Genius is as genius does, for Ethan Canin in his new novel A Doubter’s Almanac. And that proves a problem, in a book that is essentially about the consequences of extreme intelligence for those with the ill-fortune to grow up in families that possess it—for, if actual prodigies are any guide, genius just doesn’t work the way that Canin thinks it does.
The close miss of the book seems a sadness, for Canin writes brilliantly and has been on the edge of producing a great novel for years. A Harvard-trained doctor who teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he’s published seven well-received books, from the 1985 short-story collection Emperor of the Air to the 2009 novel America America—and now A Doubter’s Almanac.
Canin divides his novel into two parts, with both portions narrated by Hans Andret, the son of a genius mathematician named Milo Andret. The first half of the book, told by Hans in the third-person, is a biography of the father—a figure for whom life went downhill from his success as a young man in solving the "Malosz Conjecture" (a fictional math problem of notorious difficulty). Awarded the Fields Medal and given a chair at Princeton, he quickly cycles down into drunkenness, drugs to try to stimulate his mind back into mathematical work, and social ineptitude.
In the second half of A Doubter’s Almanac, Hans turns to a first-person narration, telling the story of his own life—except, of course, that it proves again to be the story of his father. The genius and the strangeness of Milo loom over his children’s lives and their children’s lives: everyone in what Hans calls his "extravagantly sad family." Milo was, as Hans’s sister notes, "the quicksand I grew up on."
The novel seems to signal (a little too insistently) that the next generation, Milo’s grandchildren, might be able to solve the apparent incompatibility of genius and happiness. But if that is the conclusion we are to draw, A Doubter’s Almanac has not earned it, for both halves of the book are aimed at life’s failure. "The struggle vanishes," the reader is told. "What remains is the work, and the work either stands or falls." Perfection of our lives’ work may preclude perfection of the life itself; the fruits of great intelligence rarely include bliss. But the additional problem of the Andret family is their failure to be great—their failure to perfect the work of mathematics. Milo gets far, but not far enough.
For all that Canin references Descartes’s method of hyperbolic doubt, the philosophical root of the novel actually begins with a kind of an unconscious Platonism—the sense, shared by many mathematicians, that numbers are somehow real things: Platonic forms that have their being in a higher order of reality. For Milo and his heirs, even the physical sciences are "irrevocably tainted by their debt to substance." And by that, Canin means the actual existence of ordinary things: the shadows of Platonic Forms that shape the objects in the quotidian world. Mathematical relations alone are perceived purely; only numbers are untouched, unweakened by the lower realms of material substance.
Of course, as far as the Forms are concerned, Plato’s dialogues seem to insist that if we reach beyond ordinary objects to the forms of which they are copies, we are eventually led to the idea of a singular Good beyond them—just as perception of a shadow implies both a real thing to cast the shadow and a source of illumination shining behind it. But there’s a mysticism one sometimes encounters among mathematicians, a sort of cut-rate Platonism, that stops short of the Good or the One. At the level at which they think about numbers, mathematics gives its practitioners a joy—which is in turn proof that, A Doubter’s Almanac claims, "the miracle of the universe can be worshipped without actually witnessing the divine."
And maybe, at that point, Canin proves right to look to Descartes. The Cartesian method begins with ever-escalating doubt, forcing the mind in on itself until it discovers something within itself that it cannot doubt. The result is often described as a division between internal thoughts and the external world, the famous mind/body problem. But that’s only the most superficial reading, for Descartes’ solution involves something more profound. The mind, in Cartesianism, is populated with thoughts it did not create, from the concept of infinity to the law of non-contradiction and the formulas of mathematics. The Eternal Truths, in other words: real objects that somehow rattle around within the mind itself.
Is it any surprise that the mind of the almost-great mathematician Milo is, according to Hans, "a jar of marbles tilted onto a table"? For Descartes, the escape from the mind/body problems requires recognizing that the idea of God we find in the mind has, inherent within it, the quality of goodness—and the good God guarantees that we do not suffer the lie of senses that do not match reality. But Milo lacks a feeling for the divine, just as he lacks much sense of material substance as much more than a tainting of thought. The combination is deadly, leaving him with only a bag of the marbles that are the Eternal Truths of mathematics, rattling in his lonely head. Such thinkers are not likely to live their lives well or bring up happy children, however great their mathematical work.
Canin manages all this quite well, but his talk of advanced mathematics serves mostly to obscure the quality of Milo’s mind. Do geniuses think just like the rest of us, only better? Or do they think in entirely different ways? The evidence, from studies of chess masters and musical prodigies, leans toward the latter description: Genius isn’t superior thinking so much as odd thinking, as though the geniuses were playing basketball on a baseball diamond.
In those terms, Milo Andret just isn’t convincing as a genius. He’s an odd duck, no doubt, but his mind doesn’t actually move in odd ways. The damage he does to his own career and the "calamitous inheritance" he leaves his children are both predictable results of the semi-Platonic, semi-Cartesian paths he travels—the paths he sprinted along when a rising young mathematical star, and the paths he struggles down in his later attempts to regain his former glory.
Milo may provide us better commentary on our own lives, offer us more to think about, if his mind moves in recognizable ways. But the premise of the novel requires that we believe him to be a prodigy of intellect beyond our ken. If he isn’t a genius, then why all the ballyhoo about him—why the multi-generational pile-up of train cars smashing into his wreck?
With A Doubter’s Almanac, Ethan Canin has written an interesting and intelligent book. But not, alas, a work of genius.