomplete knowledge.
In the end, the tragedy of Milo’s life has nothing to do with the limits of his mathematical accomplishments or even the collapse of his career. It’s his failure to calculate the amplitude of his family’s love. Canin captures that transcendent mystery more fully than any proof could.
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.
On Saturday, Feb. 20, at 6 p.m., Ethan Canin will be in conversation with Ron Charles at Politics & Prose Bookstore, 5015 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, D.C.
More by Ron Charles:
By Ethan Canin
Random House. 558 pp. $28