Wednesday, March 30, 2016

A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin

Who would think that an almost-600-page novel about a maladjusted mathematician could be so compelling that it could make a reader ignore one of spring’s first sunny days? Ethan Canin’s A Doubter’s Almanac is the singular novel that can do just that. Milo Andret, (rhymes with bandit – and yes, I think that’s a clue to a flaw in his character) is a mathematical genius and one of the most annoying men you’ll ever meet between two covers. A Doubter’s Almanac traces Milo’s life and that of his family from his childhood in the woods of northeastern Michigan through his recognition as one of the world’s greatest mathematicians to the torment and obsessions that lead to his fall. The first two hundred pages of the book are a third person narration of Milo’s early life. The reader learns of Milo’s genius, his sexual relationships, his lack of connection with any of his colleagues, and his excessive drinking. The second part of the book is narrated in the first person by Milo’s son Hans thus providing fresh insight into Milo’s wife Helena, their children, and Milo’s self-destruction.
Milo is as my husband might say “a piece of work” yet he attracts a cast of engaging characters as if he were a giant magnet and they were mere metal filings. Canin’s skill with words entices the reader in much the same manner. A scene narrated by Milo’s son, Hans, depicting a family picnic near their southern Ohio home illustrates Canin’s ability to mesmerize with word pictures as he presents insight into his characters. 

The state park was where my mother liked to walk. At a certain turn in the trail, which looked down on a stretch of whitewater that foamed and leaped over refrigerator-sized boulders, she would set down our picnic blanket. The spot was only a short distance from the parking lot, but its topography was as wild and wooded as anything you might find in a state a thousand miles to the west. The roiling water, fifteen feet below the path, was thrilling. To me as a boy – although of course I understood the volumetric dynamics of why it had sped up – it was frightening as well: a frothing cauldronic reminder of what our familiar river could become.  My mother sometimes shushed us as we ate so that we could listen to the roar.  You could discern the whole orchestra in it, from upright bass to triangle. 

Even illustrations of biological functions transform into tour-de-force portraits as they spill from Canin’s pen:
My father peed like a horse. His urine flowed in one great sweeping stream that started suddenly and stopped just as suddenly, a single, winking arc of shimmering clarity that endured for a prodigious interval and then disappeared in an instant, as though the outflow were a solid object, an arch of glittering ice or a thick band of silver – and not (as it actually approximated) a parabolic, dynamically averaged graph of the intersecting functions of gravity, air resistance, and initial velocity on a nonviscous fluid, produced and exhibited by a man who’d just consumed more than a gallon of midwestern beer. . . When it struck the edge of the gravel shoulder, the sound was like a bedsheet being ripped. Beneath this high reverberation, he let out a protracted whistle that culminated in a tuneless gasp, his lips flapping at the close like a trumpeter’s. . .  From my vantage point he appeared entirely unashamed. . . .My father moved up close to peer through the windshield, zipping his trousers and smiling through the glass at my mother. . .
‘Thank goodness,’ my mother said when the car door closed again. ‘I was getting a little bored in here.’ In those days, this was her version of malice. 

Dazzling word pictures aside, A Doubter’s Almanac is at its core, a story, a story that bends and twists its way into the reader as it tells of the burdens of genius and of the narrow precipice that stands between brilliance and insanity. It’s also a story about escape, escape into substance abuse and into the acceptance of a different set of standards for a legendary mind. Additionally, it’s a story about the sins of the father and the ability of one generation to diminish the achievements of the next. 

The book’s distinctive chapter titles like “Occam’s Razor,” “Another Roof, Another Proof,” “A Topologist’s Apology,” “4656534,” and “Theodicy” and the clues embedded within those chapters help A Doubter’s Almanac soar above the humdrum. Canin’s adroit use of language slows the reader down just enough to force consideration of the reasons behind the characters’ actions while not impeding the swift current of the story. This is a book you want to devour quickly, but Canin places bumper strips along the road that force you to realize that every single word he writes implies something you need to ponder and perhaps even doubt.

The novel derives its title from a Descartes quote: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, you must at least once in your life doubt, as far as possible, all things.” Canin places the quote at the end of the book, with a blank page separating it from the novel’s end. It sits there alone on the page where it begs readers to fully consider whether true genius is simply the ability to doubt even one’s greatest accomplishments. 

Summing it Up: Read A Doubter’s Almanac to enter the life of a brilliant mathematician and to consider whether genius is a curse or a blessing. Fans of Richard Russo and Jane Smiley will applaud Canin’s acrobatic artistry with words, characters, and ideas. If this algebra-detesting reader could be completely entranced, you'll love it too.

Rating: 5 stars   
Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: February 16, 2016
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