A Doubter’s Almanac by Ethan Canin
(Random House, 2016)
In a democracy of readership, such as ours, everyone gets a vote, and all have the right to disagree. In fact, we thrive on it; the sum of a passionate conversation is always greater than its arguing parts. Books are excellent fuel for these conversations, and A Doubter’s Almanac, by Ethan Canin ’88, is full of kindling.
Milo Andret begins life as a brilliant but bumbling child, then devolves into the worst sort of brilliant adult, one with a “sour, entirely analytical approach to every affair of life.” His mathematical growth is so enormous that he’s able to master the ineffable, and fictional, Malosz conjecture, but his human growth is so small he can neither love nor sustain responsibility for his long-suffering wife, kids, or circle of attempted-friends and colleagues.
The first half of A Doubter’s Almanac is about meanness and injury: It’s filled with bourbon, unattached sex, topology, tesseracts, violently thrown objects, and evolving alcoholic cirrhosis. Milo’s life is unraveling.
In the second half, however, his son Hans takes over the narration. Though not without his own problems, Hans has a gentle, more reflective way of going about life. He’s a math prodigy, too, but not an academic. Turning his gifts to the derivatives market instead, he makes more than a hundred thousand lucrative orders each hour. At one point, ensnared by incentive, he worries “How could I go for a half-hour walk in Battery Park when it meant $25,000 in income?”
Hans has a sweetness missing in his father, a computational wit (he can’t help but come up with an equation to describe the tilt of his future wife’s nose when they first meet), and a charm. At his wedding, he calms himself “with some Shores-Durban extrapolations.” He worries about his children as his own father never worried about him. Eventually, he worries about his father in the same way. He who has been hurt is far more human for it; even Hans’ writing uses parentheses within parentheses, as if doubling back doubtfully on his digressions.
Why is Milo so awful? And why is this awfulness tolerated? Why does his lovely wife stay with him, his department chair forgive him, his doctor suffer abuses while draining ascites on home visits (and then staying on to lend a hand with the gardening)?
All readers of great books know this is the cost genius exacts from itself and others. Genius is self-involved but extraordinary, which is why it must be forgiven. But here’s an argumentative question: In a world full of ordinary strivers (the ones weak on their times tables but trying to make their world a bit better), is a disagreeable genius worth attention? I have one answer; you may have another. That’s the beauty of a reading democracy. We get to argue about it.
Elissa Ely ’87 is a Massachusetts-based psychiatrist.
Image: Jake Miller