A Doubter's Almanac by Ethan Canin

At first I thought this book was a bit rough. It starts out with what feels like this exaggerated character: a quiet loner type kid, with synesthetic skills in visualization and spatial awareness, develops into this fantastic mathematician simultaneously obsessed with his extraordinary work, yet casually involved in multiple prodigious side projects, and also socially capable and involved in enough personal relationships to sleep around with half a dozen distinguished women, taking the occasional hit of acid for good measure. It's a wild ride believing that all of it is possible for one person, but at some point it comes off as incredible. Or maybe I'm just hanging around in the wrong crowd. In any case, if you let it the story is dramatic and exciting, i.e. fun.

But then the book progresses and you see this character's greatness metastasize: his once elegant and casual mastery of so many domains begins to fall in on itself, the growth unsustainable. Milo's extravagance in everything but the material world looses fuel and hits the wall of his own immovable (yet limited) ethics. And it's here where the book not only redeems its initial exaggerations, it justifies them. It shows what happens when a certain level of idealization reacts with reality. How absolute ambition can corrode, and what that price pays for. "History is merciless, Hans. That’s the truth you and I both know. The struggle doesn't matter. The struggle vanishes. What remains is the work, and the work either stands or falls." Yes, Milo, but you're human, too. How do you optimize a inherently limited body to produce perfect and original work?

But it's not only about being inside Milo's head, there's also a deeper layer: how do other people cope being involved in such a person's life? Milo's wife, his children, his mistresses, his enemies, his colleagues: how do these people develop? It's in these relationships that the book becomes nuanced. One of the better techniques of the book is how subtly and believably it investigates and winds together both (1) the singular, internal, personal struggle and yield of ambition, and (2) how that greatness might affect other people exposed to such an inconsiderate daemon.

One of my favorite, brief descriptions in the book was made by the contrast between Milo's type, Earl Biettermann's, and Milo's Princeton colleagues'. Milo seems to be principled and skilled, but lacks a certain level of diligence brought on by his frustration with the luck component of the creative process. There are several paths to take, each one of which might be longer than you have to offer, and that's unfair and arresting; yet he's compelled to take one anyway. Biettermann, on the other hand, seems to have an inexhaustible self control, but lacks some of Milo's skill and also considers the luck aspect of solving great problems disqualifying. Instead, he devotes himself to the material, milking a known well for what it's worth, impressed by how above average he can be, but still pained by the lack of satisfaction and meaning in what he chooses to do. In a way, Biettermann is jealous of Milo's silly pursuits, because even if they're futile, they still have the chance of being meaningful. He justifies this by trying to discredit Milo's accomplishments, and thus prove the futility of how they were achieved. And yet, ironically, as much as Biettermann is not Milo, Biettermann's cynicism reflects Milo's own inextinguishable doubts about the work he has done and what he might (not) be capable of. You can't win!

And in between these two extremes, you have Milo's Princeton colleagues. A few excerpts:

"Andret’s senior colleagues seemed to disagree over every imaginable issue, from whether the honor code allowed an undergraduate to remove an exam book from the classroom to which drinks would be served at the fall-semester mixer. Each item was approached like an affair of state." And, "There seemed to be no question too small to generate a half hour of steady opposition." Compared to Milo's own behavior, "The methodical approach itself, somehow, had become an end. The hours of thought. The incremental charting and drawing. As though by performing them both, even for brief periods, he could systematically check off the set of steps that would in time deliver a solution. Like a man moving a load of gravel with a wheelbarrow. He knew this was absurd."

He knew this was absurd! That's the key. This type of insipid academic, people whose birth-won talents and trivial obstinance have gotten them so far in society, but no farther: these types pollute the sanctity of the ultimate and difficult questions of the world. These types are disgusting in a way, and yet they're all too often lumped together with great minds. And but well, while it is indulgently satisfying to discriminate them into what they are, they and their methods also represent a driving fear within the mechanism of both Earl and Milo's minds. Mile and Earl, great talents, know they could coast and rest easy, and yet doing so is repulsive to them. They know that such an existence is a siren song, and would ultimately extinguish any direction to life. Another catch 22, or is it? Maybe there's some Zen in being able to accept a homeostasis of ability and work.

This seems to be what other character's in the book ask; Milo's Wife, Helena, for instance.

"Of course, theirs must long have been an abysmal marriage, or at least one predicated on a particularly despairing seesaw, at one end of which Dad had stacked every ounce of his logical brilliance, his highly purified arrogance, his Olympian drinking, his caustic derision, his near-autistic introversion, and his world-class self-involvement, and at the other end of which my mother had placed her two modest parcels of optimism and care. And perhaps a third: her humor. Even amid the decline of their marriage, she maintained her mild, tardy habit of one-upping his banter in a softly offered voice, after a long pause, that was like a tennis player reaching a ball just before the second bounce."

Here you see a different kind of ambition. Something more saintly, less articulated, but just as well embodied and real. What does it mean to see such an intellect as Milo's while knowing that you yourself are not bound just by luck, but by skill as well? The thing is, the answer to this question seems to be encoded in Helena's not ever asking it. Rather, for her, a work's persistence through time is irrelevant; it's the connections she has here and now that are undeniable and undismissable. (Ironically, the persistence of art work in the world can be conceived as the legacy of such connections, and this is what Helena focuses on. But anyway...) Her compassion deposits itself onto her husband and children and later her grandchildren directly from this foundation of inherit connection with these people. She's a lover, but not simply or romantically. "Love at this stage is all kinds of things, not the least of which is pity.”

And so we have set up another kind of balance. A life real and tangible, sacrificed for a shot at the graceful and pure. And the dismissal of frivolous utopias for what's here and now. Milo and Helena. Mathematics and Physics.

Can you compromise these two? Is there somewhere to sit between them? Milo's Children, and then his grandchildren seem to ask that question and then answer it in varying degrees.

At first, Milo's son Hans came off to me as the same type of incredible as his father first did. This kid rolls MDA twice a day, everyday, for months (years?), without reprieve, and barely gets a headache. What? Come on... Also, the use of Hans and his sister Paulina to expand on Milo's misogyny seems a bit one dimensional and inconsistent. At least Milo's relationship with Helena is this battle between competing forces, mentioned above. And his abuse of other women for his own benefit is at least transactional, and thus understandable (which goes without saying is different than acceptable). He doesn't regard his mistresses talents, even though all of them seem to be talented in some extraordinary way, because he's with them for relief. But Milo's disregard of Paulina seems just plainly ignorant. Her talent is obvious and consistent with his own goals, he has no sexual relationship with her at all, and Milo is supposedly profoundly logical. Why ignore her? Maybe the point is to show he's developing into somewhat of a simple prick, and that is effective and reasonable, but also that contradicts how fluid and composed he can be about other things, right up until his death. "I understood suddenly that his misshapen intellect had narrowed the world to a deadened, claustrophobic slit."

There's also Cle and Hans's children who flesh out all of the above further.

Great read.