A Doubter's Almanac

If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things. Renee Descartes

There are two sections in Ethan Canin’s latest novel, The Doubter’s Almanac. I found the first engrossing, the second redundant. The plot focuses on Milo Andret who grew up in a remote part of Michigan. Milo was a loner who spent his time wandering deep in the forests surrounding his home. His parents rarely spoke to him, he was reluctant to form friendships and realized early on that he was “entirely alone in the world.”

In the summer of his 13th year, Milo found a tree blown down in the forest and began carving its stump into a 25-foot-long wooden chain that looped back upon itself. It was a remarkable creation that he hid in a concealed underground hollow. His ability to find his way in the forest and ease in visualizing shapes anticipated his work in typology, a field of mathematics that studies geometric properties and spatial relations among objects.

Milo enrolled in the mathematics department at Berkeley where he began work on the fictional Malosz conjecture. His advisor, Hans Borland, told him, Topology is God’s rules, Andret. That’s what I’m telling you. And you’ve been called upon to translate them.

He began by assuming the result and working backward. If this was true, then so must this be true and so on. In this fashion and after many hours of difficult, exhausting analysis he was able to prove it.

… within hours of showing the proof to Borland, rumors of the achievement had begun to spread. Soon after, the paper had been accepted by the Annals….At thirty-two years old, he’d found a solution to one of the great problems in the history of mathematics. The article would arrive next month in libraries around the world: the Malosz conjecture, thanks to Milo Andret, had become the Malosz theorem.

Milo won the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics and obtained an appointment in the mathematics department at Princeton. At this point his life took a precipitous turn. It started when he began insulting members of the department, sleeping with women, and turned to drinking and drugs. It’s was if his mathematical genius was a curse that justified his noxious behavior, displayed without shame or apology.

Milo’s behavior became so objectionable that he was fired from the Princeton faculty, whereupon he moved an isolated cabin by a muddy lake, not unlike his childhood home in Michigan. So began the second part of A Doubter’s Almanac, narrated by Milo’s son, Hans.

We learn that Milo began teaching at one unknown college after another and that he married his former secretary at Princeton. Hans, like his sister, inherited Milo’s mathematical gifts and the curse that goes with it. He also took to drugs and alcohol in an effort to flee the curse. Meanwhile, Milo struggled to solve another mathematical problem, the Abendroth conjecture.

The central puzzle of the Abendroth conjecture concerned a subset of Whitehead’s CW-complexes that were infinite yet finite-dimensional. Clear enough. Though it was considered part of algebraic topology, Andret had a feeling that its solution—if it was going to be solved at all—would come not through equation but through the ability to visualize strange and unearthly shapes. At this he was quite adept.

He started working on it in the belief that he had “one thing left” In him. But he got nowhere and spent most of his time drinking. It is said that a mathematicians’ work was generally over before the age of forty. Perhaps so.

The book ends as Milo falls ill, his family, including his former wife, who had earlier left him, and his first love at Berkeley return to care for him. Hans writes that people like his father are always chasing after something. Each question leads to the next one in a never ending effort to comprehend something. Such a quest has a powerful appeal to me.

The second part of the novel had none of the momentum that the first had. I wanted to know if Milo solved the Malosz conjecture. Or if he had given up. If not, I wanted to know how he solved it and if anyone had solved it before he did. It was one of those fictional tales that I found hard to put down, until the next day, when I turned to it as soon as I could.

The world, if you let yourself consider it, was a puzzle in every plane of focus. Why was he so afraid of it? Then the corollary: Why did he want to live? He wanted to live so that he could solve a great problem.


Dom said...

Is doubting “…as far as possible, all things” and “… always chasing after something… in a never ending effort to comprehend something…” more likely to be a sign or indication of a person’s inner security or insecurity? Inner happiness or unhappiness? Or not any indication of any of those things?

Richard Katzev said...

Dom: I doubt doubting has any relationship to any of the personality characteristics you mention. Some people for entirely unknown reasons to me are skeptics, doubters, questioners etc. Some are far less so and others are sometimes one and sometimes the other. It is a characteristic that has always interested me. And I doubt there has been any systematic research on the issue. Perhaps you have your own views on the issue or know of some relevant research? Richard

Dom said...

Richard: in your April 5 2:06 PM, of yesterday you invited my views on the issue of the relationship of (X) a person’s inner security or insecurity, and (Y) the extent of a person’s “doubting”.

I would like to send you a response to your invitation that would include as part of my response a graph of my perception of my experience on this issue showing an individual’s (X) a measurement of self-confidence on the x-axis as an independent variable, and (Y) a measurement of doubting on the y-axis as a dependent variable.

However, it does not appear to me that your blog site permits, or provides for, the insertion of an image of a graft in my response to your blog post under the heading in your blog “leave your comment” that invites blog responses.

Question – Is there some way that a graphical image can be included in a response to your blog posting, such as in a png, pdf etc file format? If so, please let me know how I can do that, so that my response would include such a graphical image.

Richard Katzev said...

Dom: I'm not sure I know the answer to your question. I know I can post an image or graph in a blog I write. But I've never tried to do that in a comment. So let me try now: I will try to drag an image I've placed on my desk top in this comment. No, I can't drag it or attach it either. The best I can suggest at this point is that you try to describe as carefully as you can the graph, including the X and Y axis. Meanwhile, I'll explore Blogger to see if it's possible. Richard

Stefanie said...

This sounds kind of interesting. Too bad the second part of the book lost momentum. That's one of the dangers of splitting a book in two, the halves not quite working together. Still, it seems like it still kept you going and that's worth something!

Richard Katzev said...

Stefanie: Perhaps I exaggerate: The second part of the novel is fine, it simply lacks the power of the first. And that first half is really a stand-alone work of fiction. I do like everything Canin has written and can recommend him to you, as if you didn't have enough to read already. By the way: Happy Birthday. Richard

Linda said...

Sounds like my kind of book - a literary "quest" novel. In fact, it makes me think of another "quest" novel I read some years ago and had forgotten all about until this post prodded my memory - maybe a subject for a post on Commonplace for the Uncommon!

I have not read anything by Ethan Canin - now he is on my "to read" list.

And I love the Descartes quote - I, too, am a doubter and a questioner. Shouldn't we all be? That sparked another memory - a long ago discussion with an acquaintance - we were exchanging book recommendations; she remarked that she read purely for entertainment, I said that I liked entertainment, but also liked philosophical literature with that theme of quest for truth, meaning, understanding. She shook her head - I said don't you ever feel like scratching that existential itch? She said, "no - I don't care." She is a very happy, active, social person. Like Candide at the end of his quest, she wastes no time on idle philosophical speculation and is all the happier for it. I envy her.

Thank you for the recommendation, Richard!

Richard Katzev said...

Linda: Yes, I think you will like The Doubter's Almanac. So what was the other "quest" novel you read a while ago??? I crave a philosophical novel, sadly there aren't a great many. In As Time Goes By, the last chapter is devoted to Philosophical Novels. Perhaps you've already read it? What is my favorite philosophical novel? At this time it is Night Train to Lisbon, far out in the lead. Richard

Linda said...

The book I was thinking about is Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier. It won the 1997 National Book Award. I'm sure you have read it, although I do not see anything on Marks in the Margin about it or the author. Perhaps that means you did not care for it?

Richard Katzev said...

Hi Linda: No, I've not read that novel; that's why I've not blogged about it. And I read a great many novels before I started blogging; The only record of have of those readings is in the passages in my commonplace book. The same holds for those recent books I read but never blog about. However, I did see the film made of Cold Mountain. Thank you for reminding me of it. Richard