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.